“Psychology is much larger than curing mental illness or curing diseases. I think it’s about bringing out the best in people; it’s about positive institutions; it’s about strength of character.”
– Martin Seligman
‘Positive Psychology. An Introduction.’ is one of the foundational articles in the field, written by Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Because of its importance and the amount of citations it has, we decided to make an extensive summary of it, extracting its most significant points.
Before World War II, Psychology had 3 clear missions:
- Treating mental illness,
- Making life more productive and fulfilling,
- Identifying and nurturing high talent.
After World War II, the Veterans Administration (now the Veterans Affairs) and the National Institute of Mental Health were founded and the focus of psychology geared almost exclusively towards understanding and treating mental illness.
This was incredibly beneficial. 14 Disorders previously incurable were researched scientifically and treatments to cure or relieve the symptoms were found.
Psychologists came to understand substantially how people survive and endure adversity, challenges and trauma. Research about the impacts of divorce, loss of loved ones, sexual and physical abuse, damaged childhoods, damaged brains and habits exploded.
They made remarkable progress in repairing damage within a disease model of functioning. However, psychology’s other missions, to promote productive, meaningful lives and nurture talent were left unattended.
The personal stories behind the movement
Martin Seligman is considered the father of positive psychology. He tells the story of a central moment during 1998, a few months before he was elected president of the American Psychological Association:
“I was weeding the garden with my 5 year old daughter Nikki. She was throwing weeds, singing and dancing while I was actually trying to get the weeding done. I yelled at her, she walked away, then came back and said:
Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? I was a whiner. I whined everyday. When I turned five I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.”
He realized that raising children is not about fixing and correcting what’s wrong with them. But identifying and enhancing their strongest qualities and what they do best. Helping them find the environments that allow them to play out their strengths and live productive, fulfilled lives.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also acknowledged the need for a positive psychology. During World War II in Europe, he witnessed successful and confident men become helpless and hopeless as their social support vanished. As they lost their jobs, money and status, they also lost their sense of meaning in life.
A few people, however, in the middle of the chaos and turmoil, kept their integrity and purpose.Their serenity provided hope for others. This got Csikszentmihalyi wondering what sources of strength enabled these people to hold on to their integrity?
Philosophy, history and religion didn’t provide him with the answers he was looking for. They were too subjective and abstract. When he came across psychology he thought, here is a possible solution to my questions. A discipline that deals with the fundamental issues of life with the simplicity of the natural sciences.
In the 1950’s psychology was not a recognized discipline. In Italy, where Csikszentmihalyi lived, it was only possible to study psychology as a minor, while pursuing a major in medicine or philosophy. So he moved to the United States, where psychology had become a science. He wasn’t content with the approach that involved a skeptical attitude and a concern for measurement.
This period in psychology is known as the culmination of behaviorism. Psychology and behavior were being taught as “a branch of statistical mechanics” and so he struggled to put together the two building blocks of a social science: “to understand what is and what could be”.
Fast forward a decade, and humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers brought a new perspective to psychology. Parting ways with Freud and behaviorism, this approach emphasized the inherent drive in all human beings to self-actualize, to express their own capabilities and creativity.
Unfortunately, it lacked cumulative empirical base, leading to multiple therapeutic self-help movements.
Regardless of the stories and insights that led to the conviction that the time for positive psychology has come, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s message is definitely timely, to remind the field that:
“Psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness and damage, it’s also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best. Psychology is not just a branch of medicine concerned with illness or health; it is much larger.
It is about work, education, insight, love, growth and play. And in this quest for what is best, positive psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, faith, self-deception, fads or hand-waving; it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents to those who wish to understand it in all its complexity.”
At the center of this approach lies the issue of prevention. How can psychologists prevent the problems that so many people experience, like depression, addiction and anxiety? Fifty years under the disease model showed that the pathology approach does not move psychology closer to the prevention of these issues.
In fact, some of the major steps towards prevention were focused on building competency not on correcting weaknesses. And research shows that certain human strengths can act as buffers (see psycap) against psychological illness:
- Future mindedness
- Work ethic
Psychologists, therapists and consultants need to acknowledge that much of the best work they do with their patients and clients is to enhance their strengths, virtues and capacities, rather than repairing weaknesses.
Psychologists and practitioners working with families, schools, communities and institutions need to develop the environments that promote these strengths. The time where psychology viewed individuals as passive vessels reacting to stimuli has passed. Individuals are decision makers, with choices, preferences, and a set of values and strengths that allow them to learn and excel or, in adverse circumstances to become helpless and hopeless.
Positive psychology was born out of the need to redirect psychology back to its two neglected missions: to make normal people stronger and more productive and develop and nurture high talent.
Next will look at the major contributions of positive psychology aimed at providing a general and brief overview of the field at the early stages of its development, when this paper was published.
Three main topics guide and run through these contributions:
1.What makes one moment better than the next?
- Daniel Kahneman believes the hedonic quality of the moment is the building block of positive psychology.
- Diener focuses on subjective well-being.
- Massimini and Della Fave focus on optimal experience.
- Chris Peterson‘s work is on optimism.
- Ryan and Deci research self-determination.
2. Positive Personality
The underlying thread is a perspective of human beings as self-organizing, self-directed and adaptive entities.
- Ryan and Deci focus on self-determination.
- Baltes and Staudinger’s work is on wisdom.
- Vaillant studies mature defenses.
- Lubinski, Benbow,Simonton, Winner and Larson focus on exceptional performance.
3. People and experiences are embedded in a social context
Therefore, positive psychology needs to take into consideration positive schools, communities, organizations and societies.
- Buss and Massimini and Della Fave describe the evolutionary milieu that shapes positive experiences.
- Myers‘ studies are on the contributions of social relationships to happiness.
- Schwartz reflects on the need for cultural norms to relieve people of the burden of choice.
- Larson emphasizes the importance of voluntary activities.
- Winner describes the effects of families on nurturing talent.
Next, is a short introduction to some of these articles.
David Buss (2000) reminds us that the past can overpower the present, focusing mainly on three reasons why positive states of mind are so elusive:
- The environments people currently live in are so different from the ancestral environments to which their bodies and brains have adapted, they are often misfit in modern surroundings.
- Mechanisms of distress are often functional, for example jealousy alerts people to make sure of the fidelity of their partners.
- Selection tends to be competitive and to involve zero-sum outcomes.
After identifying some of the major obstacles to well-being Buss, provides concrete strategies to overcome them. This makes his article not only an interesting read but a valuable tool.
Fausto Massimini and Antonella Della Fave (2000) explored psychological and cultural evolution. You can say they started where David Buss left: looking analytically at the effects of changes in the ancestral environment and how the production of memes (artefacts and values) affect and are affected by human consciousness.
Their assumption was that human beings are self-organizing and oriented towards increased complexity. Making them the authors of their own evolution, they are continuously involved in the selection of memes that will chisel their own individuality and shape the future of their culture.
They draw a point, essential to positive psychology, that psychological selection is propelled not only towards survival but also towards the need for optimal experiences.
Positive Personal Traits
In this section we’ll briefly address five articles that deal with different personal traits that contribute to positive psychology:
1. Subjective Well-Being
One of the leading experts of this topic is Edward Diener (2000), his work now spans more than 3 decades. Subjective well-being refers to what people think and feel about their lives – to the cognitive and affective evaluation they draw when they assess their existence.
It’s the more scientific term for what people normally call happiness. Diener looked at the temperament and personality correlates of well-being and the demographic factors of groups high in subjective well-being. His research suggests interesting findings between macrosocial conditions and happiness.
One of the traits that mediates external events and a person’s interpretation of them is optimism. Christopher Peterson (2000) described the benefits of this trait. He considered optimism to entail cognitive, emotional and motivational components. His work aims to understand the mechanisms of optimism and answer questions like:
- Can we increase optimism?
- When does it begin to distort reality?
- How does an overly pessimistic culture affect the well-being of its citizens?
David Myers (2000) took the belief that traditional values must contain important elements of truth in order to survive across time and tested the empirical validity of this claim. He is more attuned than others in the field, to issues such as the often found association of faith with happiness.
He also considered the relationship between economic growth and income and close personal relationships to happiness. His findings are a valuable resource to anyone interested in understanding the elements that contribute to a positive life.
Richard Ryan and Edward Deci are the authors of the self-determination theory. This theory researches three related human needs:
- The need for competence
- The need for belonging
- The need for autonomy
According to Ryan and Deci, when people meet these needs their personal well-being and their social development are optimized. When this happens, people are intrinsically motivated, able to achieve their potentialities and to seek ever expanding challenges.
Barry Schwartz takes the self-determination subject from a different angle. He is concerned that the focus on autonomy in our culture leads to excessive freedom and choices that cause a burden and may eventually lead to regrets, insecurity and depression. He believes cultural constraints are necessary for leading a meaningful and satisfying life.
Implications for Mental and Physical Health
How does mental health look like for positive psychology? This question guides the work of the articles mentioned here.
George Vaillant (2000) reminds people that it’s impossible to understand positive psychological processes without a longitudinal approach.
The results obtained of three large samples of adults studied over several decades showed the contributions to a happy and successfull life, of mature defenses like:
His perspective, which acknowledges the importance of creative and proactive solutions, breaks the mold of the victim paradigm of the psychoanalytic approaches.
In general, it’s assumed that a realistic and rigorous assessment of reality is healthy. Shelly Taylor and her collaborators argue that unrealistically optimistic beliefs about the future can protect people from illness (Taylor et al., 2000).
The findings of numerous studies of ill patients suffering with diseases such as AIDS, suggest that the patients who remained optimistic showed symptoms later and survived longer than the patients with a more realistic attitude.
The authors believe the mediation effect happens at a cognitive level. An optmistic patient is more likely to engage in healthy habits and seek social support. It’s also speculated, though still not proven, that positive states may have a direct physiological effect that may delay the progression of disease.
This research has tremendously important implications for subject of health and prevention.
If psychology is going to improve the whole of human existence, it’s not enough to repair the worst in people. The vast majority of people, also need examples and guidance on how to live a meaningful and joyful life.
Wisdom is one of the most valued traits all over the world and even across cultures. Most people believe that wisdom is a product of age and experience. However, a more vigorous and scientific approach to wisdom has come out of the Max Planck Institute of Berlin, where the Berlin wisdom paradigm was developed.
Paul Bates and Ursula Staudinger’s (2000) findings on wisdom resulted in a complex model that views this trait as a cognitive and motivational heuristic for organizing knowledge in pursuit of individual and collective excellence.
David Lubinsky and Camilla Benbow take a different approach to excellence. Their focus is on children with exceptional intellectual abilities. Considering issues of how to identify, nurture, counsel and teach these children, arguing that neglecting the potential of such extraordinary children would be a terrible loss to society.
The nature and nurture of creativity are explored in the work of Dean K. Simonton’s (2000) article. In which he examines the cognitive, personality and developmental factors involved in the process as well as the conditions that either promote or hinder creativity.
Ellen Winner (2000) also addresses giftedness and exceptional performance but her take on it is more inclusive. Relating to children who are precocious, self-motivated and approach problems in an original way, in their field of talent. Such children tend to be well-adjusted and to have supportive families.
Reed Larson (2000) also studied excellence in young people and found that the average student reported feeling bored at school, where they rarely have the opportunity to take initiative and their education encourages passive adaptation to external rules and values. He explored how voluntary activities can provide opportunities to focus, and apply self-directed effort over time.
Challenges and Considerations
The articles and studies mentioned above make a valuable contribution to the field of positive psychology. They also point towards the gaps in knowledge the field faces. The original article was written in 2000 and, in the years passed a lot of research has shed light into some of these gaps. In this article however, we will stick to the article in question and the authors perspectives at that time.
The difference between fleeting experiences of happiness (hedonic happiness) and long-lasting well being (eudaemonic happiness) is often referred to in the field.
What makes people happy in the moment or in small doses does not necessarily add larger amounts of satisfaction over the long-term. This can be observed in the amount of money a person makes or in the pleasure of eating food.
We also need to be aware that as we grow older, our sources of happiness and well-being may change. What contributed to happiness as a teenager may very well be different from what contributes to happiness as an adult. If that’s so, what are the building blocks of happiness and long-term well-being in childhood?
For the last 20 years neuroscience has advanced our knowledge in the neurochemistry of depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, anxiety and many others. Will the opposite of these states fall under neuropsychology’s radar too? “Can psychologists develop a biology for positive experiences and traits?” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
There are still many questions to answer. But the time for a psychology of positive functioning has come. Positive psychology is not a completely new idea. It does however apply what other approaches lacked: the scientific method. A cumulative, empirical body of research is the foundation in which it stands.
Why has psychology been so biased towards the negative? Assuming that negative motivations are authentic and positive emotions are derivative? Negative emotions signal danger, they’re more urgent and therefore many times overpower the positive ones. This makes sense from an evolutionary stand point.
Positive experiences don’t demand the same level of vigilance or alarm, passing by, most of the times, without any effort. Hence, the bias in psychology towards the negative, may also reflect the value differences in survival of negative versus positive emotions.
Camus once said, the most important question in philosophy is:
Why one should not commit suicide?
But this question cannot be answered merely by curing depression. We also need reasons that make life worth living.
As much as it as served humanity and allowed treatment and relief for many untreatable mental disorders, if psychology is to serve the whole of humanity it also needs to address the vast majority of people, who are not ill. It also needs to address the people who want to live joyful and meaningful lives.
A science like that will not start on a clean slate. Psychology and psychiatry developed a taxonomy, valid ways of measuring and methods for understanding abstracts concepts like depression, anger or schizophrenia.
These methods can be used to measure, understand and build the characteristics that make life most worth living. Psychologists will not only help people survive the challenges and difficult times in life, they will help people, communities and societies thrive.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.