One of the foundational articles in the field of positive psychology is “Positive Psychology. An Introduction,” written by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (2000)
“Psychology is much larger than curing mental illness or curing diseases. I think it’s about bringing out the best in people; it’s about positive institutions; it’s about strength of character.”
Martin Seligman (1999)
In this special issue, these pioneering scholars question the focus of the psychology discipline, characterized by pathology and a problem-focus. In doing so, they point to gaps in our knowledge about the potential for psychology to aid creativity, hope, and flourishing.
This groundbreaking article charted a course for the positive psychology discipline and is still widely cited today. In this blog post, we summarize its key points, outline the themes of the papers appearing in the broader special issue, and present some open questions for the positive psychology field.
This article contains:
Psychology’s First Three Missions
Before World War II, the field of psychology had three clear missions:
- Treat mental illness;
- Make life more productive and fulfilling; and
- Identify and nurture talent.
After World War II, the Veterans Administration (now the Veterans Affairs) and the National Institute of Mental Health were founded, and the focus of psychology turned almost exclusively towards understanding and treating mental illness.
This focus was incredibly beneficial. More than 14 previously incurable disorders were scientifically researched, and treatments to cure or relieve the symptoms were found (Seligman, 1994).
Psychologists came to understand how people survive and endure adversity, challenges, and trauma. Research about the impacts of divorce, loss of loved ones, sexual and physical abuse, damaged childhoods, damaged brains, and habits exploded (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
By adopting a disease model, psychologists made remarkable progress towards discovering how to repair psychological damage. However, psychology’s other missions, to promote productive, meaningful lives and nurture talent, were left unattended.
Driving psychologists (and their deviation from these two missions) was a clear bias toward the negative side of the human experience. That is, it was assumed that negative motivations were authentic and positive emotions were derivative or inauthentic.
Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) argue that because negative emotions signal danger, they are more urgent, and therefore often overpower positive emotions.
Positive experiences, on the other hand, do not demand the same level of vigilance or alarm. They pass, most of the time, without any effort. Hence, the bias in psychology towards the negative may reflect the value differences in the survival of negative versus positive emotions.
The Personal Stories Behind the Movement
Martin Seligman is considered the father of positive psychology. He tells the following story of a central moment during 1998, a few months before he was elected president of the American Psychological Association (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 5-6):
“I was weeding the garden with my 5 year old daughter Nikki. She was throwing weeds, singing, and dancing while I was actually trying to get the weeding done. I yelled at her, she walked away, then came back and said:
Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.”
He realized that raising children is not about fixing and correcting what’s wrong with them, but identifying and enhancing their strongest qualities and what they do best and helping them find the environments that allow them to play out their strengths and live productive, fulfilled lives.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also acknowledged the need for positive psychology. During World War II in Europe, he witnessed successful and confident men become helpless and hopeless as their social support vanished. As they lost their jobs, money, and status, they also lost their sense of meaning in life.
Amid the chaos and turmoil, however, a few people kept their integrity and purpose. Their serenity provided hope for others. This got Csikszentmihalyi wondering what sources of strength enabled these people to hold on to their sense of hope (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Philosophy, history, and religion failed to provide him with the answers he was looking for. He found that these disciplines were too subjective and abstract. However, he recognized a possible solution to his questions in the field of psychology—a discipline that deals with the fundamental issues of life with the simplicity of the natural sciences (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
In the 1950s, psychology was not a recognized discipline. In Italy, where Csikszentmihalyi lived, it was only possible to study psychology as a minor while pursuing a major in medicine or philosophy. So he moved to the United States, where psychology had become established as a science.
This period in psychology is known as the culmination of behaviorism (Cravens, 1991). During this period, psychology and behavior were being taught as “value-free branches of statistical mechanics” which was a lens Csikszentmihalyi struggled to reconcile with the rich displays of human integrity and values he witnessed among the most resilient during the war. He, therefore, sought a science of human beings that could piece together “what is and what could be” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 7).
Fast forward a decade, and humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers (1979) brought a new perspective to psychology. Parting ways with Freud and behaviorism, this approach emphasized the innate drive in all human beings to self-actualize and to express their capabilities and creativity.
Unfortunately, these perspectives lacked a cumulative empirical base, leading to multiple therapeutic self-help movements (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Regardless of the stories and insights that led to the conviction that the time for positive psychology has come, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s message (2000, p. 7) is a timely reminder to the field that:
“Psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness and damage, it’s also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best. Psychology is not just a branch of medicine concerned with illness or health; it is much larger.
It is about work, education, insight, love, growth and play. And in this quest for what is best, positive psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, faith, self-deception, fads or hand-waving; it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents to those who wish to understand it in all its complexity.”
At the center of this approach lies the issue of prevention. How can psychologists prevent the problems that so many people experience, like depression, addiction, and anxiety? Such an approach represented a contrast to the disease model that had dominated for fifty years, which had focused on treating psychological ill-being after its onset and largely failed to move psychology closer to the prevention of these issues.
In fact, some of the major steps towards prevention were focused on building competency, not on correcting weaknesses. Certain human strengths can act as buffers (see psycap) against psychological illness, including:
Psychologists, therapists, and consultants need to acknowledge that much of the best work they do with their patients and clients is to enhance their strengths, virtues, and capacities, rather than repairing weaknesses.
Psychologists and practitioners working with families, schools, communities, and institutions need to develop environments that promote these strengths.
The time when psychology viewed individuals as passive vessels reacting to stimuli has passed. Individuals are decision-makers, with choices, preferences, and a set of values and strengths that allow them to learn, excel, and hopefully remain resilient in adverse circumstances.
Positive psychology arose from the need to redirect psychology back to its two neglected missions: to make people stronger and more productive, and to develop and nurture high talent.
The Field’s Three Main Topics
The major contributions of positive psychology have three main themes.
1. What Makes One Moment Better than the Next?
The first core theme in positive psychology investigates the qualities that make the experience of one moment in time better than another. For instance, theorizing in this space asks when we might feel the happiest, satisfied with life, or absorbed in what we are doing.
- Daniel Kahneman explores the hedonic quality of a moment, arguing it is the building block of positive psychology.
- Diener discusses subjective wellbeing, which regards people’s emotional responses, satisfaction with particular domains of life, and overall life satisfaction (Diener et al., 1999).
- Massimini and Delle Fave conceptualize the notion of optimal experience (or Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow), which is a multifaceted experiential state characterized by reciprocal integration of one’s cognitions, emotions, and motivations (Delle Fave, 2009).
- Chris Peterson (2000) conducts work on optimism.
- Ryan and Deci (2000) research self-determination, which is a broad framework for the study of human motivation and the core needs that facilitate human happiness and wellbeing.
2. Positive Personalities
This second theme asks: What if we viewed human beings as capable, self-organizing, self-directed, and adaptive entities?
- As one of self-determination theory’s mini-theories, causal orientations theory (COT) by Ryan and Deci (2000) explores individual tendencies to regulate behavior in different ways.
- Baltes and Staudinger’s (2000) work is on wisdom—a person’s knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.
- Vaillant and colleagues (1986) study tendencies toward the use of mature defense mechanisms, such as humor and acceptance.
- Several scholars have examined exceptional performance and its drivers (e.g., Larson, 2000; Lubinski & Benbow, 2000; Simonton, 2000; Winner, 2000).
3. People and Experiences are Embedded in a Social Context
The final theme is about embedding the principles of positive psychology in the spaces where we learn, work, and play. This means reconsidering practices in our schools, communities, organizations, and throughout societies in general.
- Buss (2000) and Massimini and Delle Fave (2000) describe the evolutionary milieu that shapes positive experiences.
- Myers (2000) studies the contributions of social relationships to happiness.
- Schwartz (2000) reflects on the need for cultural norms to relieve people of the burden of choice.
- Larson (2000) emphasizes the importance of voluntary activities.
- Winner (2000) describes the effects of families on nurturing talent.
Many of the papers cited above appear together with Seligman and Csikzentmihalyi’s (2000) piece, which formed part of a special issue. The special issue aimed to pull together papers on a range of subtopics related to positive psychology. Next, we provide a brief introduction to several of these articles.
Several of the articles in Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2000) special issue explore the bio-evolutionary bases for human experiences studied by psychologists.
First, David Buss (2000) reminds us that the past can overpower positivity in the present. In his article, he explores this idea by focusing on three reasons why positive states of mind are so elusive:
- The environments people currently live in are so different from the ancestral environments to which their bodies and brains have adapted that they are often misfit in modern surroundings.
- Mechanisms of distress are often functional. For instance, jealousy alerts people to ensure the fidelity of their partners.
- Selection tends to be competitive and to involve zero-sum outcomes.
After identifying some of the major obstacles to wellbeing, Buss provides concrete strategies to overcome them. This makes his article not only an interesting read but a valuable tool.
Fausto Massimini and Antonella Delle Fave (2000) explore the topics of psychological and cultural evolution. In a sense, they pick up where David Buss left off by analyzing the effects of changes in the ancestral environment and how the production of memes (artifacts and values) affect and are affected by human consciousness.
These scholars assume that human beings are self-organizing and oriented towards increased complexity. As the authors of their own evolution, humans are continuously involved in the selection of memes that will chisel their individuality and shape the future of their culture.
Notably, the authors highlight that psychological selection is propelled not only towards survival but also towards the need for optimal experiences.
Positive Personal Traits
In this section, we’ll briefly outline five articles in the special issue that detail different personality traits related to positive psychology.
1. Subjective Wellbeing
One of the leading experts of this topic is Edward Diener (2000), whose work now spans more than three decades. Subjective wellbeing, the scholarly term for ‘happiness,’ refers to what people think and feel about their lives. Specifically, subjective happiness regards the cognitive and affective evaluation a person draws when they assess their existence.
Diener looked at the temperament and personality correlates of wellbeing and the demographic factors of groups high in subjective wellbeing. His research highlights interesting findings between macro-social conditions and happiness across cultures.
One mediator of external events and a person’s interpretation of them is optimism, which Christopher Peterson (2000) describes as a highly beneficial trait.
Peterson notes that optimism is a multifaceted construct, comprising cognitive, emotional, and motivational components. His work aims to understand the mechanisms of optimism to answer questions like:
- Can we increase optimism?
- When does optimism begin to distort reality?
- How does an overly pessimistic culture affect the wellbeing of its citizens?
David Myers (2000) proposes that traditional values must contain important elements of truth to survive across time and tests the empirical validity of this claim.
He also considers how factors such as economic growth, income, and close personal relationships affect happiness. His findings are a valuable resource to anyone interested in understanding the various factors that may contribute to a positive life.
Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2000) are the creators of self-determination theory. This theory researches three related human needs:
- The need for competence;
- The need for belonging;
- The need for autonomy.
According to Ryan and Deci (2000), when people meet these needs, their personal wellbeing and social development are optimized. Further, people satisfying these needs will experience intrinsic motivation, enabling them to achieve their potentialities and seek ever-expanding challenges.
In contrast, Barry Schwartz (2000) questions a key tenet of self-determination theory, arguing that western society’s preoccupation with autonomy leads to excessive freedom. Choices then cause a burden and eventually lead to regrets, insecurity, and depression.
Schwartz (2000) asks how we can balance this need for self-determination and agency, while also recognizing our basic needs as social animals who influence each other’s decisions?
In short, Schwartz believes cultural constraints are necessary for leading a meaningful and satisfying life.
Implications for Mental and Physical Health
What does mental health look like for positive psychology? This question guides the work of the following articles.
George Vaillant (2000) reminds people that it’s impossible to understand positive psychological processes without a longitudinal approach.
In his article, Valliant presents results obtained from three large samples of adults studied over several decades. Drawing on his findings, he highlights how mature defense mechanisms, like
contribute to a happy and successful life.
Vaillant’s (2000) perspective, which acknowledges the importance of creative and proactive solutions, deviates from the victim paradigm that dominates psychoanalytic approaches.
In general, it is assumed that a realistic and rigorous assessment of reality is healthy. Shelly Taylor and her collaborators argue that unrealistically optimistic beliefs about the future can protect people from illness (Taylor et al., 2000).
The findings of numerous studies of ill patients suffering from diseases such as AIDS suggest that the patients who remained optimistic showed symptoms later and survived longer than the patients with a more realistic outlook.
The authors believe the mediation effect occurs primarily at a cognitive level. An optimistic patient is more likely to engage in healthy habits and seek social support. It’s also speculated, though still not proven, that positive states may have a direct physiological effect that may delay the progression of diseases.
Naturally, this research has important implications for the subject of health and prevention.
If psychology is going to improve the whole of human existence, it’s not enough to repair the worst in people.
The vast majority of people also need examples and guidance on how to live a meaningful and joyful life.
Wisdom is one of the most valued traits all over the world and across cultures. Most people believe that wisdom is a product of age and experience. However, a more robust and scientific approach to wisdom has come out of the Max Planck Institute of Berlin, where the Berlin wisdom paradigm was developed.
Paul Bates and Ursula Staudinger’s (2000) findings on wisdom resulted in a complex model that views this trait as a cognitive and motivational heuristic for organizing knowledge in pursuit of individual and collective excellence.
David Lubinsky and Camilla Benbow (2000) take a different approach to excellence. Their focus is on children with exceptional intellectual abilities. Considering issues of how to identify, nurture, counsel, and teach these children, they argue that neglecting the potential of such extraordinary children would be a terrible loss to society.
In his paper, Dean Simonton (2000) explores whether the roots of creativity are found in one’s biology or upbringing (i.e., nature or nurture). In this exploration, Simonton examines the cognitive, personality, and developmental factors associated with creativity as well as the conditions that either promote or hinder creativity.
Ellen Winner (2000) also addresses giftedness and exceptional performance, but her view is more inclusive. Relating to children who are precocious, self-motivated, and who approach problems in an original way in their field of talent, Winner notes that such children tend to be well-adjusted and to have supportive families.
Reed Larson (2000) also studied excellence in young people and found that the average student reported feeling bored at school, as they rarely have the opportunity to take the initiative, and their education encourages passive adaptation to external rules and values. He explored how voluntary activities can provide opportunities to focus and apply self-directed effort over time.
Challenges and Considerations
In the years since “Positive Psychology – An Introduction.” was written, the articles and studies mentioned above have made valuable contributions to the field of positive psychology, shedding light on several gaps in the field’s knowledge.
Seligman (2002) and Csikszentmihalyi (1974) themselves explore the topic of happiness as an overarching theme (or the goal) of the positive psychology discipline. Specifically, they consider the difference between fleeting experiences of happiness (hedonic happiness) and long-lasting wellbeing (eudaimonic happiness).
These scholars observe that what makes people happy in the moment or in small doses does not necessarily equate to greater satisfaction over the long-term. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the hedonic treadmill and can be observed in the limited satisfaction a person can attain from having money or eating food.
We also need to be aware that as we grow older, our sources of happiness and wellbeing may change. What contributed to happiness as a teenager may very well be different from what contributes to happiness as an adult.
Given this, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) ask what the building blocks of happiness and long-term wellbeing in childhood could be.
Further, these authors observe that neuroscience has advanced our knowledge of the neurochemistry of depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, anxiety, and many other disorders.
Consequently, they ask whether the opposites of these states will fall under neuropsychology’s radar too, and whether psychologists will develop a biology of positive experiences and traits. (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Summary & PDF
Camus once said, the most important question in philosophy is: “Why should one not commit suicide?”
We need reasons to believe that life is worth living. If psychology is to serve the whole of humanity, it needs to address how people can live joyful, meaningful lives.
In the same way that psychologists have developed tools to measure subjective experiences like depression, anger, and schizophrenia, these same methods can be applied to understand and measure the experiences that make life most worth living.
Indeed, although many of the principles of positive psychology are not entirely new ideas, the field applies what earlier approaches lacked: the application of a scientific method. A cumulative, empirical body of research is the foundation on which the field of positive psychology stands.
While many questions remain unanswered, rest assured that the time for a psychology of positive functioning is well and truly upon us; scientists like Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi have made sure of that.
If you’d like to learn more, you can read Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s original article, which is available as a free PDF. What would you like to see studied in the field of positive psychology? We would love to hear your thoughts in our comments section below.
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