Positive Psychology: Making the most of our lives

November 21, 2004

Elaine Cook


Psychology is an evolving field with competing schools of thought which even define the legitimate focus of psychology differently. One of the most newly named movements in psychology is Positive Psychology, founded in 1998 by Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Ray Fowler (Seligman, 2002, p. 265). Seligman's inspiration came from his daughter, who helped him see that "Raising children... was far more than just fixing what was wrong with them. It was about identifying and amplifying their strengths and virtues, and helping them find the niche where they can live these positive traits to the fullest" (p. 28). He wondered whether there could be a "psychological science that is about the best things in life" (p. 29). This led him to start the new movement, Positive Psychology, based on research that he and others had been doing.

This paper will give an overview of what positive psychology is, followed by a description of some key elements. It will place positive psychology in the context of the movements it is contradicting as well the movements that it draws on. It will then consider it in relationship to the current Zeitgeist (spirit of the times), and finally discuss it as a possibly enduring school of thought (as described by Schultz and Schultz, 2004).

What is Positive Psychology?

Seligman observes that "Before World War II, psychology had three distinct missions. The first was to cure mental illness. The second was to make everyone's lives happier and more productive and fulfilling... The third was to identify and nurture high talent and genius" (Seligman, 2003, p. xiv). He informs us that after the war, two of the missions were forgotten. Positive psychology is intended to bring attention back to the pursuit of happiness and the nurturing of genius and talent. Seligman believes that "The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the 'good life'" (Seligman, 2002, p. xi). He lists four long term aims of positive psychology:

    1. "Fostering better prevention by buffering"
    2. "Supplementing the available techniques for therapy by training practitioners to identify and build strengths explicitly and systematically"
    3. Curtailing "the promiscuous victimology that pervades the social sciences"
    4. "Moving psychology from the egocentric to the philanthropic"

(Seligman, 2003, p. xviii).

What do positive psychologists study? This can be answered by looking at the articles in Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, edited by Corey L. M. Keyes and Jonathan Haidt (Keyes and Haidt, 2003). Most of the chapters in this book are derived from presentations at the First Summit of Positive Psychology, held in 1999. The topics covered include:

    • Flourishing and resilience (Ryff and Singer, 2003)
    • Turning points as opportunities for growth (Wethington, 2003)
    • Optimism (Peterson and Chang, 2003)
    • Meaning, personal goals, virtue (Emmons, 2003; Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2003)
    • Relationships (Reis and Gable, 2003)
    • Creativity and Genius (Cassandro and Simonton, 2003)
    • Altruism (Piliavin, 2003)
    • Elevation (positive feelings elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty) (Haidt, 2003)

Some Key Elements of Positive Psychology

Determining how to help people flourish is one key element of positive psychology. Paul Pearsall states, "Thriving [or flourishing] is defined as reconstructing life's meaning in response to life's most destructive occurrences. It is not only rising to the occasion but being raised by it... Thriving is experiencing a renewal of faith, energy, trust, hope and connection just when doubt, cynicism, fear, fatigue, and alienation seem at their worst" (Pearsall, 2003, p. xv). Positive psychology is also intended to "help us savor living rather than just survive in a stressful world" (p. ix). Positive psychology is about helping us live fully and joyfully, growing from life's challenges, whatever our circumstances. It studies ways to accomplish this.

Flow is a key concept in positive psychology. This is the experience that makes an activity gratifying. Csikszentmihalyi says, "The metaphor of 'flow' is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 29). It's sometimes called "being in the zone," "ecstasy," or "aesthetic rapture." He describes the conditions where it tends to occur: there are goals that require appropriate responses; there is immediate feedback; there is a challenge where one's skills match the level of skill required (pp. 29-30). He notes that a person in flow is completely focused, without distracting thoughts. One's sense of time is distorted. The activity is done for its own sake (pp. 31-32). He explains that "It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on our inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand," something which could be fatal to, for example, a rock climber (p. 32). It's later, in remembering the activity, that we feel happy about it.

In preparation for creating a classification of positive traits (a positive version of the DSM), a number of people read through some two hundred philosophical and religious texts looking for virtues that were common to all of them. They found six: wisdom and knowledge; courage; love and humanity; justice; temperance; spirituality and transcendence (Seligman, 2002, pp. 132-133). These were expanded to strengths: virtues which can be measured. Strengths are traits, not just one time actions. They are valued in their own right, and are something parents wish for their newborn. Others are inspired when they see virtuous action. The culture supports them with stories, rituals, parables, role models. They are ubiquitous, valued in almost all cultures (pp. 137-139). Signature strengths are another key concept of positive psychology. Seligman believes "that each person possesses several signature strengths. These are strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and [if he or she can] exercises every day in work, love, play, and parenting" (p. 160). His idea of the good life is "Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness" (p. 161). The meaningful life is "using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are" (p. 263). Seligman includes the "notion of good character as a core assumption of Positive Psychology" (p. 125).

Another important idea in positive psychology is that altruism is good for us. Seligman comments on a study that linked happiness with altruism. He was surprised, because he thought that unhappy people would identify with the suffering of others and be more altruistic. But "findings on mood and helping others without exception revealed that happy people were more likely to demonstrate that trait [altruism]" (Seligman, 2002, p. 43). Does that mean altruism helps people be happy? Seligman gives anecdotal evidence of the causal connection between altruism and becoming happier (e.g. pp. 8-9). Piliavin discusses studies which look at the effects of helping others. Further studies are definitely needed, but she concludes that, "on many levels - psychologically, socially, and even physically - one indeed does 'do well by doing good'" (Piliavin, 2003, p. 243). Perhaps not surprisingly, one study suggested that "the most positive effects come when the volunteer feels some autonomy and choice" (p. 242).

Choice and experiencing a sense of control over one's feelings is important. Csikszentmihalyi comments that "People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 2). He suggests that "To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment" so they no longer respond automatically to its rewards and punishments (p. 16). We need to choose our own goals and provide our own rewards. He proposes that "The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment" (p. 19). This is what happens in flow, where we are engaging in an activity because we enjoy it and it absorbs our attention. Within flow, we have a sense of control, even when engaged in very risky activities such as rock climbing. Csikszentmihalyi observes that "what people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations" (p. 61).

An important way in which we have some control over our happiness is in our style of explanation. Seligman considers two dimensions of our explanatory style to be crucial: permanence and pervasiveness (Seligman, 2002, p. 88). Permanence relates to whether you believe the cause of an event to be enduring or ephemeral. For example, "The boss is a bastard" (permanent) vs. "The boss is in a bad mood today" (temporary) (p. 88). Pervasiveness has to do with an explanation which is universal vs. specific (p. 90). For example, "I can never find my way" (universal) vs. "I forgot to get the instructions this time" (specific). We can view the causes and duration of good events and bad events differently. In fact, an optimist (who tends to be happier) tends to view bad events as temporary and specific, but good events as permanent and universal, whereas a pessimist views them the other way around (pp. 88-91). Given this, it is not surprising that the positive psychologists don't tend to talk about locus of control, since they are essentially saying that the optimist has an internal locus of control for positive events, but an external locus of control for negative events, with the reverse for the pessimist. Seligman links pessimism and depression: "Depression is pessimism writ large" (Seligman, 1998, p. 54). He describes a longitudinal study which shows that "both explanatory style and bad life events are significant risk factors for depression" (p. 143). Seligman explains that for many jobs, an optimistic explanatory style leads to greater success. However, there are some jobs that "need people who know when not to charge ahead, and when to err on the side of caution. Mild pessimists do well in these fields (pp. 256-257).

Competing and Contributing Movements in Psychology

While positive psychology was named only a few years ago, the research leading up to it has been going on for much longer. It builds on some approaches to psychology (such as humanistic psychology and existentialism) and contradicts other approaches (such as behaviorism and psychoanalytic approaches).

Seligman's challenge to behaviorism began in the mid-sixties while he was in graduate school, at a time when behaviorism dominated psychology in universities. He started working in a lab where they were doing experiments with shocks on dogs. However, some of the dogs were not "cooperating" - as Seligman observed, they seemed to have given up (Seligman, 1998, pp. 19-20). However, this concept did not match behaviorist theory. As Seligman explains,

The behaviorists insisted that all of a person's behavior was determined only by his lifelong history of rewards and punishments. Actions that had been rewarded... were likely to be repeated, and actions that had been punished were likely to be suppressed. And that was it. Consciousness... has no effect on actions... it just reflects what's happening. The human being, said the behaviorists, is entirely shaped by his external environment - by rewards and punishments - rather than by his internal thoughts (p. 24).

Therefore Seligman's explanation that the dogs had learned helplessness did not make sense in the behaviorist world view. Seligman and some colleagues proceeded to do some experiments to show that "mental events are causal" (p. 25). He later showed that it is easier to condition people to fear certain types of objects, such as snakes, insects, dogs, and tunnels, than less threatening objects such as a screwdriver (Schultz and Schultz, 2004, p. 501), thus showing it was not simply the noxious stimulus that caused the fear. This clearly opens the door to the study of cognition, which had been closed under the behaviorists.

While Seligman refers to the group challenging the behaviorists as "cognitivists" (Seligman, 1998, p. 27), his areas of study have not been the same as those of the cognitive psychologists, as explained in Schultz and Schultz (2004). They explain that "cognitive psychology is concerned with sensation, perception, imaging, memory, problem solving, thinking, and related mental activities" (p. 487). In contrast, Seligman says that "I have spend my entire professional life working on helplessness and ways to enlarge personal control" (Seligman, 1998, p. v). More recently, he focuses on meaning and purpose. He writes that

Positive psychology takes seriously the bright hope that if you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfillment: meaning and purpose (Seligman, 2002, p. xiv).

This is not incompatible with what cognitive psychology is studying. However, it is incompatible with the computer metaphor of the cognitive psychologists. Schultz and Schultz state that "computer programming has been proposed as the basis for the cognitive view of human information processing, reasoning, and problem solving. It is the program (the software)... that serves as the explanation for mental operations" (Schultz and Schulz, 2004, p. 488). However, computers and computer programs do not have intentions and self-awareness, nor do they create their own meaning and purpose. It is clear that while Seligman draws heavily on cognitive therapy to combat depression (Seligman, 1998, p. 89), cognitive therapy is not the same as cognitive psychology, and Seligman is not in the latter school of thought.

The positive psychologists dispute psychoanalysis and its ideas that we are bound by our past, that in seeking pleasure we are merely trying to avoid pain, and that even our positive actions are somehow compensating for our past. Pearsall notes that "Psychology has long assumed that something about us went wrong and that we have fallen and are constantly struggling to get up. It thinks that some innate weakness and evil narcissism still lurks just beneath the surface. It still embraces Sigmund Freud's ideas that we are governed by a selfish id barely controlled by a fragile ego" (Pearall, 2003, p. xxxviii). Furthermore, "Pathogenic psychology assumes the worst about us, seeing us as basically selfish beings driven by animistic impulses pulsating just beneath a thin veneer of social politeness" (p. xxxix). However, thrivers "reject the helpless victim orientation that has become so accepted in the pathogenic view" (p. 29). He points to Freud as "the first person who wrote about the 'pathology' view of the pleasure principle and to see the pursuit of pleasure as essentially a way of avoiding pain" (p. 173). However, positive psychologists are "suggesting that pleasure and happiness are much more than just the absence of pain" (p. 172).

Csikszentmihalyi comments on the "Icarus complex," used by some savants to give a negative explanation of why some people try to climb the highest mountains or fly high above the earth. Surely, he says, "it is more worthwhile to consider acts that bring enjoyment as signs of health, not of disease" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 97).

The positive psychologists dispute the idea that thinking a lot about why we've made mistakes is a good idea, or that we're controlled by our past. Seligman comments that, "For Sigmund Freud and his legion of followers, every psychological event in our lives... is strictly determined by forces from our past" (Seligman, 2002, p. 66). However, "It has turned out to be difficult to find even small effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no evidence at all of large - to say nothing of determining - effects" (p. 67). He believes that the concept of "emotional hydraulics" "perpetrated" by Freud "imprisons people in an embittered past" (p. 68). According to this theory, "Emotions are seen as forces inside a system closed by an impermeable membrane, like a balloon. If you do not allow yourself to express an emotion, it will squeeze its way out at some other point, usually as an undesirable symptom" (p. 68). However, studies show that ventilation of feelings causes problems rather than helping (p. 69). Similarly, Csikszentmihalyi notes that "the habit of rumination that our narcissistic society encourages actually might make things worse" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 136).

Now that we have looked at theories that positive psychology rejects, let us also look at its sources of inspiration and similar theories. Pearsall sees Buddha's Four Noble Truths as "precursors for the new positive psychology. Buddha could be considered the father of this evolving new science" (Pearsall, 2003, p. 58). He paraphrases the Truths as follows:

    • "Everyone suffers"
    • "We create much of our own suffering"
    • "We have a choice not to contribute to our suffering"
    • "There are ways we can go about changing how we think, perceive and feel"

(p. 58). Positive psychology might reframe this to say that we can find ways to live our lives optimally, whatever our particular circumstances.

Seligman acknowledges the similarity between positive psychology and the theories of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. "Humanistic Psychology stressed many of the same premises as Positive Psychology does: will, responsibility, hope, and positive emotion. Unfortunately, it never penetrated mainstream psychology, even though Maslow had been president of the American Psychological Association" (Seligman, 2002, p. 275). Csikszentmihalyi, in discussing flow or optimal experience, says,

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate... We feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory of what life should be like... The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 3).

This sounds very similar to Maslow's concept of self-actualization, defined by Crain as "the actualization of one's potentials, capacities, and talents" (Crain, 2000, p. 365). Cassandro and Simonton comment that "Creativity and genius has been linked to optimal functioning and health by numerous researchers and theoreticians... The best example of this tradition can be found in the humanistic psychology movement, led by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers" (Cassandro and Simonton, 2003, p. 164). Keyes and Haidt state that "Maslow and others created humanistic psychology, clearly a forerunner of positive psychology in its goals and concerns, and people flocked to its call" (Keyes and Haidt, 2003, p. 5). Csikszentmihalyi notes, however, that one limitation of humanistic psychology is its belief "that the only evil came from not fulfilling one's potential. The problem is that people also learn to love things that are destructive to themselves and to others" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 139).

Seligman very explicitly draws on the cognitive therapy of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis to combat depression (Seligman, 1998, p. 89). He also uses their ABC method of disputing negative thoughts to increase optimism and hope (Seligman, 2002, p. 93). However, he does not always agree with them. He states that "Aaron T. Beck, the leading theorist of cognitive therapy, claimed that emotion is always generated by cognition, not the other way around" (p. 64). He disputes this: "These two opposite views have never been reconciled. The imperialistic Freudian view claims that emotion always drives thought, while the imperialistic cognitive view claims that thought always drives emotion. The evidence, however, is that each drives the other at times" (p. 65).

Positive psychology shares many of the concerns of existentialism. Corey informs us that existentialism "rejects the deterministic view of human nature espoused by orthodox psychoanalysis and radical behaviorism" (Corey, 2001, p. 143). It emphasizes "our freedom to choose what to make of our circumstances" (p. 143). Existential therapy is concerned about helping people get out of a victimlike stance and find a way to create a meaningful life (Corey, 2000, p. 247). As we have seen, these are also concerns of positive psychology.

Positive Psychology and the Current Zeitgeist

Schultz and Schultz point out that science is responsive to the Zeitgeist, the intellectual climate of its time (Schultz and Schultz, 2004, p. 20). What is the current Zeitgeist that will influence the success or failure of positive psychology as a school of thought?

Schultz and Schultz discuss the return to consciousness as a legitimate field of study which allowed the rise of cognitive psychology (Schultz and Schultz, 2004, pp. 481-482), and the change in physics which "discarded the requirement of total objectivity and the complete separation of external world from observer" (p. 483). These changes also support positive psychology.

Current research shows that the mind shapes the brain and body as well as vice versa. This is noted in an article by Marian Sandmaier about neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, who spoke to the Psychotherapy Networker Conference in 2003 on the "exploding field of 'interpersonal neurobiology,' which demonstrates how the human brain actually grows and changes in response to interactions with others" (Sandmaier, 2003, p. 11). In another example, Seligman explains the mechanism whereby loss can lead to depression which can lead to illness because of suppression of the immune system (Seligman, 1998, 176-177; 182). The theme for the September/October, 2004 issue of the Psychotherapy Networker is "Getting Comfortable with the Brain: How to apply the latest neuroscience in your practice." Recognition that the mind has a physical effect on the brain may counteract the tendency to try to resolve the problems we can see using new technology such as PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and CT (Computerized Tomography) scans purely through drugs, and increase the interest in psychotherapeutic techniques. I expect that there will be experiments to see the differences in the state of the brain when someone is in flow compared to someone who is not, as well as to see whether there are differences in the brains of those with optimistic vs. pessimistic explanatory style, and whether the brain changes as someone learns a more optimistic style. These types of experiments will have an effect on the perceived legitimacy of positive psychology.

There is currently an interest in spirituality in this country, as evidenced by articles in the Family Therapy Networker/Psychotherapy Networker (Anderson, 2004; Butler, 1992; Flemons, 2004; Hart, 2004; Murphy, 1992; Ventura, 2003). This interest takes different forms, from an upsurge in fundamentalist Christianity to a growth in paganism, Islam, Buddhism, and less conventional forms of Christianity and Judaism. Meditation is being used in psychotherapy as well as in religious practice. Positive psychology, with its interest in positive institutions, and its emphasis on creating meaning in our lives, seems very much in tune with this aspect of the Zeitgeist.

One of the bumper sticker philosophies that catches the imagination of some people who are not too cynical or jaded is "Practice random acts of kindness." This fits very well with positive psychology. Seligman mentions he had a class do one enjoyable activity and one philanthropic activity, and write about the difference in how they felt afterwards. He says, "The results were life-changing" - the positive effects of the philanthropic activities were much longer lasting (Seligman, 2003, p. xviii).

At this point in the history of the United States, there has been an upsurge in the number of people following fundamentalist Christianity, and also incomprehension amongst those more concerned about civil liberties about why this is happening. Positive psychology may provide an answer. Seligman discusses what he calls the "maximal self" (Seligman, 1998, p. 284). We are currently overwhelmed by an overabundance of choices and much greater expectations. At the same time as this "waxing of the self" (p. 282), there has been a "waning of the commons" (p. 284), a shift in commitment from the public good to private goods that followed "assassinations, the Vietnam War and Watergate" (p. 284). He comments that "the erosion of belief in the nation coincided with a breakdown of the family and a decline in belief in God" (p. 285). This leaves us without our "spiritual furniture," facing meaninglessness. One response to this may be a yearning for fundamentalist religion (p. 287). Positive psychology may provide an answer, both by explaining why people are turning to fundamentalist religions (to create meaning in their lives) and also by providing some alternative ways to create meaning in our lives. Seligman concludes Authentic Happiness with thoughts about meaning. "The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness. A life that does this is pregnant with meaning" (Seligman, 2002, p. 260). Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi suggest that "one important way people find meaning in their lives is by becoming deeply involved in activities that afford them scope. Even apparently trivial activities become meaningful over time if done with care and concentration" (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2003, p. 83).

Positive Psychology as a School of Thought

While it is too early to know what type of lasting effect positive psychology will have on psychology, and whether it could be considered a school of thought as Schultz and Schultz (2004) use the term, we can look at the ways it fits in. What defines a school of thought? Schultz and Schultz comment that "Typically the members of a school of thought share a theoretical or systematic orientation and investigate similar problems (p. 21). Schools of thought are generally a "protest against what had gone before" (p. 23). The Zeitgeist may inhibit or delay the acceptance of new ideas (p. 19). On the other hand, it may speed up the acceptance of some new ideas. For example, the popular interest in Watson's theories may have advanced behaviorism (see p. 311). A school of thought may need to have an academic base, to "conduct research, publish papers, or train new generations of graduate students to carry on their tradition" (p. 471). They may have their own techniques, jargon, and journals (p. 22).

How does positive psychology measure up? Positive psychologists share a desire to determine how to help people live happier, healthier lives. In this process, they are studying the nature of happiness and how institutions could promote happiness. Contrary to earlier schools of thought, they believe happiness can be studied. They believe that happiness comes from having and meeting challenges, choosing one's own goals, and creating meaning in life.

Positive psychologists are protesting against behaviorism's lack of recognition of our ability to make choices, the idea in psychoanalysis that we are recovering from our childhood wounds, and the lack of concern about meaning and purpose in cognitive psychology.

They are well connected to a Zeitgeist that is interested in brain functioning as well as spirituality, that is interested in altruism, that recognizes our human need to find meaning and purpose in life.

The leading proponents of positive psychology, in particular Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, are associated with academic institutions, are research oriented, and have published many academic papers as well as more popular books. The majority of the contributors to Flourishing (Keyes and Haidt, 2003) are also in academics. Positive psychology is definitely involved in researching, publishing papers, and training graduate students.

There is at least one journal that is focused on positive psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, which is published in The Netherlands. In addition, a number of journals have had special editions devoted to positive psychology.

We see that positive psychology has many of the features of a new school of thought. However, it is not intended to present a complete picture of psychology. Seligman comments,

We see Positive Psychology as a mere change in focus for psychology, from the study of some of the worst things in life to the study of what makes life worth living. We do not see Positive Psychology as a replacement for what has gone before, but just as a supplement and extension of it (Seligman, 2002, pp. 266-267).

Whether or not future editions of A History of Modern Psychology (Schultz and Schultz, 2004) consider positive psychology to be a school of thought, it is a movement which is opening up some new areas as legitimate subjects for psychologists to study and is broadening the focus of psychology to include the positive emotions. This is likely to have a profound effect.

2004 by Elaine Cook


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