Positive Psychology and the Mental Hygiene Movement: Key Differences

Differences between Positive Psychology and The Mental Hygiene Movement

Becker & Marecek 2008 established many similarities between positive psychology and earlier social movements, offering slight criticism that positive psychology is not revolutionary.

What social psychology predecessors existed? The first that comes to mind is the mental hygiene movement which arose in the early 1900s.

While there are some similarities between the mental hygiene movement and positive psychology, their goals are different in terms of scope, goals, and reasoning. 


Defining the Mental Hygiene Movement

Before we can begin to compare positive psychology and the mental hygiene movement, we need to understand the mental hygiene movement 

The National Committee of Mental Hygiene (NCMH) was founded in 1909 as a response to the harsh conditions of mental asylums and the high prevalence of mental illness in the U.S. (Cohen, 1983).

The NCMH was founded with the purpose of understanding mental illness and publicizing the social and financial threat that mental illness posed on society.

Around the 1920s, the mental hygiene movement increased the scope of its goals to include the prevention of mental illness, and this is when the movement started gathering more interest in the community at large.

The main idea behind the mental hygiene movement was that personality type determined whether someone would become maladjusted and mentally ill, or remain a well-adjusted, productive member of society. In fact, mental hygienists believed that mental illness was primarily a personality disorder.

The ideas behind the mental hygiene movement were founded in the combined works of behaviorist John B. Watson, as well as the psychoanalytic teachings of Sigmund Freud.


The Mental Hygiene Movement and Personality Development in Schools

Proponents of mental hygiene believed that someone’s personality could be shaped and changed in order to avoid mental illness and make that person a productive member of society. 

It soon became clear to mental hygiene advocates that the best time to intervene and shape someone’s personality was during childhood and adolescence. Since children spend so much of their days in the classroom, mental hygienists realized that targeting schools would be crucial to their goals.

This led to what Cohen (1983) describes as the “medicalization” of education in the United States, where psychological teachings started informing every aspect of schooling. For example, Cohen (1983) claims that schools started becoming responsible for the personal development of children and not just their formal education.

The mental hygiene movement is responsible for schools working with parents to help raise children to be functional members of society, rather than just teaching them about various academic subjects.

Mental hygienists attempted to persuade teachers to change their attitudes and start seeing “problem behavior” in the way the hygienists did, “not [as] a sin, but a symptom.”

They believed that the way to influence children was by changing the attitudes of their teachers, rather than attempting to legislate reform into the schools. Hygienists believed that if teachers were on board, they could start changing their students’ personalities for the betterment of society.


The Mental Hygiene Movement’s Perspective on Mental Illness

The mental hygiene movement was a form of social control which aimed to shape people’s personalities. It is important to realize that in the temporal context of its development, it was a progressive movement which challenged previous beliefs of mental illness.  

For example, mental hygienists believed that if they could influence children (and adolescents) personalities early enough, they could avoid behavior that often led to juvenile delinquents that would get lost in the system.

While some may take offense at the mental hygiene’s movement pathologizing of certain behaviors in schools, it was better than the alternative at the time.

In fact, the mental hygiene movement rose as a competitor of sorts to the eugenics movement (Cohen, 1983). Where eugenics looked to rid the world of mental illness by attempting to control the propagation of certain genes, the mental hygiene movement believed that people could be “saved” from mental illness through preventative measures focused on childhood personality development.


The Similarities between Positive Psychology and Mental Hygiene

Positive psychology and mental hygiene seem similar because they both focus on people who are not mentally ill. This strays from  “traditional” psychology’s focus on mental illness diagnosis and treatment. 

Positive psychology and the mental hygiene movement recognize the importance of schooling and educations long-term effects on how children develop. Both movements also concern themselves with interventions that can help improve people’s lives. The proponents of the mental hygiene movement and positive psychologists both focus on helping the average person through social interventions.

There are some mental hygiene developments which clearly inform the positive psychology movement. For example, the British Medical Journal (1930) claimed that because of the mental hygiene movement, social workers became invaluable resources to psychologists.

Doctors also started to bring an awareness of the mental well-being of their patients into their practice—physical health was no longer the only health matter of importance.

Before mental hygiene, the British Medical Journal believed that mental health was only considered to be of interest if it was already apparent and prevention was not included in any medical protocols.

These developments are relevant to the success of positive psychology, as positive psychologists share many goals with social workers that they may not have shared with most psychologists in the early 20th century.

For example, turn-of-the-century psychologists would be focused on pathology and unique cases of mental functioning, as opposed to social workers, mental hygienists and positive psychologists who are interested in a preventative focus with the population at large.


Positive Psychology Versus the Mental Hygiene Movement

While the similarities between these two movements are clear, there are differences in scope, reasoning, and justification.

The main goal of the mental hygiene movement was to mold people’s personalities for the sake of avoiding the development of mental illness, whereas the main goal of positive psychology is to increase an individual’s overall level of well-being.

This is a crucial difference between the two schools of thought. The mental hygiene movement might consider the development of mental illness to be a failure in reaching their goals and someone who was already mentally ill would be considered beyond their scope.

Positive psychology is not strictly limited to prevention, but rather is interested in increasing the well-being of all people, including those with mental illness. Thus treating someone who is suffering from depression is well within the scope of positive psychologists.  

Positive psychology has a more inclusive focus than the mental hygiene movement and practices a more welcoming approach to those already suffering from mental illness.

Positive psychologists may also come off as less judgmental than mental hygienists, as their goal is not to pathologize and eradicate certain behaviors. Instead, positive psychologists simply hope to identify low levels of well-being and figure out ways to increase them.

Beyond the matter of scope, there is also the difference between these movement’s reasoning. For example, the mental hygiene movement was most interested in ensuring people avoid mental illness for the sake of becoming functioning members of society. Some members of the mental hygiene movement even had visions of striving for utopia, as “many hygienists envisioned a society free of all problems” (Cohen, 1983).

This shows that the mental hygiene movement’s main goal was the avoidance of mental illness for the sake of society.

The end goal of positive psychology, however, is to increase individual well-being for their own sake. Positive psychologists aim to increase people’s well-being so that people can live better lives, not as an ends to a mean for society at large. 

While increasing an individual’s well-being can indirectly lead to a better society, positive psychology put more importance on the individual. 


A Take-Home Message

Mental hygienists and positive psychologists would both agree that the field of psychology should not focus solely on the diagnosis and treatment of the mentally ill.

The mental hygiene movement, however, does not include any people with mental illness since the main goal is the prevention of mental illness through personality development. The positive psychology movement, on the other hand, can benefit those with mental illness as it incorporates a preventative as well as a treatment approach.

Together, mental hygiene and positive psychology help drive a wider scope of understanding to mental illness as a preventable and multidisciplinary area of focus.

Do you agree about the main differences presented here? We would love to hear your thoughts in our comments section below. 


Becker, D., Marecek, J. (2008). Positive Psychology: History In The Remaking?. Theory and Psychology, 18(5), 591-604. doi:10.1177/0959354308093397

Cohen, S. (1983). The Mental Hygiene Movement, the Development of Personality and the School: The Medicalization of American Education. History of Education Quarterly, 23(2), 123-149. doi:10.2307/368156

Mental Hygiene. (1930). The British Medical Journal, 2(3632), 255-256.

White, W. (1930). The Origin, Growth and Significance of the Mental Hygiene Movement. Science, 72(1856), 77-81.

About the Author

Joaquín Selva is a writer who was first introduced to psychology through behavioral neuroscience research. This research experience was focused on addiction with the hopes of ultimately helping people change their habits. Joaquín was born in Nicaragua, now lives in the United States, and believes positive psychology teachings can improve people’s lives in both countries.

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