What makes life worth living? It’s a vast, daunting, and vital question.
For much of psychology’s existence, the focus on mental disorders has not translated into more wellbeing. We have targeted human pathology—what’s going wrong—rather than how we flourish (Seligman, 2011; Kellerman & Seligman, 2023).
Positive psychology has challenged the focus of psychologists by creating a practical vision of “what actions lead to wellbeing, to positive individuals, and to thriving communities” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 5).
This article focuses on what positive psychology is, how it came into being, and how it attempts to lead us to the “good life.”
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises 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.
This Article Contains:
An Introduction to Positive Psychology
“Psychologists have scant knowledge of what makes life worth living,” wrote Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000, p. 5), two of the founders of positive psychology.
Positive psychology’s goal was (and still is) to provide individuals and society with the tools to flourish rather than dwell on mental ill health, which has always been the focus of psychology. Seligman (2011) believed that such a new, research-based approach could guide individuals toward flourishing, living a satisfying life, and also raise the bar for the human condition.
So, “flourishing” is crucial to positive psychology, but what is it?
Seligman turned to research to provide the answer, including the work of researchers Felicia Huppert and Timothy So of Cambridge University, UK.
They found that to flourish, we must experience all the following (Seligman, 2011):
- Positive emotions – overall degree of happiness
- Engagement and interest – love of learning new things
- Meaning and purpose – feeling that what we do is valuable and worthwhile
And at least three of the following additional features:
- Self-esteem – how positive we feel about ourselves
- Optimism – our degree of optimism about the future
- Resilience – our ability to return to (a new) normal when things go wrong
- Vitality – our “physical or intellectual vigor or energy” (American Psychological Association, n.d.).
- Self-determination – the degree to which we feel in control of our lives and the motivation to pursue goals in line with our values (Ryan & Deci, 2018)
- Positive relationships – the sense that there are people in our lives who care about us
The promise of positive psychology was to take existing tools and techniques previously used to explain our weaknesses and treat illnesses and use them to “enhance our understanding of strengths and promote wellbeing” (Snyder, 2021, p. 3).
Since its introduction, positive psychology has had a bumpy ride, handling critics while continuing to evolve. And yet, it has proven its value in research and application. Now an accredited and professional field in its own right, it also deeply integrates with other psychological disciplines and continues gaining momentum and influence (Hart, 2021).
Undoubtedly, positive psychology is here to stay. It is human nature to seek ways to flourish (Seligman, 2011).
Martin Seligman & Positive Psychology
Martin Seligman is often referred to as the father of positive psychology.
He recognized that “psychology has, since World War II, become a science largely about healing” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 5). He wanted to help us all find a way to live better (for more of the time) despite the challenges we continue to face (Kellerman & Seligman, 2023).
For him, things changed considerably in 1999 in the months leading up to his new role as president of the American Psychological Association. And it all happened while out in the garden (Seligman, 2019).
Finding positive psychology in the weeds
While Seligman was gardening one day, his 5-year-old daughter Nikki was singing and throwing weeds. He became grumpy and yelled at her. She ran off, crying. But when she returned, she told him that if she could make the decision at 5 years old to stop whining, he could decide to stop being a grouch.
Her brutal, childlike honesty had a significant impact on Seligman and made him realize he needed to change his attitude, outlook, and parenting style. He wanted to be a supportive and encouraging parent, not just focus on correcting his daughter’s mistakes.
But more than that, it also led him to a critical realization of the potential for psychology to help people flourish (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Rather than repairing the damage “within a disease model of human functioning,” psychology should “be building positive qualities […] that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethic” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 5).
It was a watershed moment for the discipline.
Authentic happiness theory
Having spent years researching what learned helplessness looked like—when people and animals feel powerless to avoid negative situations and events—Seligman (2019) was very aware of the potential of positive emotions, such as optimism and hope, to turn our perception and behavior around.
In Seligman’s (2011) initial theory of positive psychology (referred to as the authentic happiness theory), the focus was on analyzing happiness into three different elements: positive emotions (comfort, pleasure, etc.), engagement (or flow), and meaning (purpose in life).
Seligman (2011) came to think that the topic of positive psychology was more than “just” happiness, and its goal was beyond “simply” increasing life satisfaction.
Having spotted inadequacies in his original theory, Seligman put forward the idea that the topic of positive psychology should be a construct called “wellbeing.” And that it comprises several measurable elements, each of which is important but not sufficient in its own right.
“Wellbeing is just like ‘weather’ and ‘freedom’ in its structure: no single measure defines it exhaustively […] but several things contribute to it” (Seligman, 2011, p. 15).
So rather than being one dimensional and only focusing on happiness, the wellbeing theory builds on the five pillars (PERMA) we discuss in the next section.
The 5 Key Concepts of Positive Psychology
So how do we define and operationalize the elements of wellbeing?
We need a model built from clearly defined, measurable concepts.
And that’s what Seligman did next.
Seligman (2011, p. 16) recognized that in defining positive psychology, “each element of wellbeing must have properties to count as an element.”
They must each:
- Contribute to wellbeing
- Be pursued for their own sake
- Be capable of being considered independently of the other elements
With this in mind, Seligman identified five elements (or pillars) that make up his wellbeing theory and contribute to human flourishing.
Together they form the helpful acronym PERMA (Seligman, 2011):
- Positive emotion
Also appears in the authentic happiness theory (along with engagement and meaning) as the cornerstone of the “pleasant life.” Positive emotions, such as joy, hope, compassion, and interest, are essential elements of wellbeing.
A vital subjective measure and indicator of human flourishing often described as “flow.” Were you completely absorbed in what you were doing? Did time stand still, and did self-consciousness disappear?
- (Positive) Relationships
The presence and absence of positive relationships can profoundly impact wellbeing. We pursue them because they bring us positive emotions, engagement, and meaning, but also answer an innate need, most likely born out of our long and social evolutionary history.
While having a strong subjective element, our own and others’ actions may also be “objectively” judged with the gift of hindsight. And meaning can be measured or considered independent of the other elements.
Accomplishment was not present in Seligman’s authentic happiness theory. What we achieve or accomplish (purely for its own sake) can be rewarding and vital to wellbeing, even if not accompanied by meaning or positive emotions.
In his memoir, The Hope Circuit, Seligman (2019) confirms that for him, the PERMA model conceptualizes positive psychology.
Mental health is much more than the absence of mental illness; it requires positive emotion, engagement, good relations, meaning, and accomplishment.
Some argue that we should extend the model by including physical health, especially considering global medical crises. While the PERMA-H model has received some criticism because of a lack of supporting evidence, the inclusion of “health” deserves consideration (Morgan & Simmons, 2021; Butler & Kern, 2016):
How good is your health? The answer might combine state physical health, lower mortality risk, and healthier behavior.
Ultimately, whether health meets the three necessary attributes of being an element of wellbeing, there is undoubtedly a strong relationship between mental wellness and physical health outcomes (Brown et al., 2018).
A Brief History of Positive Psychology
While crucial to the introduction and development of positive psychology, Seligman wasn’t alone in introducing the approach and theories.
Indeed, 2,000 years ago, the Ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus were sharing their thoughts on what makes up the “good life.” For the psychology perspective, we must travel forward to the late 1800s, when psychologist William James argued that free will played a vital role in happiness and satisfaction in life (Hart, 2021).
For many, humanistic psychology is the forerunner of positive psychology. Led by well-known psychologists at the time, including Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, humanistic theory recognized that “people are motivated by a desire to grow and fulfill their potential—a need to self-actualize” (Hart, 2021, p. 10).
“Unfortunately, humanistic psychology did not attract much of a cumulative empirical base, and it spawned myriad therapeutic self-help movements” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 7).
As a result, when Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener (researching subjective wellbeing), Barbara Fredrickson (exploring positive emotions), Christopher Peterson (studying character strengths and virtues), and others established positive psychology as a discipline, it was on the back of a continually growing body of research (Hart, 2021; Fredrickson, 2010; Seligman, 2011).
And it has continued to expand ever since, resulting in a wealth of data, knowledge sharing, and an improved understanding of what makes life worthwhile and which factors underpin and contribute to our wellbeing (Hart, 2021; Fredrickson, 2010; Seligman, 2011).
Handbook of Positive Psychology
Now in its third edition, following the success of its two earlier versions, it continues to offer deep engagement in the field of positive psychology from various international authors (Snyder, 2021).
The book contains a breathtaking 68 chapters on current thinking from diverse backgrounds, including clinical, social, counseling, personality, developmental, health, and school psychology, which provide depth and breadth on the subject matter.
Of particular interest to mental health practitioners, students, or those fascinated by the field are sections on the positive psychology therapeutic approaches that can be adopted, combined, and used with individuals and groups.
They include emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, self-based, and biological methods that provide counselors and academics with a deep insight into how we can transform theory into tools and applications (Snyder, 2021).
Positive Psychology PDFs
Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (2000) article in American Psychologist is a foundational and valuable read. Available as a free PDF, the paper shared with the academic community and beyond a framework for the science of positive psychology and how children, adults, families, employees, organizations, and populations can be helped to flourish.
The authors point out that (at that time) psychologists knew a great deal about how people endure adversity, yet “very little about how normal people flourish under benign conditions” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 5).
On the other hand, the new field (as it was then) of positive psychology “at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: wellbeing, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present)” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 5).
Another free PDF provides a helpful, educational Introduction to Positive Psychology for teachers and schools wishing to share insights regarding the value of the theory and practice with other staff and pupils.
Great Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources available for therapists providing support to clients and for students and academics wishing to improve their understanding of positive psychology.
A selection of several essential articles includes:
- In What Is Positive Psychology and Why Is It Important? we explore what positive psychology is and isn’t, clearing up common misconceptions along the way.
- In Positive Psychology in Education: Your Ultimate Guide, we explore how positive psychology can foster development and growth throughout the academic journey.
- The article How to Successfully Teach Positive Psychology in Groups offers practical guidance for creating an environment and a working approach for sharing positive psychology theory and practice with more than one person.
- 19 Top Positive Psychology Exercises for Clients or Students provides a range of techniques and tools for therapists and counselors to use in their practice, including vision boards, benefit finding, practicing forgiveness, and a strengths-based life story.
- 88+ Must-Read Positive Psychology Books is a continually growing and evolving collection of many essential books for positive psychology theory, practice, and development.
There are many positive psychology exercises and activities to choose from, including several free ones below:
- Gratitude Journal
Appreciation, recognition, and thankfulness are vital aspects of positive psychology. Gratitude journaling can have significant positive effects on psychological and physical wellbeing.
- Creating Realistic Optimism for Resilience
Positive emotions such as hope and optimism can lead to an upward spiral of other related feelings. However, it is essential to remain realistic to create a resilient mindset.
- Emotional Awareness
A better understanding of our own and others’ emotions can improve communication and foster substantial and authentic relationships.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
So, in summary, positive psychology is a modern, forward-thinking psychological approach that seeks to understand and promote the factors that contribute to human flourishing rather than solely focusing on treating mental illness. It is underpinned by research findings, mental health theories, and models designed to test our understanding and shape its application.
It was founded by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who believed that psychologists at the time lacked knowledge of or focus on what makes life worth living.
According to positive psychology, individuals must have positive emotions, engagement, relationships, fulfillment, and achievement in order to flourish.
Although it has faced criticism, positive psychology has proven its value in research and application and is now typically integrated into other psychological disciplines. For those reasons, it continues to receive considerable attention and a vast amount of research focus.
Undoubtedly, positive psychology warrants ongoing research to better understand what makes our lives worth living and how we can focus on a positive present and future while remaining realistic and taking essential lessons from the challenges we have overcome.
Teaching individuals and groups to flourish can protect them from mental illness while creating more fulfilling lives.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Vitality. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://dictionary.apa.org/vitality.
- Brown, N., Lomas, T., & Eiroa-Orosa, F. J. (2018). The Routledge international handbook of critical positive psychology. Routledge.
- Butler, J., & Kern, M. L. (2016). The PERMA-Profiler: A brief multidimensional measure of flourishing. International Journal of Well-being, 6(3), 1–48.
- Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to release your inner optimist and thrive. Oneworld.
- Hart, R. (2021). Positive psychology: The basics. Routledge.
- Kellerman, G. R., & Seligman, M. (2023). TomorrowMind: Thriving at work with resilience, creativity, and connection–now and in an uncertain future. Nicholas Brealey.
- Morgan, B., & Simmons, L. (2021). A ‘PERMA’ response to the pandemic: An online positive education programme to promote well-being in University Students. Frontiers in Education, 6.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
- Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey.
- Seligman, M. E. (2019). The hope circuit: A psychologist’s journey from helplessness to optimism. Nicholas Brealey.
- Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.
- Snyder, C. R. (2021). The Oxford handbook of positive psychology. Oxford University Press.