12 Myths & Misconceptions About Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology MythsPositive psychology is a fast-growing, emergent discipline within psychology.

Technically, positive psychology is still in its salad days, passing the 25-year mark since its inception only recently.

It can be thought of as an umbrella term encompassing broad themes and topics central to optimal human functioning and wellbeing.

Although the original proponents of positive psychology were determined to cement positive psychology as its own unique scientific discipline, it has been suggested that positive psychology has gathered into its bosom ideas from multiple disciplines over the years, including philosophy, the humanistic movement, social psychology, health psychology, and many more.

Given the meteoric rise in popularity that positive psychology has seen inside and outside of academia in its short life, naturally, myths about its aims and agenda have surfaced. This article seeks to dispel 12 commonly cited myths and misconceptions about positive psychology.

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Myth #1: Positive Psychology Is Only About Being Happy

In the first iteration of positive psychology (let’s call it positive psychology 1.0, circa 1998–2011), there was undoubtedly a focus on the positives and how individuals can elicit positive emotions such as happiness.

However, in the face of significant backlash, positive psychology evolved, and began to recognize and emphasize the importance of the “dark side” of life, such as negative emotions, challenging life experiences, and trauma.

This new and improved positive psychology (positive psychology 2.0) focused on the balance between positive and negative, and prominent researchers began promoting a more nuanced approach to studying wellbeing (Wong, 2011; Ivtzan et al., 2015).

More recently (as of 2021), positive psychology has hit its third wave (positive psychology 3.0), which has broadened the scope of research and practice even further beyond the individual to include relationships, groups, communities, organizations, and societies (Lomas et al., 2021).

The complexity of wellbeing is captured more thoroughly in this wave, where researchers now take into account the sociocultural background of individuals and the system and structures that they exist within (Lomas et al., 2021).

Myth busted!

Myth #2: Positive Psychology Is Not a Therapy

What is positive psychologyPositive psychology is not a therapy; rather, it is a field of scientific inquiry. However, therapists can draw upon numerous positive psychological principles to inform their therapeutic practice.

In fact, positive psychology itself is informed by the work of humanists and prominent psychiatrists and psychotherapists such as Carl Rogers and Viktor Frankl. As such, there exists a symbiotic relationship between positive psychology and therapeutic practices, where each field has informed and continues to inform the other.

More specifically, positive psychotherapy (PPT; Seligman et al., 2006) is a positive psychology intervention that aims to promote positive outcomes for both clinical and nonclinical populations and has gained significant traction in the past decade.

PPT can incorporate any number of central positive psychology topics into its treatment plan, for instance, strengths (Rashid, 2015). Evidence is mixed on the effectiveness of PPT, due largely in part to its relatively young age as a therapeutic practice and lack of evidence base to support it.

Myth partially busted!

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Myth #3: Positive Psychology Is the Same as Positive Thinking

Positive psychology is not the same as positive thinking.

Positive psychology is both a scientific discipline, where research is conducted, and an applied discipline, where practitioners use evidence-based interventions to help a variety of groups and individuals. The only relationship between positive psychology and positive thinking is that the former does include the topic of optimism as an area of scholarly interest.

Optimism can be understood as holding positive beliefs for one’s future (Scheier & Carver, 1993). If we expect good things to happen to us, this is likely to have a bearing on our behavior.

For example, individuals will persevere and work toward goals they believe are attainable and disengage from those they believe are unattainable. In this sense, thinking positively can have a monumental impact on our wellbeing.

But this is only one concept studied within positive psychology, and its remit extends to multiple other topics, including (and by no means limited to) positive emotions, relationships, flow and engagement, meaning in life, goals and motivation, hope and optimism, character strengths, and many more.

Myth busted!

Myth #4: Positive Psychology Is Not Scientific

GeneticsThis is categorically untrue.

Let us first consider what makes a field scientific. At its essence, science involves two key components:

  1. Systematic, methodical research of a topic or issue
  2. Stringent protocols of practice

Typically, the gold standard for rigorous research in the scientific community is the randomized control trial (RCT). In a similar vein, any scientific discipline that has an applied focus, such as psychiatry, will have a code of conduct or ethical framework to guide practitioners.

Now to circle back to positive psychology. Positive psychology is scientific because numerous researchers conduct high-quality, rigorous research (including RCTs) that is peer reviewed in scientific journals.

Moreover, there is an ethical framework for positive psychological practitioners (Jarden et al., 2021). As such, positive psychology meets the criteria to be considered scientific.

Myth busted!

Myth #5: Positive Psychology Is Just Self-Help

Positive psychology is not merely self-help. The key rebuttal to this claim is that positive psychology is a scientific discipline like any other discipline within the broader field of psychology.

Self-help, on the other hand, is not a discipline or scientific field of inquiry at all, and it is certainly not based on research or empirical evidence, while positive psychology is.

Given that positive psychology can also be studied at undergraduate and graduate levels (bachelor’s, master’s, and above), it is safe to say that it stands heads and shoulders above the self-help industry (and Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade eggs)!

Myth busted!

Myth #6: Positive Psychology Ignores Human Suffering

EmpathyThe initial positive psychology mandate outlined by Martin Seligman proposed the need to redress the balance within psychological inquiry.

Where once psychologists such as William James (1902) were interested in human potential, post-World War II psychologists had to swiftly shift focus to individuals who were suffering and needed pathological treatment (Seligman et al., 2004).

For decades, the emphasis on what is wrong with people persisted, until positive psychology burst onto the scene in 1998 and sought to focus on what is right with people.

In the following years, researchers focused diligently on the good qualities of humans and how to enhance wellbeing. However, those researchers came under scrutiny for not paying enough attention to the negative aspects of life, such as suffering.

In 2011, Paul Wong, a clinical and existential psychologist, wrote an article critiquing positive psychology for its lack of balance and focus on human suffering. Since this article, scholars have redressed this balance within positive psychology, focusing on the myriad ways in which suffering and trauma are integral to wellbeing, building resilience, meaning, and growth.

Myth busted!

Myth #7: Positive Psychology Therapy Is Not Suitable for People With Mental Challenges

Firstly, positive psychology is not a therapy per se; rather, it can be used to inform the practices of therapists, for example positive psychotherapy (Seligman et al., 2006).

Whether PPT is suitable for clinical populations is a little trickier to answer. Positive psychology in applied settings has been found to have a positive influence on stress reduction and depressive symptoms in the general population (Donaldson, 2011).

However, there are instances when positive psychology interventions have done more harm than good to people. For example, some individuals practicing mindfulness can experience distress (Baer et al., 2021).

When it comes to clinical populations specifically, the jury is still out. Generally, there is a lack of robust research on PPT. The evidence that exists is mixed. Some evidence has found that positive psychology interventions and PPT work well with clinical populations, including those with depression and psychosis (Schrank et al., 2014).

On the other hand, there is some evidence that positive psychology interventions and PPT are no more effective than treatment as usual for those with mental illness (Geerling et al., 2020; Hoppen & Morina, 2021).

As such, implementing a positive psychology intervention or using PPT requires a skilled practitioner who has considered whether the intervention is appropriate for a given target audience.

Myth partially busted!

Myth #8: Positive Psychology Is Narcissistic and Selfish

My Self-Compassion JournalIs it selfish to want a good life?
Is it selfish to want to help others?
Is it selfish to want to improve yourself?

I would argue not. Positive psychology offers individuals the opportunity to grow as humans, and when we are better versions of ourselves, we are better able to serve our families, friends, colleagues, communities, and the societies we exist within.

In this way, positive psychology is a clarion call toward human flourishing; it extends beyond the individual to imagine a world where we collectively function at our very best.

Myth busted!

Myth #9: Positive Psychology Uses a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

False. Increasingly, researchers and practitioners are taking personalized approaches to helping individuals and groups maximize their wellbeing.

This often takes the form of tailored positive psychology activities and exercises that positively impact an aspect of wellbeing.

For example, Pawelski (2020) created the elements model of positive psychology interventions, which allow interventions to be broken down into their constituent parts. These parts can then be mixed and matched to create highly tailored interventions for each individual.

Myth busted!

Myth #10: Positive Psychology Is a Quick Fix for Deep Issues

Positive psychology is not a quick fixThe purpose of applied positive psychology is ultimately to help individuals and groups create long-term, sustainable change.

Positive psychology seeks to empower people to create positive transformation on two fronts:

  • By providing them with the knowledge and tools to engage in positive psychology interventions unassisted
  • By providing experienced practitioners with the knowledge, tools, and skills of positive psychology to assist their clients

Individuals who choose to implement positive psychology practices into their daily lives, like mindfulness, will know that they are playing the long game.

Indeed, research shows that consistent application of mindfulness can elicit numerous benefits over sustained periods of time (Garland et al., 2017).

Furthermore, individuals who require therapeutic treatment to address trauma, for example, might find positive psychotherapy to be a useful intervention. However, this is also no quick fix; PPT typically involves 12–14 weekly sessions, each lasting an hour (Seligman et al., 2006).

Either way you cut it, positive psychology can help individuals grapple with trauma and suffering and offers long-term solutions to these issues.

Myth busted!

Myth #11: Positive Psychology Is New and Just a Fad

Positive psychology is relatively new compared to other scientific disciplines, such as social psychology, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century (Gergen & Gergen, 2012).

Martin Seligman made the first mention of positive psychology as a field during his inaugural presidential speech at the 106th Annual American Psychological Association Convention in 1998.

Yet many topics studied by positive psychology researchers have existed before. So in this sense, positive psychology is neither new nor a fad. Indeed, debates on human potential and the good life stem as far back as the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Myth busted!

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Myth #12: Positive Psychology Ignores Negative Emotions

Positive psychology does not ignore negative emotions. In fact, researchers recognize the complexity of the human experience and understand that you cannot capture wellbeing without giving space to emotions and experiences that are challenging or painful (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016).

For example, experiencing trauma can lead to growth, and experiencing sadness or anger can be beneficial and necessary in the right contexts.

Positive psychology therefore promotes contextualization when thinking about positive versus negative emotions because they each have their place and function.

Myth busted!

A Take-Home Message

It is tempting to listen to myths and rumors, especially when a topic becomes the new buzzword in popular culture.

This is no different for the topic of wellbeing, which is currently at the top of the agenda for many individuals, organizations, and societies.

While some of these myths about positive psychology may have once held a kernel of truth to them, positive psychology is a reflective field, such that it continues to grow and evolve in line with critical feedback.

Ultimately, this adds to the rigor of the field and boosts positive psychology’s reputation as a science worthy of its accolades.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

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  1. Ricky Edward Higby Jr

    We are always trying to help our students get the naysayers under their stead to see the relevance and effectiveness of PosiPsy and this article with its resources will be beneficial for that effort.

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