Positive Psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups and institutions. (Gable & Haidt, 2005) It is the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues. Positive psychology revisits the person with an interest in finding out what works, what is right and what is improving. (Sheldon & king, 2001) Positive psychology focuses on wellbeing, happiness, flow, personal strengths, wisdom, creativity, imagination and characteristics of positive groups and institutions.
It is not only about individual’s happiness but focuses on happiness and flourishing at a group level as well. It studies how individuals and groups thrive and how increase in the level of wellbeing of one will have a positive effect on the other, leading to a win-win situation. 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. This level is about feeling good, rather than doing good or being a good person.
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.
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.
Importance of PP
Prior to the Second World War, psychology had three tasks, which were to: cure mental illness, improve normal lives and identify and nurture high talent.
Due to the aftermath of two world wars and the return of many psychologically impaired soldiers, research funding focused on its first agenda, with the other two nearly forgotten (Linley, 2009). 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. But no where the same effort has gone into understanding what makes life worth living , enjoyable and meaningful . With this realization, Seligman resolved to use his APA presidency to initiate a shift in psychology’s focus toward a more positive psychology. (seligman, 1999)
The message of the Positive Psychology movement is to remind our field that it has been deformed. Psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, and damage; it also is the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is wrong; it also is building what is right. Psychology is not just about illness or health; it is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play. And in this quest for what is best, Positive Psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, self-deception or hand-waving; instead it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents in all its complexity. – (Seligman, 2002b). Depression and mental illness are still important issues within our society and positive psychology researchers do not negate this. Indeed, statistics indicating the occurrence of depression were and are still worrying. Depression was ten times higher in 2009 than it was in 1960, with the mean age for depression today being 14.5 (compared to 29.5 in 1960). Furthermore, at any one time, about 2 per cent of the population is suffering from depression and 14 per cent of us will experience depression by the age of 35 (compared to 2 per cent in the 1950s) (Keyes and Michalec, 2009). The results of the Global Burden of Disease Study (1996) found depression to be among the top five illnesses contributing to disability in life adjusted years (the total number of years a person lives with disabilities). Indeed, mental disorder came only second to cardiovascular disease. Mental illness costs the USA over $40 billion per annum and this figure continues to rise (Keyes and Michelac, 2009). Staggering new statistics suggest that up to 50 per cent of us will experience some mental disorder in our lifetime. Furthermore, once we have experienced a mental disorder we are far more likely to experience another again in the future. The rise in documented occurrences may also be due to the reduced stigma involved in seeking help for depression in addition to public awareness of mental disorders. “ ”
There are evidence that positive psychology interventions can benefit people who are diagnosed as clinically depressed in addition to the normal population (Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009). Corey Keyes, a positive sociologist, has spent years looking at the relationship between mental health and mental illness. His work brought him to conclude that the two are not on the same continuum, and that they are two separate continuums. Thus, the absence of mental illness does not equate to the presence of mental health. As research has continually found that the absence of mental health is as damaging as the presence of mental illness, Keyes proposed two strategies for tackling mental disorder: (1) the promotion and maintenance of mental health; and (2) the prevention and treatment of mental illness (Keyes and Michalec, 2009).
Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) greatest contribution to philosophy is his work on morality, virtue and what it means to live a good life. As he questioned these topics, he concluded that the highest good for all humanity was indeed eudaimonia (or happiness). Utilitarianism, created by Jeremy Bentham and carried on by John Stuart Mill, is a philosophy that argued that the right act or policy from government is that which will cause “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”, also known as the “greatest happiness principle”, or the principle of utility. A brilliant scholar, William James is best known for his contribution to psychology through his widely read text, The Principles of Psychology (James, 1890). His chapter, “The Emotions”, is most relevant for positive psychology to acknowledge. He suggests there that emotions come after we have physically acted out.
Humanistic psychology emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is the psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person. Humanistic psychologists believe that: (1) individuals’ behaviour is primarily determined by their perception of the world around them and their personal meanings; (2) individuals are not solely the product of their environment or their genes; and (3) individuals are internally directed and motivated to fulfill their human potential. The main drive of humanistic psychology was to focus on mental health, specifically positive attributes such as happiness, contentment, ecstasy, kindness, caring, sharing and generosity. This perspective ultimately views life as a process, with all humans beholding an innate drive for growth and fulfillment of potentials. The humanists even went as far as to include spiritual proprieties of the self, the world and wellbeing;
The discipline of humanistic psychology never really took off stems from the fact that it never developed a respectable empirical basis. This lack of theoretical basis led to encouraging a narcissistic preoccupation with the self and self-improvement at the expense of societal welfare. (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Where is PP today?
After Seligman’s speech, researchers gathered in Akumal, Mexico, from 1999 to 2002, to discuss development of the new area of positive psychology. At the same time, researchers were holding national and international summits from Lincoln, Nebraska to Washington DC, which continued to thrive (Linley, 2009). There are currently hundreds of undergraduate classes in positive psychology across the world as well as two Masters programmes in applied positive psychology, the first founded in 2005 by Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, and the second founded in 2007 at the University of East London, UK. Italy, Portugal and Mexico are currently creating Masters courses in positive psychology in their own languages. At present, there are several conferences offered by the European Positive Psychology Network (Boniwell, 2009). The First World Congress of Positive Psychology was held on 18–21 June 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
Finally, a sign of the strength of the movement lies in the fact that positive psychology boasts its own academic, peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Positive Psychology, founded in 2006.
Positive Psychology at Glance
The aim of positive psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life. The field of positive psychology at the subjective level is about positive subjective experience: well-being and satisfaction (past); flow, joy, the sensual pleasures, and happiness (present); and constructive cognitions about the future—optimism, hope, and faith.
It was the theme of the 1998 American Psychological Association meeting in San Francisco. How can we prevent problems like depression or substance abuse or schizophrenia in young people who are genetically vulnerable or who live in worlds that nurture these problems? It was discovered that there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, the capacity for flow and insight, to name several. Much of the task of prevention in this new century will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to understand and learn how to foster these virtues in young people The skill is called disputing (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979), and its use is at the heart of “learned optimism.” If an external person, who is a rival for your job, accuses you falsely of failing at your job and not deserving your position, you will dispute him. You will marshal all the evidence that you do your job very well. You will grind the accusations into dust.
But if you accuse yourself falsely of not deserving your job, which is just the content of the automatic thoughts of pessimists, you will not dispute it. If it issues from inside, we tend to believe it. So in “learned optimism” training programs, we teach both children and adults to recognize their own catastrophic thinking and to become skilled disputers (Peterson, 2000; Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, & Gillham, 1995; Seligman, Schulman, DeRubeis, & Hollon, 1999). Research shown that learning optimism prevents depression and anxiety in children and adults, roughly halving their incidence over the next 2 years. Building a strength, i.e, optimism, and teaching people when to use it, rather than repairing damage, effectively prevents depression and anxiety.
Similarly, if we wish to prevent drug abuse in teenagers who grow up in a neighborhood that puts them at risk, the effective prevention is not remedial. Rather, it consists of identifying and amplifying the strengths that these teens already have. A teenager who is future-minded, who is interpersonally skilled, who derives flow from sports, is not at risk for substance abuse. If we wish to prevent schizophrenia in a young person at genetic risk, I would propose that the repairing of damage is not going to work. Rather, I suggest that a young person who learns effective interpersonal skills, who has a strong work ethic, and who has learned persistence under adversity is at lessened risk for schizophrenia.
This, then, is the general stance of positive psychology toward prevention. It claims that there is a set of buffers against psychopathology: the positive human traits. By identifying, amplifying, and concentrating on these strengths in people at risk, we will do effective prevention.
“Positive Therapy emphasises the need to understand the positive side of human experience as well as understanding and ameliorating psychopathology and distress”.