One of the foundational articles in the field of positive psychology is “Positive Psychology. An Introduction,” written by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
“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
Because of its importance and the number of citations it has, we decided to summarize positive psychology for you, and extract its most significant points.
This article contains:
Psychology’s First Three Missions
Before World War II, the field of psychology had 3 clear missions:
- Treat mental illness;
- Make life more productive and fulfilling;
- 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 was incredibly beneficial. 14 previously incurable disorders were researched scientifically and treatments to cure or relieve the symptoms were found.
Psychologists came to substantially 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.
They made remarkable progress in repairing damage within a disease model of functioning. However, psychology’s other missions, to promote productive, meaningful lives and nurture talent were left unattended.
The Personal Stories Behind the Movement
Martin Seligman is considered the father of positive psychology. He tells the story of a central moment during 1998, a few months before he was elected president of the American Psychological Association:
“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, 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.
In the midst of 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 integrity?
Philosophy, history, and religion failed to provide him with the answers he was looking for. They were too subjective and abstract. When he came across psychology he thought, here is a possible solution to my questions—a discipline that deals with the fundamental issues of life with the simplicity of the natural sciences.
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 a science.
This period in psychology is known as the culmination of behaviorism. Psychology and behavior were being taught as “a branch of statistical mechanics” and so he struggled to put together the two building blocks of social science: “to understand what is and what could be.”
He wasn’t content with the approach that involved a skeptical attitude and a concern for measurement.
Fast forward a decade, and humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers brought a new perspective to psychology. Parting ways with Freud and behaviorism, this approach emphasized the inherent drive in all human beings to self-actualize, to express their own capabilities and creativity.
Unfortunately, it lacked a cumulative empirical base, leading to multiple therapeutic self-help movements.
Regardless of the stories and insights that led to the conviction that the time for positive psychology has come, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s message is definitely timely, a 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? Fifty years under the disease model showed that the pathology approach does not 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:
- Future mindedness;
- Work ethic;
- and Perseverance.
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 normal 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. Here we will provide a brief overview of the field at the early stages of its development.
1. What Makes One Moment Better than the Next?
- Daniel Kahneman believes the hedonic quality of the moment is the building block of positive psychology;
- Diener focuses on subjective well-being;
- Massimini and Della Fave focus on optimal experience;
- Chris Peterson‘s work is on optimism;
- Ryan and Deci research self-determination.
2. Positive Personalities Offer Hope
What if we viewed human beings as capable, self-organizing, self-directed, and adaptive entities? Many researchers believe these are core human personalities.
- Ryan and Deci focus on self-determination;
- Baltes and Staudinger’s work is on wisdom;
- Vaillant studies mature defenses;
- Lubinski, Benbow, Simonton, Winner, and Larson focus an exceptional performance.
3. People and Experiences are Embedded in a Social Context
Therefore, positive psychology needs to take into consideration positive schools, communities, organizations and societies.
- Buss, Massimini, and Della Fave describe the evolutionary milieu that shapes positive experiences;
- Myers‘ studies are on the contributions of social relationships to happiness;
- Schwartz reflects on the need for cultural norms to relieve people of the burden of choice;
- Larson emphasizes the importance of voluntary activities;
- Winner describes the effects of families on nurturing talent.
Next is a short introduction to some of these articles.
David Buss (2000) reminds us that the past can overpower the present, focusing mainly 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, e.g. 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 well-being, Buss provides concrete strategies to overcome them. This makes his article not only an interesting read but a valuable tool.
Fausto Massimini and Antonella Della Fave (2000) explored psychological and cultural evolution. You can say they started where David Buss left: looking analytically at the effects of changes in the ancestral environment and how the production of memes (artifacts and values) affect and are affected by human consciousness.
Their assumption was 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 own individuality and shape the future of their culture.
The authors make the point, essential to positive psychology, 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 address five articles dealing with different personality traits that contribute to positive psychology:
1. Subjective Well-Being
One of the leading experts of this topic is Edward Diener (2000), whose work now spans more than 3 decades. Subjective well-being refers to what people think and feel about their lives—to the cognitive and affective evaluation they draw when they assess their existence.
It’s the more scientific term for what people normally call happiness. Diener looked at the temperament and personality correlates of well-being and the demographic factors of groups high in subjective well-being. His research suggests interesting findings between macrosocial conditions and happiness.
One mediator of external events and a person’s interpretation of them is optimism. Christopher Peterson (2000) described the benefits of this trait.
He considered optimism to entail cognitive, emotional, and motivational components. His work aims to understand the mechanisms of optimism and answer questions like:
- Can we increase optimism?
- When does it begin to distort reality?
- How does an overly pessimistic culture affect the well-being of its citizens?
David Myers (2000) took the belief that traditional values must contain important elements of truth in order to survive across time and tested the empirical validity of this claim. He is more attuned than others in the field to issues such as the often-found association of faith with happiness.
He also considered the connection of economic growth, income, and close personal relationships to happiness. His findings are a valuable resource to anyone interested in understanding the elements that contribute to a positive life.
Richard Ryan and Edward Deci are the authors of the 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, when people meet these needs, their personal well-being and their social development are optimized. When this happens, people are intrinsically motivated, and therefore able to achieve their potentialities and seek ever-expanding challenges.
Barry Schwartz takes the self-determination subject from a different angle. He is concerned that the focus on autonomy in our culture leads to excessive freedom. Choices then cause a burden and eventually lead to regrets, insecurity, and depression.
How do we 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 articles mentioned below.
George Vaillant (2000) reminds people that it’s impossible to understand positive psychological processes without a longitudinal approach.
The results obtained from three large samples of adults studied over several decades showed the contributions to a happy and successful life by mature defenses like:
Vaillant’s perspective, which acknowledges the importance of creative and proactive solutions, breaks the mold of the victim paradigm of the psychoanalytic approaches.
In general, it’s 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 attitude.
The authors believe the mediation effect happens 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 the disease.
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 vigorous 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 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.
The nature and nurture of creativity are explored in the work of Dean K. Simonton’s (2000) article, in which he examines the cognitive, personality, and developmental factors involved in the process 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, where they rarely have the opportunity to take 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 into some of the gaps in the field’s knowledge.
In this article, however, we will stick to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s perspectives at the time of their article’s publication.
The difference between fleeting experiences of happiness (hedonic happiness) and long-lasting well-being (eudaemonic happiness) is often referred to in the field.
What makes people happy in the moment or in small doses does not necessarily add larger amounts of satisfaction over the long-term. This can be observed in the amount of money a person makes or in the pleasure of eating food.
We also need to be aware that as we grow older, our sources of happiness and well-being may change. What contributed to happiness as a teenager may very well be different from what contributes to happiness as an adult.
If that’s so, what are the building blocks of happiness and long-term well-being in childhood?
For the last 20 years, neuroscience has advanced our knowledge in the neurochemistry of depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, anxiety, and many other disorders.
Will the opposite of these states fall under neuropsychology’s radar too? “Can psychologists develop a biology for positive experiences and traits?” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
There are still many questions to answer. But the time for the psychology of positive functioning has come.
Positive psychology is not a completely new idea. It does, however, apply what other approaches lacked: the scientific method. A cumulative, empirical body of research is the foundation in which it stands.
Why has psychology been so biased towards the negative, assuming that negative motivations are authentic and positive emotions are derivative?
Negative emotions signal danger and are more urgent, and therefore often overpower the positive ones. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.
Positive experiences, on the other hand, don’t 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 also reflect the value differences in survival of negative versus positive emotions.
Camus once said, the most important question in philosophy is:
Why should one not commit suicide?
We need reasons that believe that life is worth living. If psychology is to serve the whole of humanity, then it needs to address how people can live joyful and meaningful lives.
Psychology and psychiatry developed valid ways of measuring and understanding abstract concepts like depression, anger, or schizophrenia. These methods can be used to measure, understand, and build the characteristics that make life most worth living.
Psychologists will not only help people survive the challenges and difficult times in life, but will also help people, communities, and societies thrive.
What are your ideas on this established field and where do you envision it going? We would love to hear from you in our comments section below.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.