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.
The 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.
Even 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.
On 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.
After 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.
The 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 Maslow.
Maslow 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 social interest.
Further, 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 envisioned.
In 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.
The 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.
One 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.
Adler’s 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.
Apart 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.
According 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.
Fromm 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|
In 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 situations.
Therefore, 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.
He 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.
Along 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 of wellbeing.
The 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.
Eudaimonia 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.