Positive Psychology: Past, Present and Future

Positive Psychology essentially deals with human happiness. It’s  a movement that grew out of Martin Seligman’s 1998 presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Seligman, a world-renowned psychologist who was instrumental in the discovery of learned helplessness, suggested that psychology needed to shift its emphasis from the negative aspects of the human condition to areas associated with elements that increase wellbeing and encourage human flourishing.

This idea wasn’t particularly new, having been part of the agenda of the humanistic psychologists who combined psychology with existential thought and eastern mysticism in the 1960’s. Indeed, much of what Seligman was suggesting had already been loosely researched by Abraham Maslow (he of the hierarchy of needs) and his idea of self-actualisation.

What Seligman was proposing, however, was a more systematic and scientifically valid approach to the study of what makes life worth living. He defined Positive Psychology as:

The scientific study of positive human functioning on multiple levels.

These levels include:

  • biological
  • personal
  • relational
  • institutional
  • cultural
  • global

The remit of Positive Psychology is therefore vast. Indeed, different researchers often work on separate yet connected areas. These include Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement), Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Seligman’s and Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues.

Essentially, therefore, Positive Psychology is about happiness and what it takes to live the good life, how to find meaning, nurture positive emotions and living according to what holds the greatest value in life.

Certainly admirable, but certainly not without its critics.

Positive and negative emotions

Are positive emotions always good and are negative emotions always bad? Positive Psychology would say yes (the answer’s in the title). However, this isn’t necessarily the case, leading to a major problem with Positive Psychology (there are certainly other issues, including the reliability of the methods used to study these areas).

On the surface, one might assume that emotions including anxiety, jealousy and sadness might constitute the kind of emotions we would rather do without. And yet, anxiety is a vital survival tool – without it, our distant ancestors would have been sabre tooth tiger fodder. Moderate anxiety can also help with concentration and cognitive function. Sadness (in the everyday sense) can motivate us to change the things that have perhaps led to it. For example, feeling sad about the homeless or refugees fleeing from conflict can motivate us to help in some way, thus alleviating the low mood. Benign jealousy can drive us forward towards success because we might feel more deserving than those we believe to be successful without merit.

Reinhard Pekrun, a psychologist at the University of Munich who studies the role of emotions in learning, has suggested that we reconceptualise emotions in terms of activating and deactivating. This means that emotions such as boredom can lead to more positive outcomes within certain situations. Boredom, for example, might cause me to act, while Sandi Mann at the University of Central Lancashire, found that it can make people more creative.

Welcome to the second wave

Many psychologists of the positive persuasion have now started to address some of these concerns, with Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener in the United States and Tim Lomas in the UK leading what has become known as the Second Wave of Positive Psychology, with its blending of light and dark.

Lomas has taken this even further by suggesting that emotions are related to the language we have available to express them. His positive lexicography project attempts to identify words across cultures that describe emotional responses. For example, there is no suitable word in the English language that conveys the peculiar feeling that leads us to experience both sadness and happiness at the same time. We could use the word ambivalence but it’s a poor substitute. More appropriate might be the Greek word charmolypi (χαρμολύπη), a word that describes the intermingling between joy and sorrow. Or perhaps bēi xǐ jiāo jí (悲喜交集), the Chinese word for mixed feelings of grief and joy.

This approach would suggest a Sapir-Whorfian type view; that language determines (or at least influences) thought.

There is much discussion to be had here (one best left, perhaps, for another time) in that emotions are socially constructed entities that are reliant on both language and past experience – an argument proposed by emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book How Emotions are Made.

The subjective nature of happiness certainly makes it difficult to measure, despite people being able to fairly confidently gauge their own happiness on a sliding scale. People might attempt to make themselves happy by engaging in activities that create within them the subjective feelings of happiness (the so-called hedonic tradition). Or they might take a longer term view of happiness, equating it with personal success, nurturing positive relationships with others or becoming a better person (the eudaimonic tradition). The latter view would suggest that not everything that makes us happy contributes to our wellbeing (and can, in fact, be detrimental to it).

The future of Positive Psychology remains unclear, along with any long-term contribution the approach can realistically make to human wellbeing and flourishing. Nevertheless, its current trajectory is certainly less prone to the problems of its past.

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3 thoughts on “Positive Psychology: Past, Present and Future

  1. So interesting and well summarised! Great evaluations too. I always think since our mood is fallible to constant changes, perhaps when we look at test and retests of subjective ratings of happiness we will see significant differences – I wonder!
    For my dissertation I’m seeing if we can change free will beliefs and if this will increase happiness. The association between the two is another interesting topic. Especially since people with depression are less likely to believe in free will. Maybe therapies can therefore incorporate positive psychology to increase their belief in free will and in turn their happiness?? What do you think?

    Can’t wait to read more of your content!
    All the best – Alice


    1. Hi Alice,
      Thanks for commenting. I’m just wondering if you’ve read any of Brian Little’s stuff on free traits and personal projects? He suggests that our goals are part of a wider personal project and, although we are constrained by our personality, we can employ free traits when our projects require us to act in ways contrary to our personality type. There’s a pretty good Ted talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brian_little_who_are_you_really_the_puzzle_of_personality



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