What Is Positive Psychology? A Starting Point

What is positive psychologyPositive psychology uses science to uncover, understand, and share what allows individuals and communities to thrive – or flourish (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019; Seligman, 2011).

In doing so, it attempts to answer several key questions, including: What is the good life? And, what makes life worth living?

Positive psychology does not suggest that we should dismiss the rest of psychology or that therapists should ignore the very real problems people face (Snyder, 2021).

Here, we bring together many of our most popular articles, exploring this exciting and rapidly developing area of research and its application to human wellbeing.

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.

What Is Positive Psychology? An Introduction

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Snyder, 2021, p. XXIII). While not rejecting the psychology that has gone before, it redresses a previous imbalance by focusing attention on our strengths as much as our weaknesses and fostering our most fulfilling lives while repairing the worst (Snyder, 2021).

Positive psychology is more than a one-sided focus on positive thinking and emotions; it uses science-led research to uncover “what makes individuals and communities flourish, rather than languish” (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 2).

In our article What Is Positive Psychology & Why Is It Important?, we learn more about what positive psychology is and is not. We also clear up some misunderstandings and introduce the tools and techniques that enhance clients’ wellbeing in therapy and outside, in education, the workplace, and beyond.

Positive Psychology vs Traditional Psychology

Positive psychology complements – rather than replaces – traditional psychology (sometimes referred to as the “disease model”), fostering wellbeing in individuals through identifying and cultivating virtues and strengths and creating a path toward meaningful and valued living (Seligman, 2011).

While traditional psychology is typically viewed as studying and treating “disease, weakness, and damage” – or what went wrong – positive psychology focuses on “strength and virtue” and “building on what is right” in our lives (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 5).

Martin Seligman & the History of Positive Psychology

martin seligmanThe article The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology begins with the epiphany brought on by his five-year-old daughter that led Martin Seligman (often referred to as the father of positive psychology) to promote positive psychology throughout his time as the American Psychological Association’s president.

It then continues by laying out the four waves of psychology that went before its introduction.

In Who Is Martin Seligman and What Does He Do?, we gain a deeper understanding of Seligman’s work on learned helplessness, character strengths, and virtues, along with the introduction of (perhaps) the definitive model of optimal human functioning and wellbeing: the PERMA model (Seligman, 2011; Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019).

In the decades since Seligman’s presidency, positive psychology has gained momentum, with a wealth of supporting research and therapeutic interventions taking the theory and practice further and becoming an established field of study in many high-profile academic institutions (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019).

Why Is Positive Psychology Important?

The benefits of positive psychology are many and varied. Most importantly, they are backed up by theory and research and have become an established part of many coaches’, counselors’, and therapists’ toolkits.

The importance and benefits of the approach have been recognized in research through the identification of many triggers and their consequences associated with flourishing and wellbeing, including the following (Snyder, 2021; Lomas et al., 2014).

  • Positive emotions are contagious in the workplace, boosting job performance and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.
  • Small, simple changes can have a huge impact on creating a fulfilling and meaningful life.
  • Focusing on happiness in the present should be accompanied by thinking about our past and future to create meaning.
  • Giving creates more meaning in life, but taking can increase happiness in the present. Therefore, by giving back to others while showing gratitude and accepting people’s kindness, it is possible to create a meaningful yet happy existence.
  • Positive emotions, such as happiness, are contagious. It is vital to recognize the impact we can have on others and their effect on us.

Positive psychology is vital and exciting because it studies and attempts to understand and promote optimal functioning by stimulating the factors that allow individuals and communities to flourish.

6 Examples of Positive Psychology in Practice

Importantly, positive psychology is not solely a focus on what makes life better. It is more than a prescription for happiness. It is facilitative, encouraging us to identify and use our strengths and virtues to overcome difficult times and create a more fulfilling life (Lomas et al., 2014).

In What Is Applied Positive Psychology?, we learn that the approach is successful for those seeking help and, equally, for those unaware it is needed. By adopting a theory that attends to what goes right in life, making it worthwhile and meaningful, therapists can work with clients to determine and steer them toward their goals.

Positive psychology is so powerful and far reaching that it is being theoretically explored and practically applied in a diverse range of fields of human endeavors, including:

  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Social work
  • Economics and politics
  • Management and leadership
  • Business organization

The wide-ranging practical application of positive psychology is evident when we consider that it “encompasses the entire field of psychology”; indeed, “links can be drawn to humanistic psychology, psychiatry, sociology, biology” and far beyond (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 13).

As we see below, and in our article sharing positive psychology examples, when applied directly or as part of other approaches, positive psychology can positively impact therapy and counseling, education, parenting, the workplace, and even specific communities, such as through building a positive community.

5 Key Concepts and Topics in Positive Psychology

Traditional Psychology vs Positive PsychologyFocusing clearly on psychological wellbeing, living a fulfilling and happy life, and performing optimally, positive psychology explores and attempts to pull together many important concepts (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019; Snyder, 2021).

We have included several topics below, along with articles written to better understand the key concepts in more detail.

Emotions

While we have an immense range of emotions, we often recognize very few (such as being happy, sad, and angry). Each feeling we experience has a strong and intimate connection with our cognition and behavior.

Becoming more aware of our emotions and the difference between positive and negative ones is extremely helpful to our wellbeing (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019), as explored in the following articles:

Character strengths and Values in Action

Knowing and using our character strengths and values can boost our positive emotions and engagement (Niemiec, 2018). In the following articles, we explore their importance to positive psychology and individual wellbeing.

Resilience

“Resilience is actually about managing emotions, not suppressing them” and finding a way forward during difficult times; crucially, it can be grown (Neenan, 2018, p. 9). As such, it is a key feature of positive psychology and learning to flourish (Seligman, 2011).

Motivation

Growth and psychological development are “supported and characterized by intrinsic motivation and active internalization and integration” (Ryan & Deci, 2018, p. 100). The following articles explore motivation and its importance to performance and, ultimately, wellness.

Goals

While reflection is crucial to wellness, so too is learning how “to form intentions and to direct oneself towards a certain path or goal” (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 158). The following articles introduce why goal setting is key and how it can be performed.

4 Theories, Principles, and Models Explained

In this section, we explore several of the models, theories, and principles that combine multiple elements of positive psychology and how they can be applied.

PERMA model

Perhaps the most pervasive model within positive psychology is Seligman’s (2011) own: the PERMA model (Csikszentmihalyi, 2016).

The articles Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology Theory and Seligman’s PERMA+ Model Explained: A Theory of Wellbeing provide the ideal introduction.

The five elements that make up the PERMA acronym form the foundation of a flourishing life and a helpful breakdown for working with clients. The following three intrinsic properties characterize each one:

  1. They contribute to wellbeing.
  2. They are pursued for their own sake.
  3. They can be measured and defined individually.

We include each one below along with additional links for more information:

  • Positive emotions
    Fostering our feel-good emotions helps build our skills and resources, improving relationships and creativity.

Check out Positive Mindset: How to Develop a Positive Mental Attitude.

  • Engagement
    When we experience flow, our concentration is heightened, causing us to ignore distractions and perform optimally.

Check out Flow at Work: How to Boost Engagement in the Workplace.

  • Relationships
    Forming relationships and connecting with others is a fundamental human need and helps ensure our health and happiness.

Check out What Is Social Wellbeing? 12+ Activities for Social Wellness.

  • Meaning
    “Meaning within life is essential to fulfilled individuals,” and searching for it may be more important than chasing happiness (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 98).

Check out 9 Powerful Existential Therapy Techniques for Your Sessions, 15 Ways to Find Your Purpose of Life & Realize Your Meaning, and What Is the Meaning of Life According to Positive Psychology?

  • Accomplishments
    Those who feel personally engaged and involved in achieving their goals typically experience better health. We must all become better at goal setting and goal achievement for a fulfilling life.

Check out The Science & Psychology of Goal Setting 101.

Hope theory

Hope (while difficult to define) is a powerful positive emotion that can benefit our lives and help us achieve our goals (Tomasulo, 2020).

In What Is Hope in Psychology? + 7 Exercises & Worksheets, you can find out more about the potential of hope to strengthen your resolve, bolster your resilience, and overcome the most challenging obstacles.

While an important theory and set of practical applications for positive psychology, it is a therapy in its own right and can be explored further in How to Perform Hope Therapy: 4 Best Techniques.

Flow theory

Those moments, however fleeting, when we feel totally immersed in an activity, oblivious to time or our environment, are described as flow by psychologists (Csikszentmihalyi, 2016).

What Is Flow in Psychology? explores this highly enjoyable state of being that has the potential to heighten our creativity, productivity, and happiness, even when performing the most mundane tasks.

In the article Flow Theory in Psychology, we further explore the theory of flow and assess its potential to impact our lives positively, as well as its role in work, education, and sports.

The Sailboat Metaphor

For those new to positive psychology or getting to grips with its terminology, it can be helpful to adopt a metaphor. In PositivePsychology.com’s Sailboat Metaphor, we learn how to create a common language for therapy sessions and interventions that requires little upfront knowledge yet can stimulate ongoing discussions and insights.

Is Positive Psychology Evidence-Based? 60+ Research Findings

The theory and practice of positive psychology are research led; each aspect of the approach is backed by “science that focuses on the development and facilitation of a flourishing environment and individuals” (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 2).

Over the last few decades, a great deal of research has confirmed the principles of positive psychology and the benefits that related interventions have on our wellbeing and moving toward more fulfilling lives (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019; Seligman, 2011; Snyder, 2021).

We have several articles that include further information on such research findings.

  • Our article on the benefits of positive psychology includes findings that suggest:
    • Money does not influence happiness as much as we may think (Aknin et al., 2009).
    • Gratitude is a big contributor to our happiness (Seligman et al., 2005).
    • Authenticity is more important to a sense of meaning than putting on a pretense of happiness (Baumeister et al., 2012).
    • Being generous to others with our time and money leads to greater happiness for the giver (Baumeister et al., 2012).
  • Positive psychology in the workplace is proving particularly valuable. Among 48 benefits identified by research, we find that training and interventions result in improvements in:
    • Job satisfaction (Spector, 1986; Miglianico et al., 2020; Hartmann et al., 2020)
    • Positive coping (Langford et al., 1997)
    • Self-worth (Langford et al., 1997)
    • Psychological wellbeing (Langford et al., 1997)
    • Commitment (Spector, 1986; Castka et al., 2001; Miglianico et al., 2020; Hartmann et al., 2020)
    • Information sharing (Castka et al., 2001)
    • Continuous learning (Castka et al., 2001)
    • Adaptivity (Miglianico et al., 2020; Hartmann et al., 2020)
  • Research findings (Csikszentmihalyi, 2016) from flow activities, social interactions, neuroscience, sports, and flow theory suggest that increased flow leads to:
    • Learning skills faster
    • Greater insight into the origins of consciousness
    • Improved workplace design
  • Research (Rath, 2017) into the strengths of the most influential leaders found that they typically:
    • Invest in their own and their employees’ strengths
    • Surround themselves with a good team
    • Understand and meet the needs of their followers
  • Our articles on workplace wellbeing and employee wellbeing also found that deploying elements of positive psychology in the workplace can reduce staff turnover (Attridge, 2008) while increasing:
    • Cardiovascular health (via increased work engagement; Bakker et al., 2014)
    • Job performance (work engagement; Bakker et al., 2014)
    • Productivity (happiness; Wright & Cropanzano, 2007)
    • Satisfaction (work engagement; Bakker et al., 2014)

Positive psychology is backed by science and shaped by research. The theory and interventions continue to be challenged and tested to ensure that it remains at the forefront of scientific research.

Positive Psychology in Therapy and Coaching

Positive psychology coachingWe have a vast knowledge base of therapy and coaching articles and downloads created by professional psychologists, mental health professionals, and counselors.

Here are two articles that provide useful positive psychology maps for counseling and therapy:

  1. Applied Positive Psychology Coaching: The Ultimate Guide
  2. Applied Positive Psychology in Therapy: Your Ultimate Guide

Other favorite topics include:

General skills

Learning communication, social, and parenting skills can support coping and build on our existing positive emotions, benefiting clients inside and outside treatment (Magyar-Moe, 2009).

Therapy

Positive psychology in therapy builds upon individuals’, couples’, and families’ strengths (Conoley & Conoley, 2009). The following articles embrace many of the principles of the positive psychology approach.

Coaching

Positive psychology offers a powerful stimulus to coaching sessions, encouraging clients to live their best lives (Driver, 2011).

3 positive psychology exercises

Download 3 Free Positive Psychology Exercises (PDF)

Enhance wellbeing with these free, science-based exercises that draw on the latest insights from positive psychology.

Applied Positive Psychology in the Workplace and Education

Positive psychology is less about prescribing behavior and more about facilitating a meaningful life (Lomas et al., 2014).

As such, positive psychology has the potential to be used in a wide variety of situations and with various clients beyond therapy, counseling, and coaching.

The following articles include applications in education, criminology, and at work.

For further examples, see the article What Is Applied Positive Psychology?

30+ Positive Psychology Techniques to Apply

The following articles offer a sample of the many techniques available that are inspired by or closely aligned to the principles of positive psychology.

Happy familyWe include a selection of some of our favorite articles containing powerful interventions to help you work with your clients.

28 Exercises and Activities for Individuals and Groups

Activities for individuals and groups that promote wellbeing and life fulfillment can occur inside and outside treatment sessions.

The following offer some valuable ideas for exercises and activities.

Helpful Worksheets, Workbooks, and Resources

The following articles include some of our most effective downloads for promoting positive psychology and implementing the tools and techniques that support wellness and working toward life fulfillment.

Assessment Tools: 24 Tests, Questions, and Questionnaires

Assessment toolsAssessments provide the opportunity to find out where clients need the most support and identify the progress made so far.

The following articles include key assessments, questions, and questionnaires that can be used alongside positive psychology coaching and therapy.

Positive Psychology Training: 20+ Bachelor’s Degrees and Master’s Programs

Becoming effective as a positive psychologist, coach, or therapist requires training and typically begins at college. The following sample of bachelor’s degrees and master’s programs are available at the time of writing but should be followed up by a thorough online search.

100+ Best Courses and Online Options

While not necessarily specific to positive psychology, the following course articles offer coaches and therapists valuable educational (online and in-person) opportunities to hone their skills.

Before signing up, it is worth considering their location (for example, onsite or remote), cost, and what certification and accreditations are needed for your future career and area.

270+ Fascinating Positive Psychology Books

Positive psychology booksMany books are available that discuss the theory and application of positive psychology.

We have included some of our favorites below, along with others outside the field that bring additional insights.

Books on all aspects of positive psychology

Coaching and therapy books

Books on other skills and areas of psychology

Common Criticisms of Positive Psychology

In our article defining positive psychology, we learn about people’s common misconceptions and some of the most common criticisms, including:

  • It is not possible to be perpetually happy.
  • The focus is too much on the individual.
  • There is a cultural and ethnocentric bias.
  • There is too much emphasis on self-report.

While positive psychology’s creation and ongoing development are driven by research (and typically well validated), it is vital to consider its challenges and what learning or new areas of scientific study they offer.

A Take-Home Message

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes individuals, couples, families, and communities flourish. It attempts to answer the difficult questions of what makes us happy and our existence meaningful.

Positive psychology is not simply a focus on what is good in our lives; it recognizes the troubles we face and the obstacles we overcome.

While aware of the psychological theories and ideas that have gone before, Seligman (2011) and others have created a series of models and approaches that direct research, coaching, and therapy toward helping us create fulfilling lives that focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses.

Research has already identified considerable successes in using positive psychology with diverse populations in various situations, including the workplace, education, and healthcare.

The potential of this relatively recent approach to understanding and improving the human condition is considerable. By following the links within the article, it is possible to explore in depth the vast body of research and literature on positive psychology and pick up many of the powerful techniques, skills, and tools for use in your own or your clients’ lives.

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

  • Aknin, L. B., Norton, M. I., & Dunn, E. W. (2009) From wealth to well-being? Money matters, but less than people think. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 523–527.
  • Attridge, M. (2008). A quiet crisis: The business case for managing employee mental health. Human Solutions.
  • Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Sanz-Vergel, A. I. (2014). Burnout and work engagement: The JD–R approach. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior1(1), 389–411.
  • Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J., & Garbinsky, E. N. (2012). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 505–516.
  • Boniwell, I., & Tunariu, A. D. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. Open University Press.
  • Castka, P., Bamber, C. J., Sharp, J. M., & Belohoubek, P. (2001). Factors affecting successful implementation of high performance teams. Team Performance Management: An International Journal7(7–8), 123–134.
  • Conoley, C. W., & Conoley, J. C. (2009). Positive psychology and family therapy: Creative techniques and practical tools for guiding change and enhancing growth. Wiley.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2016). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Springer.
  • Driver, M. (2011). Coaching positively: Lessons for coaches from positive psychology. Open University Press.
  • Hartmann, S., Weiss, M., Newman, A., & Hoegl, M. (2020). Resilience in the workplace: A multilevel review and synthesis. Applied Psychology69(3), 913–959.
  • Langford, C. P. H., Bowsher, J., Maloney, J. P., & Lillis, P. P. (1997). Social support: A conceptual analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing25(1), 95–100.
  • Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Ivtzan, I. (2014). Applied positive psychology: Integrated positive practice. Sage.
  • Magyar-Moe, J. L. (2009). Therapist’s guide to positive psychological interventions. Academic Press.
  • Miglianico, M., Dubreuil, P., Miquelon, P., Bakker, A. B., & Martin-Krumm, C. (2020). Strength use in the workplace: A literature review. Journal of Happiness Studies21(2), 737–764.
  • Neenan, M. (2018). Developing resilience: A cognitive-behavioural approach. Routledge.
  • Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe.
  • Rath, T. (2017). Strengths based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. Gallup Press.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
  • Seligman, M. E. (2011). Authentic happiness. Random House Australia.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, S. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.
  • Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. Aster.
  • Snyder, C. R. (2021). The Oxford handbook of positive psychology. Oxford University Press.
  • Spector, P. E. (1986). Perceived control by employees: A meta-analysis of studies concerning autonomy and participation at work. Human Relations39(11), 1005–1016.
  • Tomasulo, D. (2020). Learned hopefulness: The power of positivity to overcome depression. New Harbinger.
  • Wright, T. A., & Cropanzano, R. (2007). The happy/productive worker thesis revisited. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management26, 269–307.

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