I believe that positive psychology is one of the most important branches of science to emerge in recent years – and also one of the most poorly named. When most people hear the words “positive psychology,” they immediately assume that it’s all about positive thinking, vision boards, and the “law of attraction.”
I’d like to take a moment to set the record straight: Positive psychology is none of those things. It is rigorous science that arose as a response to those things. It is a data-driven critique of those things.
Unscientific self-help gurus and charlatans peddling “the secret” to instantaneous wealth and happiness are a dime a dozen. There are a great many people with problems who are hungry for quick fixes, so there’s big money to made if you’re willing to assert with absolute confidence that you have the answers.
Positive psychologists don’t blindly accept those “answers.” Instead, they do research to find out what actually works. And what does actually work? In short, realistic thinking combined with pragmatic action.
Balancing the Field
Positive psychology aims to balance out the field of psychology, which has predominantly focused on the negative side of the human experience. The “positive” in positive psychology refers to the fact that this branch of psychological research is focused on the study of mental health, happiness, and success rather than the study of mental illness, depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, and such.
Instead of looking at what goes on in the mind when things go badly, positive psychologists examine what happens in the mind when things go well. Instead of studying what is wrong with people, positive psychology asks “‘What is right about people?’”1
It does not aim to reject, negate, or in any way diminish the importance of the negative research and the treatment of mental illness. Rather, it seeks to supplement and complement that approach with data, insights, and prescriptions that can only be gleaned from studying the positive. Positive psychology asserts that we’ll be better off if we “study the whole human picture.”2
The father of this movement, Martin Seligman, explains:
“Psychology is not just the study of weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken, it is nurturing what is best within ourselves.” 3
Beyond the Average
It is all-too-common for researchers to ask, “What does the average person experience?” Positive psychologists do sometimes ask that question, but they also look at exceptional people and ask, “What are they doing right, and can we all be doing that?”
In other words, positive psychology treats highly successful outliers as potential role models and seeks to learn from them.4 Through their examples, we can learn what is possible, which is quite different from learning what is probable.
- Rather than asking why most people don’t keep their new year’s resolutions, they ask what are the strategies used by the few who do succeed.
- Rather than examining why most people raised in poverty remain in poverty as adults, they examine what is done by those who do manage to lift themselves out of poverty.
- Rather than looking at why students drop out of school, they look at why some students who are statistically at a high risk for dropping out don’t.
Again, the negative questions remain important. But the positive questions might be equally important. We should seek to understand and address the reasons why behavioral change is hard, why social mobility is low, and why so many students drop out, but there is also a lot to be learned from the examples of successful individuals. What is it that they do that allows them to rise above the average?
The answers to this question can guide researchers to design better interventions. If the methods of these successful outliers prove helpful to others, then the average gets raised.4
Is Positive Psychology for Me?
Whether you are at the top of your field or at the bottom, whether you are among the happiest people on earth or among the most severely depressed, positive psychology has something for you.
It is misconstrued as “the science of happiness,” but this is an oversimplification. Here are some of the key areas of study in positive psychology:
- Fulfillment, friendship, and loving relationships
- Gratitude, generosity, and kindness
- Strengths, values, and virtues
- Resilience and post-traumatic growth
- Creativity and innovation
- Peak performance in athletics, art, music, and technical skills
- Productivity and motivation
- Willpower and self-control
- Academic success – the science of learning
Odds are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in at least a few of those.
In the modern world, we routinely use science to improve our physical health, our communication, and our transportation. Why not use science to optimize our lives and unlock our incredible human potential?
And lastly, I want to emphasize that positive psychology is useful for those suffering from the problems traditionally studied by the negative branch of psychology. The findings of positive psychology offer a critical supplement to the treatment and prevention of negative states and mental illness. Or, as Seligman puts it:
“We have discovered that there is a set of human strengths that are the most likely buffers against mental illness: courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty, and perseverance.” 3
1 Snyder, et al. Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. 2nd edition. SAGE Publications, 2011. Pg. 3, emphasis mine.
2 Snyder, et al. Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. 2nd edition. SAGE Publications, 2011. Pg. 3-5.
3 Seligman, Martin E. P. “Building Human Strength: Psychology’s Forgotten Mission.” Snyder, et al. Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. 2nd edition. SAGE Publications, 2011. Pg. 4-5.
4 Achor, Shawn. “The happy secret to better work.” TEDxBloomington. May 2011. https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.