Positive psychology advances, with growing pains (2023)

If you measure a field’s success by the media attention it attracts and the number of people it influences, positive psychology is a sensation.

Positive psychology — a term coined in 1998 by former APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, and Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD — has been the darling of the popular press, making the cover of Time (Jan. 17, 2005), and featured in The Washington Post (2002), the London Sunday Times Magazine (2005), The New York Times Magazine (2006), U.S. News & World Report (2009), and even a six-part BBC series (2006). It’s spawned dozens of books geared toward both a scientific and popular audience, including Seligman’s latest on the virtues of positive psychology: “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being,” published by Simon & Schuster this month.

The goal, according to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, was to create a field focused on human well-being and the conditions, strengths and virtues that allow people to thrive. Although some researchers, including Csikszentmihalyi, had already studied happiness, optimism and flow, psychology was disproportionately focused on treating mental illness rather than promoting mental health, they say.

In just a few years, positive psychology has changed that, with almost 1,000 articles related to the field published in peer-reviewed journals between 2000 and 2010 on topics that include well-being, pride, forgiveness, happiness, mindfulness and psychological strength — and how these attributes are related to both mental and physical health.

“It’s been extremely good for psychology,” says University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD. “It balanced out our research portfolio. And with the science in place, interventions are coming along rapidly. I’ve never seen a field change so fast.”

Positive psychology is finding its way into therapy, schools, businesses and even the U.S. Army, which in 2008 began using the tenets of the field as the foundation for its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program.

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The fast pace from research to application never could have happened without a big, well-publicized push by the field’s founders, says positive psychology trailblazer Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who started studying positive emotion several years before the field was launched. Before positive psychology took root, she would have considered it a great success to have her work land on the syllabus of a psychology course. Now she sees her work put into large-scale practice.

Moving too fast?

But not everyone is positive about this branch of psychology. Critics aren’t convinced that the research findings are strong enough to move so swiftly toward applications. Some disapprove of the field’s public interpretations, which they say have allowed overblown conclusions about the power of the positive, including the perception that people can stave off illness with more optimism.

According to critics, leaders in the field imply in their writings and public presentations that positive psychology can provide a psychological inoculation to protect from later adversity. That “seems far-fetched” based on what vocal critic University of Pennsylvania health psychologist James Coyne, PhD, has read in the literature.

Coyne believes the field’s translation to practical applications has moved faster than the science and has been swept up by popular culture, self-help gurus and life coaches. He points to companies, including FedEx, Adobe and IBM, that are hiring “happiness coaches” to work with employees, schools that are embedding positive psychology in their curriculum and the Army, which is hoping to reach all its 1.1 million soldiers with its resiliency training. And he bristles at the books coming out of the field with titles, such as “The How of Happiness.”

There are certainly instances of people overselling the claims of positive psychology, what University of Utah health psychologist Lisa G. Aspinwall, PhD, calls “saccharine terrorism.” Aspinwall is a lead author of a special issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine (Vol. 39, No. 1) that explored the link between positive psychology and health. And although best-selling authors such as minister Norman Vincent Peale of “The Power of Positive Thinking” fame and television producer Rhonda Byrne, who wrote “The Secret,” preach mindless versions of positive thinking, they don’t represent positive psychology research.

“Books like that are incredibly dangerous,” says Aspinwall. “But we can’t control what people will do with the research once it exists.”

In fact, argues Seligman, leaders in the field have been quite cautious with their claims. He adds that most of the programs applying positive psychology are based on solid research. The school programs, for example, emulate a program created and tested by researchers at the Penn Positive Psychology Center, which Seligman directs. Twenty-one replications of the program with children, adolescents and young adults have shown that it reliably prevents depression and anxiety, he says. Many positive psychology life coaches and motivational speakers have graduated from Penn’s Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program, which has trained more than 150 professionals in applying the science of positive psychology in their professional lives.

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In addition, the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program was created with the help of a team of prominent positive psychologists and built on decades of research (for a detailed discussion of the Army’s program and how it’s being evaluated, see the January American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No. 1). One component of the program, for example, ties into research by Fredrickson that suggests that people who have at least three positive emotions for every one negative emotion tend to flourish and are more resistant to adversity than people with lower “positivity” ratios. Through the program, soldiers learn how to interpret their emotions and increase their positivity ratios.

The problem, says Julie Norem, PhD, professor of psychology at Wellesley College, is that the Army’s program doesn’t take into account individual differences that her own research suggests may make strategies — such as increasing optimism and positive emotions — backfire. While Norem doesn’t deny the many studies suggesting that optimism and positive mood can help some people, her work indicates that being optimistic and positive may not benefit everyone.

She studies people she calls “defensive pessimists” who deal with anxiety by thinking about everything that could go wrong. Her studies show that by processing the negative possibilities, defensive pessimists relieve their anxiety and work harder at their task to avoid those pitfalls. Several studies by Norem and others suggest that forcing optimism or a positive mood on an anxious defensive pessimist can actually damage performance on tasks that include math problems, anagrams and playing darts.

Another study, published in Psychological Science in 2009 (Vol. 20, No. 9), showed that if people with low self-esteem repeat a positive statement such as, “I’m a lovable person,” they actually feel worse than people with low self-esteem who didn’t repeat the statement. People with high self-esteem feel a little better, but not much.

These kinds of studies emphasize that interventions need to take into account individual differences, says Norem. “People who use defensive pessimism are anxious and have developed a good strategy for dealing with that anxiety,” she says. “They don’t need to be made into optimists.”

But the dominant message coming out of positive psychology doesn’t readily acknowledge this idea that one size does not fit all, she says. “If you’re going to define yourself as a field and then become prescriptive and say this is what people should do to be happier, you have the responsibility to search out other points of view and consider them,” says Norem. “You certainly need to take [those points of view] into consideration when you present your arguments to the public.”

Although many prominent positive psychology researchers agree with Norem that individual differences are important, they also believe that the research to date suggests that most people will benefit from the tenets of positive psychology. Seligman likens the risk of teaching resiliency and well-being to the risk of immunizations. A small group may suffer an allergic reaction, but the vast majority will benefit, he says.

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Taking a small risk for a large gain is the definition of “public health,” says Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, PhD, MD, the Army’s director of comprehensive soldier fitness. With rates of combat fatigue and suicide at all-time highs, the Army needed to take a proactive approach to help its soldiers become more psychologically resilient rather than follow the traditional model of waiting until they begin to flounder.

“If we had waited [for the science to catch up], we’d still be talking and planning,” she says.

Of the 3,100 sergeants who have completed the master resiliency training course, where they learn how to use the resiliency program to train other soldiers, she says, “none have said they’ve been harmed and hundreds have said it’s the best training they have had.”

Eventually, the Army will have enough data to tease out whether the intervention is not only working, but whether there are some soldiers who do better than others, and even whether there are some who do worse, says Seligman. The Army is systematically evaluating the program with controlled evaluation of more than 31,000 soldiers.

Coyne and other critics are worried that with programs like the Army’s that offer the message that people only need to be more optimistic to be healthier, wealthier and wiser, people may feel defeated if they can’t turn their lives around. As a health psychologist, Coyne is chiefly concerned about the research claiming that optimism, improving social ties and increasing a person’s sense of meaning and purpose can influence health.

“Particularly for cancer, there’s a strong biological component that isn’t movable in that way,” he says. Certainly, in terms of survival rates, he says, there’s no evidence that being more optimistic and positive will help a cancer patient live longer.

Aspinwall agrees that the data on cancer have not been convincing. But most researchers agree that the findings are robust with many studies linking optimism and positive emotion to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of infections.

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Even for cancer patients, she says, there’s evidence that traits such as optimism and interventions to increase positive emotion can reduce pain and improve quality of life. In his new book, Seligman points to data from the Women’s Health Initiative study (Circulation, Vol. 120, No. 8) of more than 97,000 women that found that pessimism and “cynical hostility” were significant predictors of cancer.

“I don’t think you can damn all of positive psychology because the studies of cancer haven’t yielded much,” adds University of Michigan health psychologist Christopher Peterson, PhD, who’s working on a large initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to determine whether there are psychological factors that make people more resilient to illness and disease.

A monolithic message?

Although there may be some very valid and good research coming out of positive psychology, philosophical psychologist Barbara Held, PhD, takes issue with what her read of the literature interprets as a “monolithic message” coming from leaders of the positive psychology movement. She’s been a vocal critic of the field and although she’s seen a move among scientists toward more nuanced messages, she still thinks the dominant message is that happiness is good and good for you and if you can’t make yourself happy, then given positive psychology’s readily available techniques, it’s your own fault. “I take issue with it because it blames the victim,” she says.

Positive psychology proponents agree that the field’s success has come with some pitfalls, including the dissemination by the mass media — though, they argue, not by the researchers themselves — of overly simplistic messages like the ones Held criticizes.

University of California, Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubormirsky, PhD, for one, welcomes the criticism. She believes it will serve to make the field stronger and she tries to address it in her research by being clear that not every tool will work for everyone. Her work focuses on what makes people happy, and she’s not only developed several tools that she thinks can help, but she’s studied “person-activity fit,” focused on the idea that not all happiness-increasing strategies work for everyone and not all work in the same way. For example, one of the tasks that she finds helps people boost their happiness is setting aside time to “count their blessings.” Her research shows that some people benefit when they do this once a week but others don’t benefit at all.

And while she gives a lot of credit to positive psychology for her ability to work on happiness despite the sneers of her colleagues, she isn’t sure there’s still a need for a field called positive psychology.

“In some ways, the main purpose has been achieved: There are lots of scientists looking at questions about the positive side of life,” she says.

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The future of the field hinges on that research, says Fredrickson. That includes training top-notch researchers and it’s why Csikszentmihalyi started the first, and still only, doctoral program in positive developmental and positive organizational psychology at Claremont Graduate University in 2007. He still believes, however, it would benefit both psychology in general and positive psychology in particular for it to become more integrated into psychology as a whole rather than separated out. Peterson likes to think of positive psychology not as a subfield at all, but rather as a perspective that cuts across all branches of psychology.

“By keeping ourselves separate, it becomes easy to wallow in self-congratulations and to take our cues from the extreme fringes of positive psychology — the smiley face people,” says Csikszentmihalyi. “And that’s exactly who we don’t want to become.”

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.


What are the 4 key concepts of positive psychology? ›

While positive psychology covers many disciplines and areas, many scholars and practitioners have focused on maximising the benefits of five factors essential to happiness and wellbeing: positive emotions, engagement, meaning, relationships and accomplishment (often known as PERMA).

What is positive psychology summary? ›

“Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing, and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities, and organisations to thrive.”

What is Martin Seligman's positive psychology? ›

In his study of the Good Life (cultivating strengths and virtues) and the Meaningful Life (developing meaning and purpose), positive psychology seeks to help people acquire the skills to be able to deal with the stuff of life in ever fuller, deeper ways.

What are the 3 pillars of positive psychology? ›

The Three Pillars: Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.

What are the 5 pillars of positive psychology? ›

There are five building blocks that enable flourishing – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (hence PERMA™) – and there are techniques to increase each. Different people will derive well-being from each of these five building blocks to varying degrees.

What are positive psychology activities? ›

5 Positive Psychotherapy Exercises and Tools
  • Gratitude Journal. One of the simplest yet most effective exercises in positive psychology is a gratitude journal. ...
  • Design a Beautiful Day. ...
  • Self-Esteem Journal. ...
  • Mindfulness Meditation. ...
  • Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS)
27 Aug 2019

What are the effects of positive psychology? ›

Positive psychology practices have constructive impacts on people's everyday lives such as reducing stress and anxiety, increasing resilience and promoting self-growth, wellbeing, and quality of life.

What is positive thinking short answer? ›

Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. You think the best is going to happen, not the worst. Positive thinking often starts with self-talk. Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head.

What are 3 ways or techniques to practice positive psychology? ›

Ways to use positive psychology in your everyday life
  • Snap pictures of things you're grateful for and take a few minutes daily to look through your virtual photo gratitude journal.
  • Prayer.
  • Volunteer or giving back to your community.
  • Write a thank you note.
  • Spend time in nature and appreciating its wonder and beauty.
28 Sept 2018

How is positive psychology applied today? ›

Therapists and counselors who use positive psychology deploy exercises and interventions to help their clients become more self-aware and identify their own positive traits, talents, and strengths. These strategies will hopefully increase the client's positive emotions and build hope and well-being.

How do you use positive psychology in a sentence? ›

Positive psychology spends much of its research looking for how things go right rather than the more pessimistic view point, how things go wrong.

What are the 6 virtues of positive psychology? ›

Positive Psychology's Six Virtues

The 24 character strengths are organized under the six virtues of: wisdom and knowledge; humanity; justice; courage; temperance; and transcendence.

What are the basic theme of positive psychology? ›

The themes of positive psychology explored as part of the intervention included optimism, gratitude, savoring, happiness, curiosity, courage, altruism, and meaning of life. Depressive symptoms were reduced, and sense of life satisfaction and happiness increased.

Who is the leader of positive psychology? ›

3) Martin Seligman

Seligman is an American Psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books. He is famous for his experiments and theory of learned helplessness, as well as for being the founder of Positive Psychology.

What are the three types of well-being that are important outcomes in positive psychology? ›

Emotional well-being. Psychological well-being. Life satisfaction.

What are the 24 Strengths positive psychology? ›

The 24 positive character strengths are split into six virtue classes:
  • Wisdom: Creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective.
  • Courage: Honesty, bravery, persistence, zest.
  • Humanity: Kindness, love, social intelligence.
  • Justice: Fairness, leadership, teamwork.
13 May 2022

Can positive psychology make us happier? ›

Positive psychology focuses on building what's good in your life. You're more likely to experience growth and happiness when your mind is in a positive space. You'll focus on emotions such as awe, surprise, joy and other vibrant feelings.

What are 5 ways to practice positive thinking? ›

The Power of Positive Thinking: 5 Ways You Can Practice...
  1. Use affirmations. ...
  2. Remind yourself to focus on the good things, no matter how small they are. ...
  3. Do something nice for someone. ...
  4. Focus on the present moment. ...
  5. Surround yourself with positive people.
11 Aug 2020

Do positive psychology exercises work? ›

Conclusions. Brief, positive psychology interventions may boost happiness through a common factor involving the activation of positive, self-relevant information rather than through other specific mechanisms. Finally, the effects of PPEs on depression may be more modest than previously assumed.

What are the best positive thoughts? ›

Inspirational Quotes of the Day
  • You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. ...
  • Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow. ...
  • In every day, there are 1,440 minutes. ...
  • The only time you fail is when you fall down and stay down.

What are 10 traits of a positive thinker? ›

There are ten specific behavioral traits that are characteristic of a positive-thinking and positive-living person: optimism, enthusiasm, belief, integrity, courage, confidence, determination, patience, calmness, and focus.

What are the 5 advantages of positive thinking? ›

10 benefits of positive thinking
  • Better stress management and coping skills during stressful moments.
  • Lower risk of depression.
  • More resistant to the common cold and a stronger immune system.
  • Decreased risk of heart attacks and heart disease.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Better problem-solving.
  • Greater ability to adapt to change.
12 Apr 2022

What are 5 positive sentences? ›

Examples of Positive sentence
  • They are going to plant a tree.
  • Bill will join swimming classes this summer.
  • My sister brought home a very cute puppy.
  • The work is due today.
  • Ankush laughed loudly at the joke.
  • I have a plan.
  • Raju went to Kolkata yesterday.
  • Gourav tried hard to climb the wall.
12 Dec 2021

What are positive effects examples? ›

It refers to the emotions or feelings that we experience and display, especially in terms of how these emotions influence us to act and make decisions. Positive affectivity refers to positive emotions and expression, including cheerfulness, pride, enthusiasm, energy, and joy.

What are Shawn Achor 5 easy tips to increase happiness? ›

Of course, Achor says that it's important to practice rational optimism.
Achor then gives six specific 45-second activities you can do to work against your genes and have lifelong habits of happiness.
  • Gratitude Exercises. ...
  • The Doubler. ...
  • The Fun Fifteen. ...
  • Meditation. ...
  • Deepen Social Connections.
21 Jan 2021

What three 3 actions make an individual happier? ›

They found three distinct sources of happiness: Pleasure, Challenge and Meaning. These are the ingredients of all things that make us happy and they can be combined in different ways. Ideally we would spend most of our time doing things that include one, two or even all three sources.

What are the 5 ways to cultivate happiness? ›

5 Ways to Cultivate Happiness
  • Focus on the basics. Taking basic care of yourself and your needs is a vital step on the journey to happiness. ...
  • Practice kindness. Do something for someone else. ...
  • Self-care. What can you do for your own happiness? ...
  • Gratitude. We talk about gratitude a lot here. ...
  • Therapy.
19 Mar 2022

What are character strengths in positive psychology? ›

Strengths such as curiosity, kindness, bravery, perseverance, hope, gratitude, teamwork, humility, and fairness are part of this framework. Each of these 24 character strengths is thoroughly reviewed in terms of what is known.

What are the 4 C's in psychology? ›

In his book “Developing Mental Training,” psychologist Peter Clough, describes four important traits of mental toughness, which he calls the four C's: confidence, challenge, control and commitment.

What are the four components that positive psychology capital consists of? ›

The concept of Psychological Capital is made up of the four elements of Hope, Efficacy, Resilience, and Optimism, with the commonality of appreciation and the positive appraisal of events. Developing one resource tends to boost the other ones as well.

How do I toughen up mentally? ›

How to Get a Better, Stronger and More Confident Mind
  1. Get Things Done. Confidence and accomplishment go hand-in-hand. ...
  2. Monitor Your Progress. ...
  3. Do The Right Thing. ...
  4. Exercise. ...
  5. Be Fearless. ...
  6. Stand-up For Yourself. ...
  7. Follow Through. ...
  8. Think Long-term.
9 Apr 2019

How do I make my child mentally tough? ›

Want to raise mentally strong kids? Science says stop telling them 'everything will be OK'—here are 5 things to do instead
  1. They validate their feelings. ...
  2. They coach them on how to manage their emotions. ...
  3. They let them make mistakes. ...
  4. They problem-solve together. ...
  5. They allow their kids to feel uncomfortable.
5 Mar 2019

How can I increase my mental toughness? ›

Strategies to help build mental strength
  1. Acknowledge your feelings. ...
  2. Practice being self-compassionate. ...
  3. Assess your challenge. ...
  4. Take small steps toward what you want to avoid. ...
  5. Work on mindfulness. ...
  6. Externalize how you feel. ...
  7. Maintain a healthy lifestyle.
20 May 2022

What is the basic starting point for positive psychology? ›

The study of positive psychology involves three essential pillars: positive experiences (the study of contentment with the past, gratefulness in the present, and optimism for the future), positive individual traits (the study of personal strengths), and positive institutions (the study of what fosters better ...

What are positive psychology exercises? ›

5 Positive Psychotherapy Exercises and Tools
  • Gratitude Journal. One of the simplest yet most effective exercises in positive psychology is a gratitude journal. ...
  • Design a Beautiful Day. ...
  • Self-Esteem Journal. ...
  • Mindfulness Meditation. ...
  • Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS)
27 Aug 2019


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