Positive psychology is said to be the scientific study of wellbeing. It is the discipline that focuses on positive experiences, positive traits or character strengths, and institutions that enhance wellbeing. Positive experiences include positive states such as happiness, satisfaction, flow, optimism, hope, etc. Positive traits and character strengths include altruism, interpersonal skills, integrity, wisdom, originality, perseverance, forgiveness, etc. Institutions that enhance wellbeing are the institutions that move individuals towards being a better citizen, which includes a sense of responsibility, civility, nurturance, tolerance, and work ethics.
In 1998, the psychologist Martin Seligman, in his presidential address of the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) asserted that the discipline of psychology had been focusing too much on the negative aspects of human behavior such as mental illness, and thus, has been ignoring many of the positive aspects like growth and mastery.
direct influence of this focus on the negative aspects of human behavior,
according to Seligman has been the World War II, which has led to a flurry of
research in psychological disorders and human suffering. Seligman suggested
that psychology is not just about studying illness, disorders, difficulties,
and weaknesses, but it is also about studying strengths and virtues; it is
about education, insight, and growth.
called this emphasis of psychology on positive aspects of human behavior as positive psychology. Thus, 1998 can be said to be the formal beginning of the field
of positive psychology, with Martin Seligman being its founder. In contemporary
times, positive psychology covers a wide range of areas such as subjective wellbeing, happiness, life satisfaction, quality of life, positive
relationships, positive self, positive affect, leisure, peak performance,
creativity, optimism, hope, interventions to enhance wellbeing, and positive
psychology in the context of organizations, among others.
though positive psychology was formally established in 1998, it was not the
first time that such topics were being studied or were being given emphasis.
There were psychologists who were emphasizing on such positive aspects of
behavior much before the year of 1998.
1984, the psychologist Edward Diener proposed the tripartite model of
subjective wellbeing. According to Diener, the subjective evaluation of
life is referred to as subjective wellbeing. He suggested that subjective
wellbeing comprises of cognitive judgments associated with overall life
satisfaction, and affective experiences that involve positive and negative
the basis of this, Diener formulated his tripartite model of subjective
wellbeing. He suggested that subjective wellbeing has three components, which
are life satisfaction (LS), positive affect (PA), and negative
affect (NA). This model was widely adopted, where psychologists conducted a
number of empirical researches related to it, and even developed self-report
measures of subjective wellbeing.
Diener, in 1989, the psychologist Carol Ryff proposed a six-factor model of
psychological wellbeing. Ryff had concerns regarding the dearth of research
in psychology, related to positive functioning. This led her to come up with
the multi-faceted concept of psychological wellbeing.
wellbeing is the perception of positive functioning. It comprises of six dimensions or factors – self-acceptance (maintaining the same level of
self-esteem in varying circumstances, and trying to be positive in doing so), purpose
in life (goals and beliefs that give a sense of direction and meaning in
life); autonomy (self-determination and being guided by one’s own
internalized standards, rather than conformity), positive relationships
(the ability to have satisfying, long-lasting relationships), environmental
mastery (being able to manage the environment according to one’s needs),
and personal growth (enhancing skills for personal development, seeking
opportunities for growth, and having insight into one’s potential for
concepts of both Diener and Ryff, in the 1980s, can be seen as significant
precursors to the positive psychology movement, leading Seligman to formally
establish the discipline in 1998. However, a more direct influence on positive
psychology existed much earlier than Diener and Ryff. This direct influence was
in the form of humanistic psychology, especially its founder Abraham
suggested that to understand human nature, instead of examining mental illness,
it is more appropriate to study people who he referred to as psychologically
healthy individuals. According to Maslow, psychologically healthy individuals
are those who have an objective sense of reality, self-acceptance, simplicity,
autonomy, empathy, non-conformism, commitment to work, and a high level of
studying psychologically healthy individuals, and not mental illness, Maslow
was emphasizing on aspects of improvement, instead of cure. He was, thus,
focusing on the positive aspects of human behavior, which eventually had a
strong influence on the positive psychology movement. In fact, in the 1950s,
Maslow was the one who had used the term positive psychology, which was much
before Seligman had used it.
in emphasizing on the positive aspects of human behavior, Maslow, in 1961,
coined the term Eupsychia. Eupsychia, according to Maslow is a society
made up of self-actualizing people, in which individuals will grow, be happy,
aware, compassionate, and connected. Based on this, Maslow proposed his Eupsychian
theory, which was aimed to create the Eupsychian society that he had
many ways, the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, carried forward the ideas
of Maslow. Like Maslow, Rogers also emphasized on the positive aspects of human
behavior. Rogers developed his approach calling it the person-centered
approach. In this approach, Rogers suggested that every individual has the
capability to alter their thoughts and behavior to bring about a positive
change, leading to personal growth.
emphasized on the significance of unconditional positive regard (love,
empathy, warmth, care, respect, and acceptance) from parents or care-takers,
for individuals to develop in a healthy manner. According to Rogers, this
unconditional positive regard enables individuals to become fully
functioning persons, which is mainly characterized by openness to experience,
living life to the fullest, a sense of freedom in thought and action, and high
level of creativity. On the whole, Rogers was strongly emphasizing on
nurturance and personal growth, which are important aspects of positive
works of Maslow and Rogers, suggest that, in many ways, positive psychology is
an extension of humanistic psychology. However, they were not the only
significant influence on positive psychology. Even though humanistic psychology
is a direct influence on positive psychology, there have been other
psychologists before humanistic psychology, who proposed ideas and concepts
that can also be considered as the roots of positive psychology.
such psychologist is Alfred Adler, psychoanalyst and founder of individual
psychology. Adler is often considered to be the pioneer in emphasizing positive
aspects of human behavior. In 1939, Adler introduced his concept of social
interest. Social interest is the drive that every individual is born with.
According to Adler, social interest comprises of cooperation, interpersonal and
social relationships, identification with the group, empathy, and feeling of a
sense of community and belongingness.
specifically, social interest is about the individual helping the society to
strive for a perfect society. Adler suggested that this striving implies
respect and consideration for others. Research suggests that people who are
high on social interest are altruistic, trustworthy, socially adjusted, and
nurturant compared to those who are low in social interest. They also have
greater satisfaction and more satisfying relationships. Further, people high in
social interest have been found to report lesser levels of depression, anxiety,
loneliness, emotional instability, and hostility towards others.
concept is considered to be highly influential with respect to emphasizing on
positive aspects of behavior. It is often suggested that the idea of social
interest was something that had influenced humanistic psychologists. Maslow’s
idea of Eupsychia can be found to be similar to a society that Adler had
envisioned, which can be attained due to innate tendency of social interest.
from Adler, another psychoanalyst who emphasized on the positive aspects of
behavior is Erich Fromm. Like Adler, Fromm is considered to be a social
psychoanalyst. His approach is referred to as humanistic psychoanalysis.
suggested that every individual has existential needs, which need to be
fulfilled. These existential needs are – relatedness (drive for union
with people), transcendence (urge to rise above a passive and accidental
existence, towards purposefulness), rootedness (need to establish roots),
sense of identity (the capacity to be aware of oneself as a separate
entity), and frame of orientation (need for putting events into
framework to make sense of it). If these needs are fulfilled then the
individual experiences wellbeing.
to Fromm, these are needs are remain unfulfilled due to the modern capitalist
and consumerist society. Because of this, individuals feel estranged and
alienated, leading to anxiety and depression. The only way to get out of such
feelings, according to Fromm is love, affiliation, sharing, and bonding.
gave a lot of emphasis to love. He believed that love is the only way that
people can get united with the world, and yet maintain their individuality. He defined
love as the union with somebody or something outside oneself, while not losing
one’s individuality, separateness, and integrity. Fromm suggested that love
involves sharing and communionship. This emphasis on love, connection, bonding
is something that has been found in positive psychology as well, making Fromm
an important precursor of the movement.
|Harry Stack Sullivan|Going
along with the idea of nurturance, growth, and development, the psychoanalyst Harry
Stack Sullivan has also made significant contributions. Sullivan, is the
pioneer of the interpersonal approach to psychology, which gives emphasis on
the role that relationships play in the development of personality and mental health. This approach changed the entire picture of psychoanalysis and
psychology, in general, by emphasizing the role of positive, satisfying
relationships in wellbeing, personal growth, and psychotherapy. These aspects
of Sullivan’s contributions make it a highly significant precursor to the
positive psychology movement.
his interpersonal theory of psychiatry, formulated in the early 1950s, Sullivan
asserted that interpersonal interactions shape personality. According to him,
personality can only be studied in the context of interpersonal interactions,
and that enduring patterns of relationships form the essence of personality. Personality,
for Sullivan, cannot be isolated from interpersonal behavior and interpersonal
Sullivan suggested that positive and empathetic relationships become the
key in the healthy development of individuals – positive relationships lead to
better mental health, and help to cope with stress and anxiety. Sullivan,
further, suggested that if relationships are not positive or if interpersonal
needs are not met, then it leads to loneliness and depression.
psychoanalyst who gave emphasis to positive relationships is Heinz Kohut. Kohut suggested that the presence and absence of loving relationships is very
significant in the formation of the self. According to Kohut, receiving empathetic reactions from significant others is highly important for the healthy
development of the self.
further suggested that healthy interactions with significant others
enables the person to develop what he called an ideal personality type – an independent
and self-sufficient person. Unhealthy interactions, on the other hand, lead to
emptiness and a sense of insecurity. Kohut’s emphasis on empathy and healthy
interactions in the role of the development of self, which emerged in the
1960s, can be viewed as an important precursor to positive psychology.
with the humanistic and psychoanalytic perspectives, the roots of positive
psychology can also be traced back to philosophical traditions. The main focus
in positive psychology has been the study of wellbeing. Wellbeing has been
examined from two perspectives that are based on two very different
philosophies – hedonism and eudaimonism. Hedonism determined the hedonic
perspective of wellbeing and eudaimonism determined the eudaimonic perspective
the philosophy that suggests that human behavior is determined by increasing
pleasure and decreasing pain. According to hedonism, pleasure is the highest good
and proper aim of human life. The hedonistic philosophy can be traced back to Aristippus,
the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher. Aristippus believed that the
greatest human value is pleasure and pain is the lowest, which should be
avoided. He believed that the pursuit of life should be enjoyment and pleasure.
philosophy of Aristippus was later carried forward by the 18th and
early 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in his utilitarian
philosophy. Bentham believed that human happiness can be completely
explained in terms of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The British
empiricists Thomas Hobbes, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill also propagated Bentham’s hedonism. The philosophy of hedonism determined what came to be known
as the hedonistic perspective of wellbeing or hedonistic wellbeing. According to
hedonistic wellbeing, wellbeing involves happiness, pleasure, and enjoyment.
hedonistic philosophy was opposed by eudaimonism or the eudaimonic philosophy
or eudaimonia. The founder of eudaimonia is the Greek philosopher,
Aristotle. Aristotle heavily criticized hedonism. He suggested that hedonism
makes individuals become slaves to their desires. According to him, instead of
seeking pleasure, the essential aspect of a good life is the realization of one’s
determined the eudaimonic perspective of wellbeing or eudaimonic wellbeing. Eudaimonic
wellbeing conceptualizes wellbeing with respect to realizing one’s true
potential, optimal functioning, and having purpose and meaning in life.
The field of positive psychology has brought about a major change in the approach of examining human behavior. While humanistic psychology has been a direct influence on positive psychology, specific psychoanalytic perspectives can also be viewed as its roots. Apart from that, the roots of positive psychology can be traced back to two distinct philosophical traditions, in terms of hedonism and eudaimonia.