What are positive psychology scientists and practitioners committed to studying and promoting?

What are positive psychology scientists and practitioners committed to studying and promoting?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of human strengths and virtues. It involves an attempt to move toward a more balanced perspective on human functioning that considers motives, capacities, and human potentials. Counseling Psychology historically and presently continues to be one of the few disciplines that highlights the values of fostering human capacities, satisfaction, and well-being. In some form Counseling Psychology always has been a vital part of promoting good health and preventing disease, including mental, physical, and social disorders for individuals and communities. It is in the context that this Section was formed. The aim of the this group is to focus on how Counseling Psychology fosters and builds human strength and well-being and in pursuing this endeavor, furthers the development of positive psychological science and practice. This site includes information about positive psychology research, teaching, and practice as well as events, strengths based books, and resources.

Frequently Asked Questions about Positive Psychology

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the practical and scientific pursuit of optimal human functioning.

How is Counseling Psychology linked to positive psychology?

Counseling Psychology is a psychological specialty focused on facilitating personal and interpersonal functioning across the life span with an emphasis on emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental, and organizational issues. A hallmark of Counseling Psychology, since its inception, has been its emphasis on identifying and developing personal strengths and assets and helping the individual to make more effective use of them in their pursuit of optimum development. Counseling Psychology’s focus on the positive has been evident in the practice realm as well as in our scholarship. Counseling Psychology, and developmental psychology and humanistic psychology, have focused on optimal development for decades. The positive psychology movement has reaffirmed psychology’s commitment to the positive.

Why focus on strengths?

Studying and enhancing strengths and healthy processes may yield personal growth potential. By asking and answering new questions about how strengths aid in growth and recovery, we may provide greater benefits to our clients and the public.

How did positive psychology become a focus in mainstream psychology?

Martin Seligman organized an effort to develop a positive social science during his 1998 APA presidential term. His efforts were fruitful; hundreds of positive psychology scholars and thousands of practitioners have contributed to the development of a psychology that honors suffering and respects positive functioning.

Is positively psychology solely focused on the pursuit of happiness?

No. Positive psychology focuses on optimal human functioning, broadly defined. It is a not a new age happiology.

You have probably heard of the term ‘positive psychology’ on TV, radio or even in fashion magazines. But what is it really? What does it stand for?

The Definition of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is a science of positive aspects of human life, such as happinesswell-being and flourishing. It can be summarised in the words of its founder, Martin Seligman, as the

‘scientific study of optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive’.

Psychology has more often than not emphasised the shortcomings of individuals as compared with their potentials. This particular approach focuses on the potentials. It is not targeted at fixing problems, but is focused on researching things that make life worth living instead. In short, positive psychology is concerned not with how to transform, for example, -8 to -2 but with how to bring +2 to +8.

This orientation in psychology was established about ten years ago and it is a rapidly developing field. Its aspiration is to bring solid empirical research into areas such as well-being, flow, personal strengths, wisdom, creativity, psychological health and characteristics of positive groups and institutions. The map on the next page shows the topics of interest for positive psychologists. This map is not, by any means, exhaustive, but it provides a good overview of the field. 

What are positive psychology scientists and practitioners committed to studying and promoting?
Mind map of positive psychology

Three Levels of Positive Psychology

The science of positive psychology operates on three different levels – the subjective level, the individual level and the group level.

  1. The subjective level includes the study of positive experiences such as joy, well-being, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, optimism and flow. This level is about feeling good, rather than doing good or being a good person.
  2. At the next level, the aim is to identify the constituents of the ‘good life’ and the personal qualities that are necessary for being a ‘good person’, through studying human strengths and virtues, future-mindedness, capacity for love, courage, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, wisdom, interpersonal skills and giftedness.
  3. Finally, at the group or community level, the emphasis is on civic virtues, social responsibilities, nurturance, altruism, civility, tolerance, work ethics, positive institutions and other factors that contribute to the development of citizenship and communities.

Why is Positive Psychology Important?

According to positive psychologists, for most of its life mainstream psychology (sometimes also referred to as ‘psychology as usual’) has been concerned with the negative aspects of human life. There have been pockets of interest in topics such as creativity, optimism and wisdom, but these have not been united by any grand theory or a broad, overarching framework.

This rather negative state of affairs was not the original intention of the first psychologists, but came about through a historical accident.

Prior to the Second World War, psychology had three tasks, which were to:

  1. cure mental illness,
  2. improve normal lives and
  3. identify and nurture high talent

However, after the war the last two tasks somehow got lost, leaving the field to concentrate predominantly on the first one.

How did that happen? Given that psychology as a science depends heavily on the funding of governmental bodies, it is not hard to guess what happened to the resources after World War II. Understandably, facing a human crisis on such an enormous scale, all available resources were poured into learning about and the treatment of psychological illness and psychopathology.

This is how psychology as a field learnt to operate within a disease model. This model has proven very useful. Martin Seligman highlights the victories of the disease model, which are, for example, that 14 previously incurable mental illnesses (such as depression, personality disorder, or anxiety attacks) can now be successfully treated.

However, the costs of adopting this disease model included the negative view of psychologists as ‘victimologists’ and ‘pathologisers’, the failure to address the improvement of normal lives and the identification and nurturance of high talent.

Just to illustrate, if you were to say to your friends that you were going to see a psychologist, what is the most likely response that you would get? ‘What’s wrong with you?’. How likely are you to hear something along the lines of: ‘Great! Are you planning to concentrate on self-improvement?’.

Many psychologists admit that we have little knowledge of what makes life worth living or of how normal people flourish under usual, rather than extreme, conditions. In fact, we often have little more to say about the good life than self-help gurus. But shouldn’t we know better?

The Western world has long overgrown the rationale for an exclusively disease model of psychology. Perhaps now is the time to readdress the balance by using psychology resources to learn about normal and flourishing lives, rather than lives that are in need of help.

Perhaps now is the time to gather knowledge about strengths and talents, high achievement (in every sense of this word), the best ways and means of self-improvement, fulfilling work and relationships, and a great art of ordinary living carried out in every corner of the planet. This is the rationale behind the creation of positive psychology.

However, positive psychology is still nothing else but psychology, adopting the same scientific method. It simply studies different (and often far more interesting) topics and asks slightly different questions, such as ‘what works?’ rather than ‘what doesn’t?’ or ‘what is right with this person?’ rather than ‘what is wrong?’

What does positive psychology promote?

Positive psychology's main aim is to encourage people to discover and nurture their character strengths, rather than channeling their efforts into correcting shortcomings. Positive psychology highlights the need for one to shift their negative outlook to a more optimistic view in order to improve quality of life.

What are 3 major studies in positive psychology?

Three Levels of Positive Psychology The science of positive psychology operates on three different levels – the subjective level, the individual level and the group level. The subjective level includes the study of positive experiences such as joy, well-being, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, optimism and flow.