What is positive psychology?
Positive psychology emerged as a defined field in the 1990s as a reaction against American psychology’s better-known emphasis on psychopathology, or what might be called negative psychology, since about World War II. This is based in part on the founding of two major institutions at the end of the war. In 1946, the Veterans Administration (VA) was established, soon to become the largest single training site for and employer of psychologists. Thousands of clinical psychologists earned their living by diagnosing and treating the mental disorders of armed services veterans at VA hospitals. In 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was founded. Academic psychologists soon discovered that NIMH looked favorably on funding grants that proposed research on pathology. The benefits of this “negative” focus became clear through the late 1990s as much was learned about helping those who suffered from mental illness. On the other hand, one consequence of this emphasis on fixing what was wrong with people was that psychologists neglected two additional missions of American psychology prior to World War II: the enhancement of fulfillment and productivity in normal people’s lives and the nurture of exceptional human potential.
The widespread awareness of positive psychology among American psychologists probably dates to 1998. In that year, Martin E. P. Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, determined that the theme of the national convention would be positive psychology. His vision was to revive and relaunch the scientific study of the best dimensions of human nature.
A basic definition of positive psychology is the study of average people and their virtues and strengths. Overall, the field focuses on topics dealing with the nature of effectively functioning people: what works well, what facilitates improvement, and what is right. Some of the well-researched areas in this field include subjective well-being, optimal experience and the related concept of flow, positive personal traits, good mental and physical health, resilience, and the nurture of excellence.
Subjective well-being may be understood as a combination of personal happiness and life satisfaction. David G. Myers, a social psychologist and professor at Hope College in Michigan, suggests two questions to frame this area. The first has to do with how happy people are in general, the second with the characteristics and circumstances of happy people. Myers reports global data on more than a million people in forty-five nations indicating that most people self-report that they are at least moderately happy. The average person rates himself or herself at 6.75 on a ten-point scale where 5 is neutral and 10 the highest extreme of well-being.
The second question deals with a number of variables: age, gender, wealth, relationships, religious faith, personality traits, and more. Despite a common belief that certain times of life (such as adolescence or old age), are less happy than others, there is no significant relationship between age and life satisfaction. Likewise, no difference can be found in self-reported happiness between men and women. Research on the relationship between wealth and happiness finds that with the exception that happiness is lower among the very poor, enduring personal happiness does not rise appreciably with increasing personal wealth or a stronger national economy.
By contrast, close, committed, and supportive relationships are strongly associated with both physical and psychological well-being. Looking at physical health, close attachments are associated with decreased rates of illness and premature death and increased survival rates for those with severe disease. Similarly, social support is associated with positive mental health measures, including greater self-reported happiness and improved coping with a variety of life stressors, including rape, divorce, and job loss. Marriage, one form of a committed intimate relationship, has been repeatedly associated with greater happiness and life satisfaction as well as less depression and loneliness when compared to being divorced, separated, or never having been married. Likewise, more intrinsically motivated, religiously active persons report higher levels of life satisfaction and better coping with adversity, whether measured by level of spiritual commitment or religious attendance.
Finally, a number of studies identify four personality traits that characterize happy people. First, they like themselves and often even demonstrate a self-serving bias, indicating that they view themselves as more ethical, intelligent, healthy, and sociable than average. Second, they tend to be more extroverted, reflecting a genetic predisposition. Third, they experience a stronger sense of personal control over their lives. Fourth, they are optimistic. Contrary to popular notions, optimism has very little to do with “positive thinking” or repeating positive-self phrases. Optimism has much more to do with explanatory style or habitual ways of thinking about why good and bad things happen. Optimistic people are more likely to explain negative experiences in terms of external, temporary, specific causes (“I failed the test because I just did not have time to study this week—next week it will be different”). Positive experiences are likely to be understood in terms of internal, stable, global causes (“I received a high score on the exam because I’m smart”).
Another important area in positive psychology has been the study of optimal human experiences. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in California, built his career on research examining the moments in time that people feel most happy. His first studies of optimal experience were based on interviews with several hundred experts in their fields—musicians, chess masters, mountain climbers, artists, surgeons—people who appeared to spend their time doing exactly what they wanted to do just for the joy of the experience. As he probed into their descriptions of what it felt like to engage in these highly valued activities, he began to conceptualize their optimal moments as times of “flow.” Flow is a concept describing a state of deep enjoyment in which people are so engaged in a desired activity that nothing else seems to matter; it is a time of highly focused concentration resulting in the individual’s complete absorption in his or her particular task. During these times of peak performance, people feel completely in control without exerting any particular effort. They forget themselves as they are immersed in the moment and often report that time seems to pass much more quickly than usual. The related phenomena of flow and optimal experience have generated such interest that researchers around the world collected more than eight thousand interviews and a quarter million questionnaires examining this state during the thirty years of research leading up to the year 2000.
Several conditions make the experience of flow most likely. First is clarity of goals. People who achieve flow (as when playing a musical instrument or engaging in an athletic event) generally know, moment by moment, what they need to do next. Ongoing momentary goals keep the action going. Another necessary condition is immediate feedback. To maintain focused concentration, it is essential to know how well one is doing. Finally, there must be an optimal balance between the level of challenge of the activity and one’s level of skill. Optimal flow is usually reported when individuals are functioning above their mean or typical levels of both challenge and skill.
An intriguing area of study in positive psychology has to do with psychological contributors to physical health. Psychologists have long posited that optimism, a sense of personal control, and the ability to give meaning to life are associated with mental health. Such qualities represent important reserves that provide resilience and a buffer to individuals in the midst of difficult life events. A subsequent line of research suggests that these sorts of qualities may provide benefits to physical health as well. For example, a series of such studies conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles deal with men with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Among other findings, it appears that a patient’s ability to find meaning in this life-threatening illness is associated with a less rapid progression of the disease. In addition, those who remain optimistic, even unrealistically so, appear to gain health-protective benefits from their “positive illusions.” Optimistic thinking is clearly linked to good physical health in other research as well, but two important prerequisites must also be in place. First, the optimistic thinking must lead people to active, sustained behaviors based on their optimism. Second, the active behaviors sustained by optimism must have some real association with health.
To summarize the general thrust of other research in this area, positive emotional states are believed to be associated with healthier functioning in the cardiovascular and immune systems, while negative emotional states are associated with unhealthy functioning in these systems (for example, the association between chronic anger and cardiovascular distress). Research targeting the interface of positive psychological states and physiological functioning represents an important and growing focus in the positive psychology movement.
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