When positive psychology emerged in the late 1990s, it critiqued mainstream psychology for not focusing on the positive aspects of the human experience.
Positive psychology researchers described the perspective of most mainstream psychology as an “inappropriately negative view of human nature and the human condition” (Keyes and Haidt, 2003).
Practitioners of positive psychology argue that psychology’s focus should be on the prevention of mental illness and should focus on people’s strengths, hope, optimism, courage, and insight.
Martin Seligman, often considered the father of positive psychology, found this approach more effective as a buffer against depression than the disease model, which is often ineffective in helping with serious mental health problems.
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What is the Aristotelian Principle?
To understand the Aristotelian Principle, we first need to grasp how the ancient Greek philosopher viewed humans. Without relating the well-known Nichomachean Ethics in its entirety, we can roughly isolate the key points that summarize his frame of understanding (Freeman, 2002; Morgan, 2005; Joseph, 2015).
- Humans are driven from within to change for optimal functioning.
- That drive for optimal functioning, which we can otherwise think of as “what is good, better, or more perfect,” is why we set positive goals and have positive values in our lives; it’s also why we make the effort to pursue them.
- We as humans, therefore, derive joy from using our capabilities in this pursuit, as well as from turning those potentials into actualities.
Put more simply, everything that we do, we do to actualize our human potentials to the highest extent possible. The ‘final’ or ‘highest good’ – that final satisfaction, is eudaimonia. More on that shortly.
The Aristotelian Principle greatly interested political philosopher John Rawls, who is widely known for his 1976 Theory of Justice and veil of ignorance concept. In his seminal work, he described it as follows (Rawls, 1976, p. 426):
“…other things equal, human enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity.”
According to this foundational principle of motivation then, we get happiness from the journey itself – from stretching ourselves, living according to our virtues, and realizing them in ever more complex ways. Even if we never reach perfection, we are still enjoying ourselves in a wholly deep and meaningful way.
From here, the links with positive psychology become a lot clearer.
The Desire for Change
Seligman and his fellow researchers were unhappy with the direction mainstream psychology was going and wanted to find an epistemology and philosophy to serve as a foundation for their new field.
Among other influences, they were inspired by the ancient Greek philosophers who were seeking to understand what brings people closer to “eudaimonia” (the Greek word for happiness).
The Aristotelian principle, which concentrates on positive experiences, character, and virtues, served as a basis for positive psychology.
The field associates itself with the Aristotelian principle model of human nature in the following ways:
- To positive psychology practitioners, happiness refers to having a sense of well-being that is achieved through “good living” (Seligman, 2002). This is similar to Aristotle’s eudaimonia, which refers to activities that are in accordance with our virtues and having a noble purpose in those activities.
- Virtue in positive psychology and the Aristotelian principle is a necessary condition of happiness.
- Both approaches view introspection as a necessary part of happiness. Upon introspection, people can realize that the conditions for happiness are found within themselves. This pursuit leads people to evaluate their relationships, work, and life, in order to discover which aspects foster “good living.” This brings the person closer to finding a sense of purpose and meaning.
- Aristotle and positive psychologists see happiness as having value that is both instrumental and intrinsic.
- Positive psychology and the Aristotelian approach see each person as capable of increasing happiness through self-sustainment. This is supported in Barbara Fredrickson’s research, which found that psychological growth leads to positive emotions, which in turn expand our perspectives and enable us to have better friendships, health, and outcomes.
- Positive psychologists and the Aristotelian approach see psychological growth as coming from activities that exercise our capabilities. These activities can include doing good deeds, winning an athletic event, and engaging in stimulating conversation.
- Positive psychologists also align themselves with Aristotle’s view that we are pre-programmed with software that allows for justice, fairness, kindness, and so on, but that we must practice prioritizing those qualities over our more selfish ones.
Why Positive Psychology is not Aristotelian Psychology
It’s important to keep in mind that ancient Greek philosophers understood the world in a different social, cultural, and material context.
While the Aristotelian principle has a major influence on positive psychology, current positive psychology research has reconsidered Aristotelian approaches to better fit modern times.
For instance, Aristotle argued that society requires both men and women to be happy, but also argued that women are inferior to men. Positive psychology practitioners would disagree with that antiquated worldview and instead see all people as deserving of equal treatment.
In addition, Aristotle’s view that humans are programmed with a set of morals still rings true, but modern positive psychology advocates that we must take into account the fact that humans are shaped by history and culture.
We cannot only look intrinsically, but must also be mindful of social, cultural, and economic forces.
Aristotle also advocated for people to keep their strengths and virtues independent from one another in order to achieve higher degrees of virtue.
Positive psychology instead seeks to integrate both values by encouraging people to ascribe virtue to their unique strengths.
That allows people to not only have positive emotions but feel entitled to them as well.
Was Aristotle the First Positive Psychology Practitioner?
Some of Aristotle’s views might make him seem like the very first positive psychology practitioner, but our understandings of society and people have changed so much since his time that many of his views are considered outdated and sexist, and are thus not aligned with positive psychology.
But he is a major influence on psychology and philosophy. Even today, many practitioners hold his teachings in high regard.
A Take-Home Message
Positive psychology is an excellent example of the greatness that can come from connecting the past with the present, understanding the history and philosophy of happiness, and appreciating the many commonalities of humanity.
What do you think are more ways Aristotelian philosophy shapes modern psychology? Please leave your comments below.
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- Joseph, S. (2015). Positive psychology in practice: Promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life. John Wiley & Sons.
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- Rawls, J. (1976). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.
- Shields, C. (2000). Aristotle’s Psychology. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/