Last week, I began this series by focusing mainly on the tendency we sometimes see for conversations on well-being to be framed – usually unconsciously – in the context of ill-being. We can see this tendency when discussions concerned with well-being devote most or all of their content to the important task of reducing negatives, e.g., tackling depression, anxiety, and stress. But reducing negatives is not the same as increasing positives, and it is this point that has been one of the driving forces behind the positive psychology movement, one of the fastest growing areas in the broader discipline of psychology during this century.
In a 2008 blog post at the Psychology Today website, Christopher Peterson offered a definition of positive psychology that captured most of its key concerns: “Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology”.
Peterson went on to stress that positive psychology isn’t about ignoring negatives or the real problems people experience in their lives, and neither does it seek to somehow ‘replace’ the existing branches of psychology. Instead, researchers and practitioners in this area see it as one that complements and extends “the problem-focused psychology that has been dominant for many decades”.
Positive psychology as a dedicated field is still relatively new, but has been steadily attracting more interest and attention since it announced its ‘arrival’ in a special, dedicated issue of the academic journal American Psychologist in 2000.
An introductory article written in that issue by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sought to set out the relevant areas of interest, as well as presenting a rationale for why this work was necessary.
Addressing why mainstream psychology had evolved along the lines that it did, they pointed to the significance of the period during and immediately following World War II. By the time the dust had settled on that conflict, psychology had become almost exclusively concerned with the necessary work of healing, with other interests being set aside. They state that prior to WWII, psychology had three core missions: “curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent”, but that post-1945, the latter two objectives received little or no attention.
So, against that backdrop, for these researchers and others in the field, positive psychology is less a new departure and more an effort to restore the broader vision that psychology saw for itself prior to the 1940s, before a so-called ‘pathological paradigm’ came to dominate.
Used in this context, the phrase ‘pathological paradigm’ refers to the tendency to view illness and poor functioning as the only areas of interest for psychology. Whether formally stated or not, a key implication of this perspective, is that healthy functioning is not an area of interest. Essentially, this view has it that psychology needs to devote its time and efforts to fixing what is not working, as opposed to looking at what is working. From here, it is a very short distance to the idea that what is negative is somehow more real and substantial than what is positive. It is this perspective that helps to facilitate the assumptions that equate well-being with reducing negatives, as opposed to increasing positives.
Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi and others disagree strongly with this view. For them, psychology can and should devote time and research effort to “positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions”.
The core logic behind this position is that if we can study what is ‘going right’, then we can hope to develop insights that can be brought to the wider body of humanity, so as to “improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless”. Essentially, on this point, they are calling for an emphasis on the positive to help prevent illness, as opposed to only being concerned with people once they are experiencing illness, i.e., prioritising prevention as opposed to relying exclusively on treatment of mental health issues.
Among the specific well-being-related constructs that advocates of positive psychology feel were neglected by psychology over a period of decades are hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance. At the outset of the drive for positive psychology, among the key issues researchers wanted to address were what facilitates happiness, how optimism and hope impact on health, what is wisdom, and how are talent and creativity best nurtured. In the 15 years since that special issue of American Psychologist introduced positive psychology to a wider audience, the areas of interest have broadened, but issues such as those singled out here formed the bedrock upon which the movement was built.
It is these issues and others that we will draw attention to in the coming weeks.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.
Peterson blog post referred to in the text: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not
Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi academic article referred to in the text: http://www.bdp-gus.de/gus/positive-psychologie-aufruf-2000.pdf