Part 2: Positive Psychology: History and Definitions, Benefits of Positive Psychology, History and Research, Theory and Concepts and Criticisms on the Movement in Perspective

Positive Psychology (modified content – section from Ackerman and Seph (2018))

History and Definitions:

Martin Seligman, often called the “father of positive psychology“, is a researcher with a broad range of experience in psychology.

He was born on August 12, 1942 in Albany, New York and used to be the director of the clinical training program of the University of Pennsylvania for 14 years.

His work mostly regards the topics of learned helplessness, positive psychology, depression, resilience, optimism and pessimism.

Today he is the Zellerbach family professor of psychology as well as the director of the positive psychology center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault.

The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.”
– Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, 1991.

Seligman’s research in the 1960s and 70s laid the foundation for the well known psychological theory of “learned helplessness.” This theory, which has been backed by decades of research, explains how humans and animals can learn to become helpless and feel they have no control over what happens to them.

Seligman connected this phenomenon with depression, noting that many people suffering from depression feel helpless as well.

His work on the subject provided inspiration, ideas and evidence to back up many treatments for depressive symptoms, as well as strategies for preventing depression.

While this is impressive enough on its own, Seligman knew that he had more to offer the psychology community and the world at large – in particular, more work on the positive, the uplifting and the inspiring.

After making a name for himself with learned helplessness, he turned his attention to other traits, characteristics and perspectives that could be learned.

He found what he was looking for in resilience and learned optimism, findings that became the groundwork for his widely administered resilience programs for children and members of the military, among others.

Seligman grew frustrated with psychology’s overly narrow focus on the negative; so much attention was paid to mental illness, abnormal psychology, trauma, suffering, and pain and relatively little attention was dedicated to happiness, well-being, exceptionalism, strengths and flourishing.

When he was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he jumped at the opportunity to alter the direction of the field from such an influential position.

He proposed a new subfield of psychology with a focus on what is life-giving rather than life-depleting.

The foundational paper of this new field, positive psychology, was published in 2000 by Seligman and the “founding father” of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Since 2000, Seligman’s call for a greater focus on the positive in life has been answered by thousands of researchers around the world, provoking tens of thousands of studies on positive phenomena and establishing a base for the application of positive principles to coaching, teaching, relationships, the workplace and every other life domain.

Benefits of Positive Psychology

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s endeavor was wildly successful, and the plethora of projects and papers on positive topics has provided an enormous repository of knowledge on how to encourage ourselves and those around us to live the best lives possible.

Studies and Research

Given the impact of shifting one’s perspective, positive psychology’s benefits spring from research that shows us how to harness this shift and maximize the potential for happiness in many of our everyday behaviours. For example, each of these findings gives us a concrete idea for improving our own quality of life.

It would be impossible to list all of the benefits of positive psychology, but the following is a comprehensive overview of some of the most impactful and influential outcomes of practicing positive psychology:

  • It teaches us the power of shifting one’s perspective. This is the focus of many techniques, exercises, and even entire programs based on positive psychology, because a relatively small change in one’s perspective can lead to astounding shifts in well-being and quality of life. Injecting a bit more optimism and gratitude into your life is a simple action that can give you a radically more positive outlook on life.

Of course, no respected positive psychologist would tell you to think about, act out, and focus on ONLY the positive in life – balance is important. Positive psychology was not established to replace traditional psychology, but to complement it with a positive bias that’s just as strong as psychology’s negative bias over the last several decades.

  • People overestimate the impact of money on their happiness by quite a lot. It does have some influence, but not nearly as much as we might think, so focusing less on attaining wealth will likely make you happier (Aknin, Norton and Dunn, 2009).
  • Spending money on experiences provides a bigger boost to happiness than spending money on material possessions (Howell and Hill, 2009).
  • Gratitude is a big contributor to happiness in life, suggesting that the more we cultivate gratitude, the happier we will be (Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005).
  • Oxytocin may provoke greater trust, empathy and morality in humans, meaning that giving hugs or other shows of physical affection may give you a big boost to your overall well-being (and the well-being of others) (Barraza and Zak, 2009).
  • Those who intentionally cultivate a positive mood to match the outward emotion they need to display (i.e., in emotional labour) benefit by more genuinely experiencing the positive mood. In other words, “putting on a happy face” won’t necessary make you feel happier, but putting in a little bit of effort likely will (Scott and Barnes, 2011).
  • Happiness is contagious; those with happy friends and significant others are more likely to be happy in the future (Fowler and Christakis, 2008).
  • People who perform acts of kindness towards others not only get a boost in well-being, they are also more accepted by their peers (Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl and Lyubomirsky, 2012).
  • Volunteering time, to a cause you believe in, improves your well-being and life satisfaction and may even reduce symptoms of depression (Jenkinson et al., 2013).
  • Spending money on other people results in greater happiness for the giver (Dunn, Aknin and Norton, 2008).Positive psychology also lends itself to improvements in the workplace; studies from the field have found that:
  • Positive emotions boost our job performance.
  • Positive emotions in the workplace are contagious, which means one positive person or team can have a ripple effect that extends through the entire organisation.
  • Small, simple actions can have a big impact on our happiness, meaning that it doesn’t take much to encourage your workplace to become a happier and more positive place (Kjerulf, 2016).
  • One of the most important benefits of practicing a positive psychological outlook is, success! Not only does success make us happier, feeling happy and experiencing positive emotions actually increases our chances of success (Lyubomirsky, King and Diener, 2005).

However, refusing to endure any intrusion of negative emotions or outlooks does not guarantee success.

An important finding from positive psychology research is that forcing people who are not naturally optimists to “just think positively” can do more harm than good; unrealistic optimism is detrimental, along with intense pessimism (del Valle and Mateos, 2008; Dillard, Midboe and Klein, 2009).

Another broad benefit of the positive psychology movement is a more well defined idea of what “the good life” is.

Renowned positive psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and colleagues took on the challenge of determining what makes a good life, and they found some interesting findings that you can apply to your own life (2013).

Their research showed that happiness and a sense of meaning in life do not necessarily go hand in hand, indicating that focusing on positive emotions alone will not bring the fulfilling and satisfying life you crave.

Some of their more specific findings included the following:

  • The satisfaction of one’s wants and needs boost happiness, but have virtually no impact on meaningfulness; this indicates that focusing on obtaining what you want will increase your happiness, but you may have to supplement to get a deeper sense of meaning.
  • Happiness is present-oriented, rooted in the moment, while meaningfulness is more focused on the past and future and how they link to the present; this finding suggests that you can focus on the present to increase your happiness, but you might consider thinking more about your past and future to find meaning.
  • “Givers” experience more meaning, while “takers” experience more happiness; if you find yourself lacking in meaning, try giving back to others, but if you are lacking in happiness, try being accepting of other’s generosity to give yourself a boost.
  • Worry, stress and anxiety are more likely to be felt by those whose lives are high in meaningfulness and low in happiness; this indicates that you shouldn’t get too down about experiencing negative emotions if you have a strong sense of meaning – a little negative emotion can actually be a good thing!
  • An intention to express your authentic self and a sense of strong personal identity is linked to meaning, but not to happiness; if you are searching for meaning, try working on your practice of authenticity.

Findings such as these have given rise to, and are driven by, a number of interesting theories that pepper the positive psychology literature.

Theory and Concepts

The most important thing to understand about positive psychology is that it is indeed science – it is a subfield of psychology, and although it is sometimes derided as a “soft science” or a “pseudoscience”, it is still based on the scientific method of evaluating theories based on the evidence.

As University of Michigan professor and positive psychology legend Christopher Peterson put it:

“…positive psychology is not to be confused with untested self-help, footless affirmation, or secular religion—no matter how good these may make us feel. Positive psychology is neither a recycled version of the power of positive thinking nor a sequel to The Secret.” (2008)

Peterson goes on to outline the theories and concepts that have resulted from research so far (up to 2008):

  • For the most part, most people are happy
  • Happiness is one of the causes of the good things in life, and also promotes more happiness
  • Most people are pretty resilient
  • Happiness, character strengths and good social relationships act as buffers against disappointments and setbacks
  • Crises reveal character
  • Other people matter (in terms of what makes life worth living)
  • Religion matters (and/or spirituality)
  • Work also matters in terms of making life worth living, as long as we are engaged and draw meaning and purpose from it
  • Money has diminishing returns on our happiness after a certain point, but we can buy some happiness by spending money on other people
  • Eudaimonia (well-being, deeper form of satisfaction than happiness) is more important than hedonism (sole focus on pleasure and positive emotions) for living the good life
  • The “heart” matters more than the “head,” meaning that things like empathy and compassion are just as important as critical thinking
  • Nearly all good days have three things in common: a sense of autonomy, competence and connection to others
  • The good life can be taught

Criticism on the Movement in Perspective

Although positive psychology has been embraced by much of the psychology community (not to mention much of society at large), there are some common critiques of the movement—many of which have some valid points.

At the 2015 World Conference of Positive Psychology, some of the biggest names in positive psychology discussed a few of these criticisms. Below, we’ll outline some of the major criticisms and an evaluation of their merit in today’s field.

  • Research findings are often invalid, overstated and misleading.

Like any other scientific field, mistakes are sometimes made. This often seems to be due to an excitement over the potential of findings in positive psychology; it can be hard to maintain objectivity when you feel a finding has both broad and deep applicability to the real world.

However, this is no excuse for a lack of scientific rigour. While there is a bit more leeway in crossing your “t”s and dotting your “i”s in applied research, positive psychologists must be careful to keep their claims within reason and think critically about the limitations of their methods—there is always a limitation!

Today, positive psychology has overcome some of the initial obstacles and growing pains inherent to a new field. More critical attention is being paid to the research, which gives us all more confidence in the findings.

  • There is too much emphasis on self-report and cross-sectional survey data.

This is certainly a valid point; much of the positive psychology literature is built on survey data. However, this emphasis on survey data is not exclusive to positive psychology, and positive psychology does not exclusively use surveys. Receiving feedback from those close to an individual is increasingly being utilised to corroborate or compare self report data to, which increases confidence in data.

Although positive psychology is not alone in this limitation, it is one that positive psychologists should continue to consider when planning, implementing and reviewing research.

  • Positive psychology has a cultural and ethnocentric bias.

It’s true that much of the research in positive psychology has been published by Western scholars, editors, reviewers and journals. It is also true that positive psychology generally embraces a white, middle class audience, in which injustice, poverty, and inequality are swept under the rug.

However, this bias seems to have been much over-hyped. Recently, more research from experts in non Western countries and from a diverse range of backgrounds is being conducted (and published). The recent establishment of the International Positive Psychology Association is one sign of this attempt at broadening the perspective of positive psychology.

  • The field is too individualistic.

Another valid point is that positive psychology focuses too much on the individual – on personal experiences, individual traits and characteristics, and intrapersonal processes and phenomena. Positive psychology does indeed seem to have an overly narrow focus on the individual and a lack of attention paid to relationships, teams, groups, organisations, and communities.

Some have argued that this focus on individuals leads positive psychology to victim blame (e.g., “If you can’t figure out how to be happy, it’s your fault”) and excuse those who are contributing to systemic issues (e.g. “It’s too hard to make corporations act ethically, so we’ll just help you make the best of it.”).

  • Positive psychology is just a promotion of a “Pollyanna” personality type, not an authentic exploration of the good life.

Of the major critiques of positive psychology, this may be one of those with the least merit. Although there is a good deal of research on “Pollyanna” types (happy, bubbly, cheerful, extroverted), that research is by no means representative of the entire field.

As cited earlier, there are studies on the dark side of happiness and optimism and the benefits of thinking pessimistically. There are also myriad studies on people from all across the spectrum of personality, from quiet and successful introverts to boisterous and struggling extroverts, and on the lack of fulfillment and meaning in the lives of some of the most “bubbly” individuals.

On the surface, it may seem that positive psychology is the study of the perpetually happy, but anything more than a cursory look will show you that the field is a rich exploration of all that which makes life good (and a bit of what makes it difficult as well).

Some of the criticisms of the field make excellent points. Rather than struggling against these points, we should be open to considering them, thinking critically about the health of our field, and coming up with solutions for any big problems. No field is immune from criticism, nor should it be; a healthy debate and a robust peer review process is what will keep positive psychology theory from lapsing into nothing more than an edict to “be positive” and positive psychology interventions from devolving into self-help material that is based on nothing but opinions and wishful thinking.

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