The question “What is wrong with people?” has guided the thinking of many psychologists and dominated countless scientific studies during the 20th century. It is hard to deny that it is an important question.
In our attempts to answer the question, we have gained insight into many illnesses and have developed effective treatments for a wide range of problems.
However, focusing on disease and deficit has limited our understanding and knowledge-base to pathology, and as a consequence, we have devoted relatively little attention to factors that make life worth living.
What is a Weakness Focus?
Focusing on what is wrong with an individual is what we call a weakness focus. We place direct attention on negative aspects of an individual. In the context of work and performance, a weakness focus means that we are primarily concerned with behavior that is causing suboptimal or low performance.
For example, during a performance evaluation, the employer is only focused on why an employee is not reaching his sales targets, or why he is not able to communicate well with customers.
In a clinical context, this means that the focus is on behavioral or cognitive patterns that cause suffering and reduce well-being. Consider a psychologist who focusses only on the problems that a client experiences as an example. From this perspective, the psychologist may discover that the client thinks negatively about the past and these thoughts cause negative consequences in dealing with the present.
The idea behind the weakness focus may seem intuitive: by fixing the weakness, we aim to increase well-being. However, as we will see, this view is far from complete and includes fundamental misconceptions about well-being.
A Weakness Focus in Psychology
After World War II, psychology became a science largely devoted to curing illness. As a consequence, a disproportionate amount of studies in psychology focused on psychopathology and factors that make life dysfunctional. In contrast, little research in the years that followed World War II focused on the factors that promote psychological well-being.
For instance, an analysis of the ratio of positive to negative subjects in the psychology publications from the end of the 19th century to 2000 revealed a ratio greater than 2:1 in favor of the negative topics (Linley, 2006). This focus on psychopathology and markers of psychological disease has been referred to as the disease model of human functioning. The disease model can be easily explained by the picture in fig. 2.1.
In this picture, -5, represents suffering from problems, 0 represents not suffering from these problems anymore, and +5 represents a flourishing, fulfilled life. The disease model is focused on the -5 to 0 section. Interventions that are grounded in this model have the goal of helping people move from -5 to 0. In a clinical context, this could mean that a therapist aims to reduce symptoms and to prevent relapse. The end goal (0-point) is achieved when the client is no longer experiencing diagnosable symptoms of psychopathology as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Misconceptions Resulting from the Disease Model
Although the disease model has been the dominant view for many researchers and practitioners, there are some important misconceptions that are often neglected or overlooked. The awareness of these misconceptions has contributed to the development of positive psychology as we know it today. In this section, we discuss some essential misconceptions that are based on the focus of the disease model.
Misconception #1: fixing what is wrong leads to well-being
Underlying the weakness focus of the disease model is the belief that fixing what is wrong will automatically establish well-being. However, as counterintuitive as it may sound, happiness and unhappiness are not on the same continuum. Positive affect is not the opposite of negative affect (Cacioppo & Berntson 1999). Getting rid of anger, fear, and depression will not automatically lead to peace, love, and joy.
In a similar way, strategies to reduce fear, anger, or depression are not identical to strategies to maximize peace, joy, or meaning. Indeed, many scholars have argued that health is not merely the absence of illness or something negative, but instead is the presence of something positive.
This view is illustrated in the definition of mental health by the World Health Organisation (2005): “a state of well being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (p. 18).
In support of this view, a growing body of research shows that the absence of mental illness does not imply the presence of mental health; and, the absence of mental health does not imply the presence of mental illness (Keyes, 2005; Keyes et al., 2008; Lamers et al., 2011). Keyes (2005) found that although a higher score on subjective well-being correlates with less psychological complaints and vice versa, this relationship is far from perfect.
In other words, there are people who suffer from a disorder, but still experience a relatively high level of subjective well-being, and there are people who report low levels of subjective well-being but experience little psychopathological symptoms. This finding has been replicated in other studies using different measures and populations, for instance, in American adolescents between 12 and 18 years (Keyes, 2005), South African adults (Keyes et al., 2008), and Dutch adults (Lamers et al., 2011).
Misconception #2: effective coping is reflected by a reduction in negative states
Typically, psychological interventions aim to reduce aversive states, like negative emotions or stress. Consistent with the disease model, such an aim is based on the assumption that a reduction in aversive states reflects both effective coping and enhanced well-being (or fewer problems). Interestingly, previous findings have repeatedly shown that effective coping does not necessarily mean a reduction in aversive states, like stress or negative emotions.
An elegant illustration of this principle is found in the literature on dieting; research has revealed that it is not the absence of stress that is related to successful weight maintenance, but rather the ability to effectively deal with stress (see, for instance, Gormally, Rardin & Black, 1980).
Similar findings have been obtained in the domain of work, with numerous studies highlighting the negative consequences of stress in the workplace (see, for instance, Fletcher & Payne, 1980).
Interestingly, research has also shown that it is not the experience of stress that is responsible for its acclaimed negative effect on health, but the way employees deal with perceived stress. For some individuals, stress can lead to positive consequences. In this case, stress is referred to as eustress, defined as a positive response to a stressor, as indicated by the presence of positive psychological states (Nelson & Simmons, 2003, 2011).
Research on eustress shows that when a stressor is being evaluated as positive in terms of its potential implications for well-being, a different psychological and physiological response follows than occurs with a negative assessment. In this case, stress can result in improvement in, rather than a decline in, well-being (Nelson & Simmons, 2006).
Past studies have indicated support for a direct link between eustress and health (cf. Edwards & Cooper, 1988; Simmons & Nelson, 2007). These findings suggest that the way people deal with and perceive difficult experiences (eustress versus distress), rather than their occurrence, is a valuable indication of successful coping.
Further support for the idea that it is not merely a reduction in negative states that reflects effective coping comes from the literature on post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is the development of a positive outlook following trauma (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996, 2004). Positive changes may include a different way of relating to others, awareness of personal strength, spiritual changes, and increased appreciation for life (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).
Post-traumatic growth can be perceived as an effective way of coping with adversity. It can emerge following a variety of traumatic events, including war and terror (Helgeson, Reynolds & Tomich, 2006). Growth following adversity, however, is not the absence of post-traumatic stress reactions, but the presence of positive states.
In sum, these findings suggest that there is clinical advantage in focusing on building people’s strengths so that they can cope with difficult experiences as opposed to purely focusing on reducing negative experiences. Rather than solely trying to eliminate negative experiences (moving from -5 to 0), it seems important also to employ coping skills that promote well-being, despite the
negative experiences (moving towards +5).
In support of this notion, existing research demonstrates that irrespective of the level of stress, personal resources are associated with psychological well-being (Cohen et al., 1982; Holahan & Moos, 1986; Kobasa, Maddi, & Kahn, 1982; Nelson & Cohen, 1983).
Misconception #3: correcting weakness creates optimal performance
According to Clifton and Nelson (1996), the behavior and mindset of many teachers, employers, parents, and leaders is guided by the implicit belief that optimal performance results from fixing weaknesses. Indeed, to promote professional development, employees are typically exposed to training programs that focus on correcting their weakness. In a similar vein, evaluation interviews often focus on areas that need improvement and aspects of work that employees are typically struggling with.
A similar pattern can be found at many schools. Typically, the number of mistakes are highlighted when work is corrected and when report cards are brought home, the lower grades tend to attract more attention. According to Clifton and Nelson (1996), fixing or correcting weakness will not result in an optimally functioning person or organization. In their view, fixing weakness will at best help the individual or organization to become normal or average.
Research findings show that the opportunity to do what one does best each day (that is, using one’s strengths) is a core predictor of workplace engagement (Harter, Schmidt, & Keyes, 2002); and workplace engagement, in turn, is an important predictor of performance (see, for instance, Bakker & Bal, 2010; Salanova et al, 2005). These findings indirectly support Clifton and Nelson’s (1996) claim that boosting the use of strengths, rather than improving weaknesses, will contribute to optimal performance.
Misconception #4: weaknesses deserve more attention because strengths will take care of themselves
Another misconception that contributes to an excessive focus on weakness involves the belief that strengths do not need much attention because they will take care of themselves and develop naturally. Just like skills, strengths can be trained and developed deliberately (Borghans, Duckworth, Heckman, & ter Weel, 2008; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
For instance, research has shown that, through practice, people can learn to be more optimistic (Meevissen, Peters & Alberts, 2011). In general, these studies show that over time, practice and effort can help to build new habits that boost strength use.
Boosting strengths means that not only is the frequency of use increased, but also the number of different situations in which the strength is applied. When strengths are not used or trained, their potential impact on well-being remains limited.
When a child who is very creative is not at all or is minimally exposed to activities that call upon creativity, the child is unlikely to develop skills, knowledge, and experience that will maximize his creative potential. Although many strengths are already present at a very young age, they need to be nurtured to realize their full potential.
Misconception #5: a deficit focus can help to prevent problems
If we keep focusing on repairing weakness, we will increase our understanding of weaknesses. A focus on repairing weakness will bring forward more ways to decrease the gap between -5 and 0 (see fig. 2.1). Indeed, during the past 40 years, many interventions have been developed that aimed to cure mental illness or other problems. These interventions are primarily aimed at fixing things when they already have gone wrong.
Obviously, it is important to have different interventions and treatment programs to deal with problems and setbacks. However, what we have learned over 50 years is that the disease model has not moved us closer to the prevention of problems. When it comes to prevention, the question is not “How can we treat people with problem X effectively?” but “How can problem X be prevented from occurring?”
Working exclusively on personal weakness and disorders has rendered science poorly equipped to design effective prevention programs. We are minimally closer to preventing serious problems like burnout, depression, or substance abuse.
It seems that major advances in prevention occur when the view is to systematically build competency rather than correct weakness (see, for instance, Greenberg, Domitrovich, & Bumbarger, 1999, for a review of effective prevention programs for youths). To design effective prevention programs, we must also focus on the +5 part (see fig. 2.2) and ask questions like:
- Why do some people flourish despite difficult circumstances?
- How do some employees avoid burnout
- Why do some employees show a high level of work engagement?
- What are the characteristics of resilient and flourishing individuals, and what can we learn from them?
- How can we use this knowledge to design interventions that help people become resilient so that they are capable of bouncing back when the going gets tough?
The Positive Psychology Perspective
In 1998, Martin Seligman strongly encouraged the field of psychology to widen its scope and move beyond human problems and pathology to human flourishing. According to Seligman (2002), positive psychology aims to move people not from -5 to 0 but from 0 to +5 (see fig. 2), and to do this, a different focus is needed. Rather than merely focusing on what is wrong with people and fixing their problems, the focus should also be on what is right with people and boosting their strengths.
The questions that positive psychology aims to answer are:
- What characteristics do people with high levels of happiness possess?
- And, what qualities do people who manage their troubles effectively have?
- In other words, what strengths do these people possess?
These questions do not fit the disease model. These questions force us to consider the bigger question of “What is right with people?” If we learn what differentiates happy and resilient people from unhappy and unresilient people, then we can use this knowledge to increase happiness and boost the resilience of others.
An important mission of positive psychology research is, therefore, to investigate human behavior using a strengths approach. This focus on human flourishing and markers of psychological well-being has been referred to as the health model of human functioning (see fig. 2.2).
At first sight, the previously discussed misconceptions about a deficit focus may give rise to the idea that one should predominantly focus on human strengths, rather than weaknesses.
While it may be true that correcting weakness will not create optimal performance or well-being, it is also true that only focusing on human strengths while ignoring weaknesses will not automatically lead to optimal performance or well-being. Especially when weaknesses cause problems or hinder optimal strength use, they need to be addressed and managed.
While traditional psychologists may falsely believe that taking away negatives will automatically create positives, positive psychologists and practitioners must avoid the trap of believing that creating positives will automatically take away the negatives. As discussed above, the positive and negative are on two separate continua.
Attention must be paid to processes for building the positive and to processes for coping with the negative. For this reason, positive psychology can best be considered as an addition to existing psychology, not a replacement. It can best be considered as an enrichment of the field, rather than a rejection of it. Or, to use Seligman’s words:
“Positive psychology is not just happyology” and “is not meant to replace psychology as usual” (Seligman, 2001).
Although a great amount of research has addressed aspects of human functioning that are linked with lower levels of well-being, it is incorrect to categorize psychological research in terms of positive and negative. These are evaluative terms and raise the false impression that research can be categorized as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’
First, psychological research aims to shed more light on human functioning in general; it is not devoted to positive or negative human conditions. Moreover, increasing insight as to aspects that hinder well-being is equally valuable to insights into aspects that promote well-being. Categorizing studies on human dysfunction as ‘negative psychology’ should, therefore, be avoided.
When examining psychological research of the past 40 years in the domains of psychopathology and clinical psychology, one could conclude that this research has mainly adopted a ‘negative’ side of human functioning. However, the field of psychology reaches far beyond the subdomains of psychopathology and clinical psychology. Examples of other fields include health psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, and organizational psychology.
Many studies in these other domains have focused on well-being for years, even before the introduction of Positive Psychology in 2000. These studies have addressed topics like job satisfaction, safe sex practices, and high self-esteem and primarily focused on the positive side of human functioning.