Tuesday, October 19, 2021


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.

Martin Seligman
Seligman 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.

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.

Ed Diener
In 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 emotional reactions.

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.

Carol Ryff
Psychological 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 self-development).

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.

Abraham Maslow
In 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.

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.

Carl Rogers
He 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 psychology.

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.

Alfred Adler
More 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.

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.

Erich Fromm
Fromm 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.

According to Fromm, these needs 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
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.

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.    

Heinz Kohut
Another 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.

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.

Hedonism is 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.

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.

The 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 true potential.

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.


  1. Thanks Saif! Your article fully cater the need of layman like me.

    1. Thanks! Glad to know that you read the article and found it useful :)