“The good life is a process, not a state of being.”
– Carl Rogers
Positive psychology is a scientific field. Unlike positive thinking, happy-ology or self-help, it draws on the scientific method to understand the factors and conditions that allow people, groups and institutions to function optimally.
Since 2000, year the American Psychologist devoted a whole issue to it, the positive psychology movement took off, leading to a great number of articles and books published, conferences , grants to research, courses and so forth.
So how and why did the movement grow so rapidly?
What is the positive psychology movement?
“Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups and institutions.”
– Jonathan Haidt & Shelley Gable
Considering the above definition, positive psychology can trace back to the works of William James, on what he called “healthy mindedness” and to Maslow’s advocacy of studying healthy people, not just sick people, for example.
The last half century was marked by outstanding progress in understanding disorder and mental illness. However, the other spectrum of human experience was left unattended by psychological research, leaving a big gap in scientific knowledge.
The positive psychology movement was born out of the need to research neglected areas. In clinical psychology most of the research focuses on mental illness. Between 1887 and 2001, for every 21 research studies related to disorders there was only one related to a positive aspect of life.
Positive psychology’s aim is not to deny the inevitable hardships of life, or look at them through rose-coloured glasses.
Instead, its premisse is that the understanding of what goes wrong in life needs to be complemented by the understanding of what goes well. And this understanding can be a valuable aid towards the prevention of disorders in large populations.
And while some topics were not completely neglected by research before the year 2000 (topics like motivation, optimism, attachment and love), there was very little research into gratitude, forgiveness, inspiration, hope and curiosity.
Positive psychology practitioners believe that studying human suffering and disfunction is as important as studying the flipside of that – the ways in which people feel joy, practice altruism and create healthy families.
What’s more, they argue that these positive aspects need to be addressed not just because they can act as buffers against the turmoils of life, but because, in and of themselves, they are important factors of the human experience.
Why a movement?
Psychology made great progress in diagnosing and treating mental disorders, but the same doesn’t hold true when it comes to understanding what goes well with people.
For example, social psychology advanced our knowledge of implicit prejudices and the outcomes of low self-esteem. Health psychology showed the impacts of environmental stress in our physiology. And cognitive psychology revealed the many biases and errors involved in judgments. These are all valuable and important contributions, however, it was hard to find the same amount of research on human strengths and virtues.
Why has psychology focused on weaknesses instead of strengths? Jonathan Haidt and Shelley Gable, believe 3 reasons account for that:
People suffering need help and should be attended first than those already doing well. Hardly anyone willl disagree with this, however, the study of human strengths can help prevent or lessen the damage of stress and suffering.
2. Word War II
This ties to pragmatic and historic reasons. After the second world war, research into mental illness was prioritized by funding agencies, and psychologists found work by helping war veterans.
3. Our own nature
“Bad is stronger than good.” Baumeister and colleagues found that negative events have more impact and negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive information. “There’s evidence that automatic vigilance tends to be greater to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli” (Pratto & John, 1991).
This might have evolutionary reasons, since recognising danger and threats more rapidly led to favourable consequences when it comes to survival and reproduction.
Where to go from here?
“Positive psychology needs to properly map the domain of human optimal functioning.”
– Carol Ryff
More than that, positive psychology needs to study the impact of these factors on physical health, subjective well-being, functional groups and thriving institutions. And with this, develop effective interventions to expand and maintain these processes.
The original “three pillars” of positive psychology were subjective experiences, positive individual characteristics and positive institutions and communities. So far, a great deal of work was done into the first two areas, but less into the third. There is still a lot of work ahead to come close to the original hopes of linking with a “positive sociology” and a “positive anthropology”.
Nevertheless, over the last few years the number of organisations and institutions turning to positive psychology for interventions and resources to put in place to foster well-being, greatly expanded.
We believe that the science will continue to evolve and provide knowledge that is valuable not just to individuals but to institutions and communities.
“Every person on this earth is full of great possibilities that can be realized through imagination, effort and perseverance.”
– Scott Barry Kaufman
Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110.