Positive psychology is a new branch of psychology that
has emerged over the last decade or so and is receiving growing attention.
Positive Psychology is the term given to a
collection of studies aimed at researching what makes life worth living
(Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M.,2014) It is the study
of happiness that
examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. It’s aim is
to gain understanding of positive emotions,
positive traits, and positive institutions. It originated in the late
1990s when Martin Seligman, in his role as the President of the American
Psychological Association, promoted the importance of including a strengths-based
approach to psychology based on a personal experience he had.
Over the years, the field of
psychology has largely focused on mental disorders and suffering. Happiness has
never been actually studied in depth. Seligman’s aim, influenced by humanistic
psychology, was to build a more complete picture of human experience that
included the sufferings, disorders and happiness. This, in turn, shifted the
main premise of traditional psychology from analyzing psychological issues, to
analyzing mental health and happiness as well.
psychology focuses on wellbeing, happiness, flow, personal strengths, wisdom,
creativity, imagination and characteristics of positive groups and
institutions. Furthermore, the focus is not just on individual happiness, which
might end up promoting a self-centred, narcissistic approach, but on happiness
and flourishing at a group or community level as well. Seligman himself describes
five factors of well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships,
meaning and purpose, and accomplishment (PERMA).
Looking at interventions
and how positive psychology works, we find that it has many different
applications and the most common use is for the treatment of mental disorders.
It commonly uses mindfulness and psychotherapy. In
general psychology, interventions are actions performed to bring about change
in people. Most generally, it means any activities used to modify behavior,
emotional state, or feelings.The ultimate goal behind these interventions is
not only to alleviate symptoms but also to target the root cause of mental disorders.
Some effective interventions methods practiced in
Positive Psychology include a ‘Gratitude Journal’, which helps an individual
develop a sense of thankfulness and appreciation for life, as gratitude is a
great buffer against negative emotions such as envy, worry and irritation. ‘The
Best Possible Self’ is an intervention that involves imagining one’s most important
and deeply held goals and a life of accomplishing these goals, and thereby
improving an individual’s positivism. Another intervention that has proven to
be very effective is the ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ which focuses on the present
moment. A large body of research has established
mindfulness meditation as one of the most powerful and effective tools to
promote psychological well being. Forgiveness is another such
intervention that is useful in healing minds and bringing about reconciliation.
It is proven to improve physical and mental health and relationships.
Implications of Positive Psychology
As mentioned in the introduction
above, the interventions in positive psychology has been applied in a variety
of settings, such as education, human resources, organizational functioning,
therapy, career counseling, and health.
Education: Several promising positive
psychology interventions have been designed for the school setting. For
example, a series of ‘Making Hope Happen’ programs designed to enhance student
hope in school settings have been implemented with elementary (Edwards &
Lopez, 2000) and junior high school students (Pedrotti, Lopez, & Krieshok,
2000) and found that those in the junior high school program had significantly
higher levels of hope in comparison with their counterparts who did not
participate in the program.
Cabrera (2012) notes, positive psychology is beneficial
to one’s well-being and quality of life, giving employees a greater chance of
having a long healthy prosperous life. To the benefit of the employer having a
positive healthier staff increases overall productivity.
Group Counselling: An advantage for positive
psychology groups is the focus on virtues, strengths, mindfulness, and approach
goals that form a positive context for growth. The most researched group
approach to increasing well-being appears to be mindfulness training. Grossman,
Niemann, Schmidt, and Walach (2004) published a meta analysis describing the
benefits of group-based mindfulness training. Since then, many other mindfulness
studies have appeared.
Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness and Narrative therapy are some examples of
psychotherapy that’s used to treat/ help people with mental illness.
Martin Seligman highlights
the victories of the disease model, which are, for example, that 14 previously
incurable mental illnesses (such as depression, personality disorder, or
anxiety attacks) can now be successfully treated.
Career counseling: Positive psychology
interventions in the context of career counseling have been examined in at
least two studies; Strengths-Based Career Counseling (SBCC; Littman-Ovadia,
Lazar-Butbul, & Benjamin, 2014) and a strengths-based group within a career
exploration course (Owens, Motl, & Krieshok, 2015). Following this
intervention, the SBCC group experienced greater self-esteem compared with
treatment-as-usual. Three months later, the SBCC group reported a higher rate
of employment and endorsed a greater contribution from counseling to their
Health: Positive psychology is concerned with positive psychological
states (e.g. happiness), positive psychological traits (e.g. talents,
interests, strengths of character), positive relationships, and positive
institutions. Research has shown that psychological health assets (eg, positive
emotions, life satisfaction, optimism, life purpose, social support) are
prospectively associated with good health measured in a variety of ways. Not
yet known is whether positive psychology interventions improve physical health.
& Research Evidence
Since its inception, positive
psychology has encouraged research in a variety of areas, such as happiness,
optimism, self- esteem, well-being, motivation, flow, strengths and virtues,
hope, resilience, mindfulness, and positive thinking. Specifically, there is a
focus on three areas of positive experiences: the past (well-being and
satisfaction) the present (happiness and flow) and the future (hope and
optimism). These fields of research formed the basis for positive
interventions, to increase happiness and well-being. These interventions have
been applied in a variety of settings, such as education, human resources,
organizational functioning, therapy, career counseling, and health. Below are
three main theories on positive psychology:
1. Authentic Happiness
Seligman’s beginning theory discussed authentic happiness. He
described that people can feel happiness from different types of experiences.
These included the pleasant life
where feeling positive emotions in the most natural way. For example, eating
sweets because it tastes good, or riding a bike because it’s fun. This could be
done with little effort. On the other hand, The engaged life is
characterized by flow, which in turn refers to the experience of completely
loosing oneself in an activity. Here, individuals become totally absorbed in
what they are doing and lose track of time. They are not thinking, but are
immersed in what they are doing. Individuals could experience this in many
activities, such as at work, dancing, playing etc. Unlike the pleasant life,
this form of happiness requires more effort. Then there is The meaningful
life. However engaging flow activities may be, they can be utterly
meaningless and fill a person with a void after some time. For example, after
being absorbed in a puzzle and finishing it, one can still feel like there life
is worthless. In order to feel meaning, people have to be engaged in something
that serves a goal beyond themselves, such as in religion, politics, or family.
happiness theory is one-dimensional: it is about feeling good and it claims
that the way we choose our life course is to try to maximize how we feel.
2. Well-being Theory
Following criticism of his “Authentic Happiness
Theory,” Seligman made alterations to it and came up with the “Well-being
Theory.” As opposed to the goal of achieving happiness, this theory emphasizes
the goal of reaching wellbeing. The theory was based on the idea that people
are motivated to do many things in life that do not necessarily increase
happiness at the present moment. The classic example for this is having
children. Parents who have children often report less happiness at the present,
but higher overall wellbeing.
Seligman goes on to describes five factors of
wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose,
and accomplishment (PERMA). It is stated that maximum wellbeing leads to a
state of ‘flourishing.’ Flourishing is described as a “state of thriving, of
being full of vitality, and prospering as individuals and as a group.” The positive
thing about wellbeing is that it cannot simply exist just in your own head.
Wellbeing is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning,
good relationships, and accomplishment. The way we choose our course in life is
to maximize all five of these elements. Here it differs markedly from the
happiness theory because happiness theory claims that the way we make choices
is to estimate how much happiness (life satisfaction) will follow, and take the
course that maximizes future happiness.
3. Character Strengths
Character strengths and virtues are the
building blocks of flow, happiness, and wellbeing. There are six universal
virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence. Each
virtue includes four character strengths. A strength is described as something
one is naturally good at, and enjoys engaging in. As opposed to talents,
strengths requires effort, and are developed throughout one’s life. Tools such
as VIA (values in action) is used to assess strengths.
Practiced in Positive Psychology
meditation is a focus on the present moment achieved
through the directing of attention towards one’s
immediate experience, thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations. It involves
paying attention to one’s thoughts and feelings with acceptance and
non-judgment. The term “mindfulness” has been used to refer to a psychological
state of awareness, a practice that promotes this awareness, a mode of
processing information, and a characterological trait (Brown et al., 2007;
Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2005; Kostanski & Hassed, 2008; Siegel,
According to APA (American Psychological Association), the
research on mindfulness as identified as benefits:
Increases in working memory
Increased ability to focus
Less emotional reactivity
More cognitive flexibility
It’s probably one of the most well-known positive psychology
interventions. Robert Emmons defines
gratitude as “A felt sense
of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life”.
is a great buffer against negative emotions such as envy, hostility, worry and
irritation. It involves a focus on the present moment and appreciating what is,
instead of focusing on what could be. In
positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated
with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions,
relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build
strong relationships. For e.g. Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, tested the impact of
various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a
control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s
assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone
who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants
immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores.
body of research has established mindfulness meditation as one of the most
powerful and effective tools to promote psychological wellbeing. For
e.g. a study on present-moment awareness found
that it facilitates an adaptive response to daily stressors (Donald, Atkins,
Parker, Christie, & Ryan, 2016). Mindfulness
is found to be even effective for people dealing with the most critical of
depressive symptoms: suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide. In chronically
depressed participants with suicidal thoughts, mindfulness was more effective
than treatment as usual in reducing these thoughts (Forkmann, Brakemeier,
Teismann, Schramm, & Michalak, 2016).
However, mindfulness has its downside
too. A core aspect of practicing mindfulness
is to attempt a withdrawal from the streams of thought that have to do with
current challenges of every form. leading mindfulness practitioners to use the
practice as a means of escape from having to think about difficult problems and
arrive at reasonable solutions. Psychiatrist David Brendel summarizes this danger of mindfulness
practice as follows:
“Some people use mindfulness strategies to avoid critical thinking
tasks. I’ve worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their
challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset.”
On the other hand, an important issue to be addressed in
future research concerns the unique contributions that gratitude interventions
make to well-being outcomes that distinguish them from related happiness
interventions. The uniqueness of these interventions could be compared with
other positive psychological constructs such as forgiveness and hope, both of
which have been shown to contribute to wellbeing (Bono & McCullough, 2006;
Snyder, Rand & Sigmon, 2002).
evaluating how useful positive psychology has been thus far, it is important to
note that it is still a very young field, at least in its contemporary form,
being just over a decade old. A common criticism of positive psychology is that
it adopts a ‘Pollyanna’ mentality where everything in life is seen through rose
coloured glasses and the aim is to achieve constant happiness. The intent of
positive psychology is not to create a positive and negative dichotomy or a
hierarchy where positive phenomena are always viewed as being superior to
negative ones, but rather to recognize and appreciate the complementary roles
of both negative and positive experiences and to pursue the ideal ratio of
positive to negative experiences for optimal health.