What  is Positive Psychology?

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing and flourishing, that draws upon some important philosophical and spiritual concepts that traditional psychology has long neglected. It focuses on building your character strengths and virtues to cultivate happiness, flow, achievement, meaning, resilience, courage and optimism.

Throughout history philosophers, religious scholars and those in the healing arts have wanted to know what leads to greater happiness, a purpose in life and “the good life” or human flourishing, what the ancient Greeks referred to as eudaimonia. A big misunderstanding is that Positive Psychology is only concerned about “being happy” this is far from the whole picture. Today it is one of the fastest-growing divisions of modern psychology.

How Did Positive Psychology Come into Being?

The term “positive psychology” was first mentioned in 1954, by the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. He was interested in the concept of self-actualization and achieving the highest good “what one can be, one must be”. Today positive psychology is defined as "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life." Its aim is not to replace traditional diagnosis and treatment, but to provide a much-needed balance within the field of psychology.

The Founder of Positive Psychology 

In 1998 Dr. Martin Seligman, the newly elected President of the American Psychological Association (APA), highlighted that the field of psychology had become too focused on what is wrong with a person, having followed the traditional medical model of diagnosis and symptom-based treatments. Seligman stated the field had forgotten the root of the word of psychology, Psyche,  soul, genius or daimon. In short, the traditional approach had forgotten about the soul, and why we all strive to live a happy and flourishing life with meaning and purpose in the world.

Seligman recognized that psychological health and wellness is not simply the absence of mental or psychological illness. Working with fellow psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-Me-high) and Christopher Peterson, Seligman began to revive a long-forgotten concept in psychology, once described by the Greeks as Eudaimonology - or the study of the good soul. His efforts have helped the field of psychology return to its roots, by cultivating the character strengths, virtues, and values that lead to a happy and fulfilling life.

In his book Flourish Seligman expanded on the concepts of Positive Psychology by describing the 5 pillars of wellbeing with the acronym PERMA, which stands for Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. It is seen as the gold-standard for measuring well-being is flourishing.

“I believe psychotherapy and psychology is moving just from the relief of suffering to the building of PERMA,” Seligman  told the Evolution of Psychotherapy attendees during the keynote presentation of the 2020 Virtual Experience.  “The relief of suffering doesn’t guarantee well-being. The skills of PERMA are completely different from the skills of getting rid of depression, anxiety and anger. What we will be doing as educators, psychotherapists and teachers is teaching our clients and students more efficacy, more optimism. We’ll be teaching imagination.”  

TED TALK The new era of positive psychology | Martin Seligman

Additional Resources

  • Positive Psychology and Beyonce - Positive Psychology, PERMA Theory and Beyonce. (prayersandapples.com)
  • Positive psychology - History of Positive Psycholgy (en.wikipedia.org)
  • What is Positive Psychology & Why is It Important? - The 4 Waves of Psychology and founding fathers. (positivepsychology.com)
  • The 5 Founding Fathers and History of Positive Psychology - The founding fathers of Positive Psychology. (positivepsychology.com)
  • 15 Must-Watch TED Talks on Positive Psychology - If you're less of a reader and more of a watcher, we share 15 TED talks to learn more about what's happening in the field of positive psychology today. (positivepsychology.com)
  • Positive psychology in practice - Harvard Health - Positive psychology shifts the focus from traditional psychotherapy to emphasize their strengths. (health.harvard.edu)
  • History and Topics in the Field of Positive Psychology - Learn how positive psychology can help you live a happier,  healthier, more joyful life. (verywellmind.com)
  • Positive Psychology Center (ppc.sas.upenn.edu)