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Positive psychology is a recent branch of scientific psychology that "studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive." People have been discussing the question of human happiness since at least Ancient Greece.
Psychology has been criticized (Seligman, 2002) as primarily dedicated to addressing mental illness rather than mental "wellness". Several humanistic psychologists—such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm—developed successful theories and practices that involved human happiness despite there being a lack of solid empirical evidence at the time behind their work, and especially that of their successors, who chose to emphasize phenomenology and individual case histories.
Current empirical researchers in this subfield include Donald Clifton, Albert Bandura, Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, C. R. Snyder, Christopher Peterson, Shelley Taylor, Barbara Fredrickson, Charles S. Carver, Michael F. Scheier, and Jonathan Haidt.
Some researchers (Seligman, 2002) in this field posit that positive psychology can be delineated into three overlapping areas of research:
- Research into the Pleasant Life or the "life of enjoyment" examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.).
- The study of the Good Life or the "life of engagement" investigates the beneficial affects of immersion, absorption, and flow that individuals feel when optimally engaged with their primary activities. These states are experienced when there is a positive match between a person's strength and the task they are doing, i.e. when they feel confident that they can accomplish the tasks they face.
- Inquiry into the Meaningful Life or "life of affiliation" questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g. nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems).
The undo effect
When people experience stress, they show increased heart rate, higher blood sugar, immune suppression, and other adaptations optimized for immediate action. If individuals do not regulate these changes once the stress is past, they can lead to illness, Coronary Heart Disease, and heightened mortality. Both lab research and survey research indicate that positive emotions help people who were previously under stress relax back to their physiological baseline.
After several years of researching disgust, University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt and others studied its opposite, and the term "elevation" was coined. Elevation is a moral emotion and is pleasant. It involves a desire to act morally and do "good"; as an emotion it has a basis in biology, and can sometimes be characterized by a feeling of expansion in the chest or a tingling feeling on the skin.
Studies from Barbara Fredrickson's lab have randomly assigned participants to watch films that induce positive emotions such as amusement and contentment, negative emotions such as fear and sadness, or no emotions. Compared to people in the other conditions, participants who experience positive emotions show heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness, and "big picture" perceptual focus. Longitudinal studies show that positive emotions play a role in the development of long-term resource such as psychological resilience and flourishing.
The development of the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook represents the first attempt on the part of the research community to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings. Much like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of general psychology, the CSV provides a theoretical framework to assist in developing practical applications for positive psychology. This manual identifies six classes of virtue (i.e. "core virtues"), made up of twenty-four measurable character strengths.
The organization of these virtues and strengths is as follows:
- Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective
- Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality
- Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
- Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
- Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility and modesty, prudence, self-regulation
- Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality
Practical applications of positive psychology include helping individuals and organizations correctly identify their strengths and use them to increase and sustain their respective levels of well-being. Therapists, counselors, coaches, and various other psychological professionals can use the new methods and techniques to build and broaden the lives of individuals who are not necessarily suffering from mental illness or disorder.
“A systematic study of 22 people who won major lotteries found that they reverted to their baseline level of happiness over time, winding up no happier than 22 matched controls” (p48 Authentic Happiness Martin Seligman)
“Within a few years, [paraplegics] wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed” (p48 ibid)
“[83 percent] of Americans report positive life satisfaction” (p50 ibid)
“In wealthier nations … increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness” (p54 ibid)
- Affective forecasting
- Humanistic psychology
- Positivity effect
- Psychological resilience
- Needs & Motives Henry Murray
- Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania: Introduction
- Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania: FAQ
- Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. p. 275. (ISBN 0-7432-2297-0). Recently the theories of human flourishing developed by these humanistic psychologists have found empirical support from studies by humanistic and positive psychologists, especially in the area of self-determination theory, i.e., Patterson, T.G., & Joseph, S. (2007). Person-centered personality theory: Support from self-determination theory and positive psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 47(1), 117-139.
- Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion. 24, 237-258.
- Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.
- There is a suggestion in the introductory portion of the CSV that these six virtues are so consistently identifiable across cultures and throughout history that they may, in theory, be universal in nature. Notwithstanding numerous cautions and caveats, this suggestion of universality hints that in addition to trying to broaden the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness, the leaders of the positive psychology movement are challenging moral relativism and suggesting that virtue has both a biological and a cultural basis.
- Argyle, Michael (2001). The Psychology of Happiness. Routledge.
- Benard, Bonnie (2004) Resiliency: What We Have Learned San Francisco, WestEd
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. HarperCollins Publishers.
- Gilbert, Daniel (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. Knopf.
- Haidt, Jonathan (2005). The Happiness Hypothesis. Basic Books.
- Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.) Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. (pp. 275-289).
- Kahneman, Daniel, Diener, Ed, Schwarz, Norbert (2003). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. Russell Sage Foundation Publications.
- Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.) Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. (pp. 275-289).
- McMahon, Darrin M. (2006). Happiness: A History. Atlantic Monthly Press.
- Peterson, Christopher and Seligman, Martin (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford University Press.
- Seligman, Martin (1990). Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Free Press.
- Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Free Press.
- Snyder, C.R., and Lopez, Shane J. (2001) Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.
- Deurzen, E. van (2007) Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness, London: Sage Publications.
- Time Magazine's cover story in the special issue on "The Science of Happiness," 2005
- Positive Psychology Lectures at Harvard - taught by Tal Ben-Shahar
- Positive Psychology Master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania
- Positive Psychology Master's degree at the University of East London - Taught by Ilona Boniwell
- Debating Human Happiness - a conversation between Martin Seligman, Robert Wright, and Steven Pinker
- On Point - Hour-long discussion about positive psychology and college courses that teach it
- Some Dark Thoughts On Happiness - investigating Positive Psychology's supporters and antagonists
- Pursuing Happiness - New Yorker book review (2006) that critically discusses the psychological study of happiness
- Publications on elevation and other subjects within positive psychology