Positive psychology emerged during the late twentieth century as a branch of psychology concerned with the scientific study of wellbeing and the ‘good life’.
The shift toward the investigation of optimal human functioning was built on the foundations of humanistic psychology to counter the then dominance of psychopathology and establish a science of human flourishing.
This article explains the history of positive psychology in the context of different waves of modern psychology from the 19th century to the present. The work of the five founding fathers of positive psychology is discussed, and other key influencers of positive psychology are introduced.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
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The History of Positive Psychology
The roots of positive psychology stretch back to the ancient Greeks and Aristotle’s concern with eudaimonia (often translated from Greek as happiness), intellectual and moral virtues, and the good life. Also, some of the core elements of positive psychology such as mindfulness, have roots in ancient Eastern spiritual practices.
However, this article will focus on the origins of positive psychology in modern psychology, which emerged as a science during the late nineteenth century from roots in the philosophy of mind.
Originally, psychology developed from the investigation of the functions of the brain, neurological system, cognition, and behavior and their role in the causation and mitigation of psychopathology and mental illness. This is often referred to as the disease model.
Many of the twentieth-century psychological treatments for mental health problems had roots in the treatment of traumatic psychological injury of military personnel following the First and Second World Wars (Pols & Oak, 2007). Yet some psychologists became concerned about these treatment modalities, which required the therapist to act as an aloof expert, rather than conveying empathy and compassion for their patient.
During the 1950s and 60s humanistic psychology developed in response to what the pioneers saw as the reductionist, positivist view of the mind as a complex mechanism likened to a machine- a stimulus-response mechanism in behaviorism or an economy of sexual and aggressive drives in psychoanalysis (Mahoney, 1984).
Humanistic psychology championed the holistic study of persons as bio-psycho-social beings. Abraham Maslow first coined the term “positive psychology” in his 1954 book “Motivation and Personality.” He proposed that psychology’s preoccupation with disorder and dysfunction lacked an accurate understanding of human potential (Maslow, 1954).
The branch of psychology termed positive psychology was championed by Martin Seligman in 1998 when he served as President of the American Psychological Society. The explicit goal was to further investigate human potential to counter the dominance of psychopathology and establish a science of human flourishing (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
The Waves of Psychology
While this section describes major waves in the development of modern psychology since the late nineteenth century, the term “waves” should be given some poetic license.
Rather like real ocean waves, some of these waves in psychology emerged almost simultaneously, and merged to form larger, broader trends that have led to what is called positive psychology today.
Psychology first emerged as a distinct discipline involved with the science of mind and behavior when Wilhelm Wundt established the first experimental psychology laboratory in Germany in 1879 (Kim, 2016). Meanwhile, William James had established a psychology lab at Harvard in the United States a few years earlier, but he used it for teaching rather than scientific research (Goodman, 2022).
Wundt is associated with structuralism as the earliest school of psychological thought, while James is associated with functionalism. Structuralism was concerned with investigating the functions of the mind through introspection on the tiniest elements of perception. However, James emphasized the significance of the environment in shaping behavior, and preferred a more holistic perspective (Goodman, 2022).
A decade or so later, in the 1890s, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud established psychoanalysis while treating female patients presenting with the psychosomatic symptoms of ‘hysteria’ (Breuer & Freud, 1895/2004).
A series of experimental interventions led him to develop the techniques of free association and interpreting dreams he described as the royal road to the unconscious (Freud, 1900/1997).
Freud explained how the unconscious functioned as a repository of repressed sexual and aggressive impulses which he later termed “drives”. The aim of psychoanalysis was to sublimate these drives successfully and transform hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness (Breuer & Freud, 1895/2004).
Psychoanalysis and its unique account of human development and psychopathology was embraced and developed further by a range of students, including Carl Jung, Albert Adler, Melanie Klein, and Donald Winnicott who went on to establish their own schools of psychoanalytic thought (Fine, 1977).
Meanwhile, a near parallel development occurred that focused on human behavior to the exclusion of the inner world. In the early 1900s, John Watson (Watson, 1913) proposed that we could understand the human mind as a conditioned stimulus response mechanism, and that there was no need to study internal mental states.
He proposed that behavior was learned and could be unlearned. Behaviorism was established by John Watson (Watson, 1924) and taken up by B. F. Skinner (Skinner, 1953) before evolving into the range of behavioral interventions that remain today.
Although psychoanalysis and behaviorism were diametrically opposed in many respects, both focused almost exclusively on the causes of psychopathology and the therapeutic treatment of various psychological disorders (Mahoney, 1984).
Both positioned the psychologist or psychotherapist as an aloof expert on the patient’s problems, which aroused criticism from the pioneers of humanistic psychology.
Using the metaphor of multiple waves merging into a bigger wave as they roll to the shore (as described above), the next big wave in psychology evolved from three key developments rooted in objections to the reductionist investigation of the human mind and behavior embraced by behaviorism and psychoanalysis.
In the 1930s, Germany Max Wertheimer’s Gestalt psychology proposed a macroscopic holistic understanding of human psychology (Wertheimer, 1938). His work was a primary influence on Abraham Maslow from the 1950s onwards whose work is explored below.
Together with Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, Maslow founded the Esalen Institute for the study of human potential to conduct investigations outside of the confines of the conventional university setting. The Esalen Institute helped lay the ground for a new person-centered approach to psychology, counseling, and psychotherapy (O’Hara, 1991).
– Meaning Making
Meanwhile, the existential psychology of Rollo May and Viktor Frankl was emerging throughout the 1950s and 60s with a focus on meaning-making as the psychological foundation of mental health (Frankl, 1946/1992; May, 1953).
Holistic, person-centered, meaning-making merged into what Maslow termed ‘the third force’ of psychology (after psychoanalysis and behaviorism): humanistic psychology.
Carl Rogers was a well-known pioneer in the field with his person-centered approach to counseling and psychotherapy. Rogers formulated some of the key concepts fundamental to positive psychology, including what he termed the three core conditions (Rogers, 1957) for effective counseling and psychotherapy:
- Congruence (which conveys authenticity)
- Unconditional positive regard (which conveys acceptance)
- Empathy (which conveys emotional attunement).
Humanistic psychology also embraced transpersonal elements to further the holistic understanding of the human mind and behavior. The founder of psychosynthesis Roberto Assagioli (Assagioli, 1965) regarded each person as a unique combination of personal and transpersonal elements in need of integration. Transpersonal elements connect the person to a sense of something greater which can be expressed
“… in terms of the planet, our ecological footprint, community, our contribution to something of meaning or our interconnectedness with all things”
(The Institute of Psychosynthesis, n.d., para. 3).
The rapid development of the human potential movement shifted the focus of psychology away from psychopathology toward a holistic investigation of optimal human functioning. However, the study of human flourishing was finally championed by positive psychology at the end of the twentieth century (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are widely regarded as the co-founders of positive psychology and the scientific study of human flourishing. The next section outlines the conceptual lineage of positive psychology with a brief description of the work of the five founding fathers.
5 Founding Fathers of Positive Psychology
1. William James
William James was a philosopher, physician, and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States.
He was concerned about why some people seemed able to thrive and overcome adversity, while others developed mental health problems. He argued that understanding subjective experience is key to the investigation of optimal human functioning.
He combined pragmatic and functionalist perspectives to link mind and body and investigate the objective and observable features of inner experience. Many consider James to be America’s first positive psychologist (Froh, 2004) because of his interest in whole person functioning and the full range of subjective experience beyond the confines of psychopathology (Froh, 2004).
You can learn more about James in the video below.
2. Abraham Maslow
While the ‘third force’ of humanistic psychology played a vital role in providing the foundational concepts of positive psychology, the greatest influence was Abraham Maslow.
In fact, the term “positive psychology” was first coined by Maslow, in his book “Motivation and Personality” (Maslow, 1954). Maslow disliked psychology’s preoccupation with disorder and dysfunction, arguing that it lacked an accurate understanding of human potential.
Maslow argued that while the former psychological approaches of psychoanalysis and behaviorism revealed much about human shortcomings and mental health problems, they neglected to investigate human virtues and aspirations (Maslow, 1954).
This short video by the Academy of Ideas describes the development of Maslow’s thoughts and his study of self-actualization.
3. Martin Seligman
Martin Seligman is an American psychologist, educator, researcher, and author.
In 1996, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association when he chose to focus on the central theme of positive psychology.
His core proposal was that mental health consisted of more than just the absence of illness and ushered in a new era that investigated the sources of human happiness and fulfillment (University of Pennsylvania, 2022).
His initial investigation into learned helplessness and pessimistic attitudes garnered his initial interest in learned optimism. This led to his work with Christopher Peterson (mentioned below) which aimed to create a positive alternative to the classification of psychopathology in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
During their research, they examined different cultures throughout history, from the ancient Greeks to the present day, to create a list of virtues that are highly valued. This classification system formed the backbone of their book Character Strengths and Virtues (Seligman & Peterson, 2004) and included the following six categories:
Professor Seligman is widely celebrated as the founder of the discipline of positive psychology and became Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. To date, he has written over 350 scholarly articles and over 30 books in the field. You can hear him explain the origins of his thought and work in this TED Talk below.
4. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in Hungary in 1934 when, like many others, his family was deeply affected by the Second World War.
His father was appointed the Hungarian Ambassador to Rome, but when Hungary became communist in 1949 resigned from his position and opened a restaurant. The regime responded by stripping the family of their Hungarian citizenship, and the young Mihaly dropped out of school to work in the family business (Nuszpl, 2018).
Following these adverse experiences, Csikszentmihalyi developed an interest in psychology after seeing Carl Jung give a talk in Switzerland on the traumatized psyches of European people following the Second World War. His interest led him to migrate to study psychology in the USA. The University of Chicago awarded him his PhD in 1965 where he became a professor in 1969.
Csikszentmihalyi had a love of painting, noting that the act of creating was sometimes more important than the finished work itself. This led to his fascination with what he called the flow state. He made it his life’s work to scientifically investigate the different ways of achieving flow as an expression of optimal human experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Csikszentmihalyi’s studies gained much popular interest and have been applied widely to the study of creativity, productivity, and happiness at both an individual and organizational level.
Martin Seligman collaborated with Csikszentmihalyi as a pioneering researcher in positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and today Csikszentmihalyi is considered one of the founding fathers. You can hear him explain the origins of his ideas and work in this TED Talk below.
5. Christopher Peterson
Christopher Peterson was Professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the former chair of the Department of Clinical Psychology.
He was the co-author of Character Strengths and Virtues with Martin Seligman (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) and is noted for his work in the study of strengths, virtues, optimism, hope, character, and wellbeing.
Also seen as one of the founding fathers, you can hear him explain the origins of his work in this video below.
6 Other Influencers
The following psychologists deserve a special mention as key influencers on positive psychology, even though they may not be counted among the five founding fathers.
However, there are so many whose work is shaping the future of positive psychology that they can’t all be mentioned in this article.
1. Albert Bandura
Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory originated from his social-cognitive theory. It refers to a person’s perception of their ability to achieve their goals by performing the tasks required (Bandura, 1994).
Understanding self-efficacy has been of great importance to positive psychology.
2. Donald Clifton
Clifton followed a similar path to Seligman when he developed strengths-based psychology (Clifton & Harter, 2019). Clifton studied successful individuals to understand how they achieved optimal performance in the workplace.
His research has provided employees with guidance about how to find a fulfilling career suited to their particular strengths. The American Psychological Association honored him in 2002 with a Presidential Commendation as the father of strengths-based psychology (n.d., Gallup).
3. Deci and Ryan
Self-determination theory was developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan during the 1980s (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Deci was a professor in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, New York, and Ryan was a clinical psychologist and Professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney, Australia.
Their ground-breaking work on self-determination updated the hierarchy of needs originally identified by Abraham Maslow. They discovered that human motivation is driven by three components: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2008). This has wide applications in the positive psychology field.
4. Ed Diener
Ed Diener, aka “Dr. Happiness”, is a leading researcher who coined the term subjective wellbeing as a scientifically measurable aspect of human happiness. His research found that there is a strong genetic component to happiness and has led to many studies of the internal and external conditions required to develop it (Diener, 2009).
Diener has also researched the relationship between income and wellbeing, and cultural influences on wellbeing. He has worked with Martin Seligman (Diener & Seligman, 2002) and is a senior scientist for Gallup.
5. Carol Dweck
Carol Dweck conducted research on the notion of the growth versus the fixed mindset. Her research (Dweck, 2017) has been applied to studies of parenting, teamwork, and business leaders. It is a positive psychology tool that is used widely in organizational and educational settings.
6. Barbara Fredrickson
Barbara Fredrickson made her first contribution to positive psychology with her broaden and build theory, which proposes that positive emotions broaden people’s minds and help develop the resources required for resilience during times of adversity (Fredrickson, 2004).
Fredrickson currently acts as the Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A Take-Home Message
It has taken a lot of organization to write this article in the space available, but we hope that it’s provided you with a useful (if somewhat brief) history of positive psychology since modern psychology became established during the late nineteenth century.
Positive psychology has been built on solid theoretical and evidence-based foundations to establish the strengths-based scientific study of human flourishing that is still growing today.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
Ed: Updated December 2022
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