What is Positive Psychology?

Time and again the reactions of people make me smile when they ask me what I am doing and I reply I am a psychologist. Not infrequently will the answer, in a slight, distancing tone, be something along the lines of “Oh, so I must be careful of what I’m saying”. The hidden implication in this statement is that many people believe psychologists are constantly looking for problems, maladjustments, faults and disturbances in “normal” people, with the intention of bringing them up and fixing them. Even though this societal archetype sometimes makes me want to roll my eyes, looking at the history of Psychology, this opinion is actually not that far fetched.

The most famous representative of Psychology still remains the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud who invented the method of Psychoanalysis. His approach to the therapy of mental disorders was revolutionary: for the first time in history, intra-psychic effects obtained attention. Disorders with painful symptoms were explained by psychological factors like childhood trauma, and the psychoanalyst would interpret the patient’s reports in order to understand the conflicts that were unconscious to him.

In the meantime, Psychology advanced and has brought about many more approaches of therapy. The academic field encompasses various scientific branches that are concerned with the exploration of normal human behaviour and functioning, studied within different paradigms, such as Biological, Cognitive, Evolutionary, Developmental or Social Psychology.

Nevertheless, looking at the application of the science, the question “What is wrong with people?” has guided most psychologists during the last 100 years. Applied psychology became the science of mental illnesses, their classification, the exploration of causes and the development of interventions. And we are proud to claim that clinical psychologists, counselors and psychiatrists can treat many disorders successfully these days. We can help people who suffer and enable many to live more dignified, untroubled lives.

However, after my studies and having gone through all the major disciplines of Psychology, I felt as if something had been missing. When I later took some time to explore the literature beyond the limits of my German University curriculum, I was more than happy to find the unknown missing piece. It was the field of Positive Psychology, the scientific and applied approach to uncovering people’s strengths and promoting their wellbeing. [1]

In this new paradigm, established by Dr. Martin Seligman at the end of the last century, human beings are seen as self-organizing, self-directed, adaptive entities who have the power to make choices that lead them to become healthy, happy people (Seligman, 2004). Seligman was the first to realize and to pronounce that Psychology, thus far busy with the disease model of human functioning, mostly neglected the flip side of pathology: the human strengths.

It is indeed comprehensible that the reduction of pain had and still has to be the first objective of applied Psychology. Up until the early 20th century, there was no treatment available for mental disorders at all, and the lives of countless patients were ruined under frightful circumstances. Nevertheless, socio-economic advancements have improved people’s quality of life in many parts of the world to an extent which is staggering.      More and more people strive for higher ideals beyond mere survival, such as emotional fulfillment, psychological well-being and general happiness. This means an unrivalled opportunity which allows us to heighten our existence, by using Psychology as a tool to understand and realise our potential for long lasting fulfillment.

Another important goal of Positive Psychology is to raise questions with regards to psychological resilience, the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. If we see people as self-determined, what decisions then enable us to live mentally healthy lives? By focusing mainly on the disorders and their treatment, questions with regards to our capacity for prevention got neglected.

Positive Psychology has the potential to explore the conditions that constitute and build thriving families, work settings, communities and societies. Seligman (2004) therefore sums up the main goals of Positive Psychology as follows:

1. Psychology should be bothered with human strengths as much as it is with weaknesses.

2. Psychology should be about building the best things in life just as we repair the worst.

3. Psychology should be as concerned about making normal people’s lives happier as with healing pathology.

Psychology can become an inclusive approach of both our weaknesses and strengths, and this is also about optimism. To look at what is and what could be.

I believe Psychology can be more than it currently is: it can include happiness, aspirations, love, growth and play without losing its significance. And I am looking forward to seeing the reactions after this transformation will have reached the general public consciousness and someone asks me what I am doing :)

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[1]  Positive Psychology is being taught in Universities in the United States already, clearly proving that the times in which Psychology was advanced from Germany and Austria are long gone.

Literature:

M. E. P. Seligman, M. Csikszentmihalyi (2000). Positive Psychology – An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 1, 5-14. Click to download  (first link from the top)

C. R. Snyder, S. J. Lopez and J.T. Pedrotti (2011). Positive Psychology – The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. Sage Publications.

Video: Martin Seligman’s TED talk on Positive Psychology  (February 2004)


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One Response to What is Positive Psychology?

  1. Pingback: Nurture your strength or fix your weakness? | Metathoughts

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