Revisiting Positive Psychology (part 1 of 3): What is Positive Psychology and where did come from?


Revisiting Positive Psychology (part 1 of 3)

What is Positive Psychology and where did come from?

By Dr Galia Barhava


Since I ‘discovered’ Positive Psychology in 2007 – I have been working to incorporate it into everything I do throughout my life, professionally and personally. I have written, developed workshops and talks, and most recently, designed co-creation methodologies incorporating key Positive Psychology principles. The field has grown exponentially over the last 13 years with some fascinating long-term findings. I was just a little shocked to see that as of March 2020 there are over 3 Million (!) articles, books, papers, on the subject on google scholar.

The thing is, I believe that what Positive Psychology have to offer is now more relevant than ever before, and yet, there is simply too much. Too much information, writing, blogs, videos for those who, for the very first time are seeking to understand what it is actually about and how it may be relevant to them. So, I thought I’d go back to basics and outline in a series of three short articles the most important and relevant basics of Positive Psychology and how they can be incorporated into everyone’s lives.

In this first article of a three-part series, I will be covering the historical origins of positive psychology and what it is all about. In the second part I’ll focus on what I believe is the most important and practical – and yet often overlooked contribution of the field, Signature Strengths. And in part three I will bring my personal perspective on Positive Psychology and the work fulfilment nexus.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of the good and fulfilled life. Positive psychologists scientifically study positive emotions, positive personality traits and positive institutions. Basically, they study what makes life worth living.

Articles and books in this field cover topics such as happiness, optimism, wisdom, courage, humanity and humour to name but a few. What makes that so special, I hear you ask? Until Professor Martin Seligman’s and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s article; Positive psychology: An introduction published 20 years ago in American Psychologist these positive aspects of life were all but overlooked by traditional psychology which largely focused on how people survive and endure adversity, mental illness and bad childhoods.

There has been relatively little research on how people can flourish to their full potential. It’s true that throughout the 90’s bookshop shelves were covered with ‘self-help’ books promising that you’ll be able to lose weight, win friends, influence people, make huge amounts of money, and find the love of your life simply by wishing it. However, the great majority of these books didn’t have robust, scientific studies to back up their claims. Positive Psychology did – and since have repeatedly and pervasively have done so.

A brief history

To really understand the origins of Positive Psychology, perhaps the most useful source is the millennial issue of the American Psychologist devoted to positive psychology. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined some of the history and background of modern psychology, explaining how its focus on pathology evolved.

Before the Second World War, the emerging science of psychology had three distinct missions, namely to:

  1. Cure mental illness
  2. Make people’s lives more productive and fulfilling
  3. Identify and nurture high talent

Things changed after the war, and, the explanation is quite simple: as you’d expect, the emphasis shifted to where the money was. The post-war establishment of the Veteran’s Administration and its funding of mental illness treatment saw psychologists exclusively focus on the first mission of curing mental illness to the exclusion of the other two.

This focus was further aided by the founding of the National Institute of Mental Health in 1947. The Institute was based on the disease model of pathology – in other words, looking at what was wrong with people and how to fix it. As a consequence, according to Seligman, academics found that they could get grants if their research was about pathology.

So if you ever thought that psychology was overly preoccupied with what ails people, with pathology weakness and with damage, you were right!

What is Revolutionary about Positive Psychology?

That people want to make their lives better and that they want to be happier isn’t new. Yet it is a well-documented phenomenon that as countries and individuals in the West have grown wealthier, they have also become unhappier. In the US, there was talk of a ‘depression epidemic’ BEFORE there was social media. In New Zealand, One in five will have a serious mood disorder, (including depression), at some time in their life. Approximately one in seven young people will experience a major depressive disorder before the age of 24. Females report higher rates of depression than males (one in four females, compared with one in six males). While women are more likely to think about suicide than guys, males are more likely to make a serious suicide attempt

The reality that in the West we’ve become unhappier as we have grown wealthier in absolute terms, has no doubt fuelled the growth of the self-help industry and its self-proclaimed happiness gurus. What is still revolutionary about Positive Psychology is that it is a science. This field applies the same long-term. quantitative and qualitative research methodologies used in medicine and psychiatry to the new study of what makes life better and how we as individuals can make ourselves happier and more fulfilled. Positive Psychologists study and compare various approaches to identify what really works and what doesn’t.

In Part 2, I’ll deep dive into what I consider to (still) be the most practical, and relevant to all contribution of Positive Psychology – Signature Strengths.

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