What is Positive Psychology?

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

It won’t kill them to carry these logs. Will it?

The following post/article represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

In his 2007 track titled “Stronger” Kayne West sang the words “N-now th-that that don’t kill me Can only make me stronger.” Maybe he was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche (19th Century German philosopher) who stated similarly “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Who knows? I can’t imagine that Mr. West has anything to do with philosophy. Considering what is being said currently about him in the media, maybe he could find an affinity with positive psychology as he would like to use Jesus as a tool to nurture humanity’s strengths and virtues. At least that is what I hope he would like to do. Unfortunately though, a lot of Christian media moguls want to demonize humanity as mainly capable of sin and not virtue.

It appears to me that many in our culture are desperately and frenetically grabbing at anything that promises to work, regardless if those things are proven to work. I want to focus on what has empirical support for working well.  

Aggrieved by the fact that psychology has historically concentrated so much on humanity’s mental infirmities and dark side, in 1998, University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin Seligman, started the positive psychology movement to formulate a discipline for focusing more on people’s strengths and virtues. It appears that positive psychology has revealed weak evidence for the premise that people’s good character is forged based solely on noxious experiences such as surviving a natural disaster or enduring through an illness. Research has shown that productive output increases when managers concentrate on their employees’ strengths and not just their weakness. Clients benefit more if their therapists discuss the client’s strengths and not solely his/her problems. [1]

In the act of accentuating learned optimism, increased well-being and happiness, positive psychology has been a reaction against psychoanalysis and behaviorism, which accentuated mental illness, maladaptation, and negative thinking, perhaps in such a way reinforcing the belief that we are inherent victims of our environment. [3]

Learned optimism or learned helplessness when you are a rose growing from the rubble?

Happiness, as described as a state of well-being and delight, is not all that positive psychology has to offer and discuss. Positive psychology is the scientific investigation into what “strengths and virtues” are most conducive to individuals’ and communities’ flourishing. Seligman centralized positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions in his study. Satisfaction with the past, delight in the present, and hope for the future are integral to understanding positive emotion and exercising desirables like love, labor, bravery, empathy, resilience, creativity, curiosity, scrupulosity, self-awareness, temperance, and good judgment. To gain meaning and purpose to support healthy communities, positive psychology urges us to emphasize impartiality, administration of deserved punishments and reward; courteousness, good manners, parenting, nurturance, and moral benefits of work; collaboration, solidarity, charity, and patience. [2]

Though positive psychology is centered on accomplishing the pleasant life, it shouldn’t be used synonymously with hedonism. Each of the modes of being as mentioned above have different relationships with the scientifically cumbersome term “happiness” and have their different paths to happiness.  We all are yearning to enter a state of flow, wherein we are completely engrossed in doing a task that has our skill levels equalized with the challenge and our minds voluntarily pushed to their limits. The experience of flow is endemic to all classes, genders, ages, and cultures. [7] This leads to the engaged life. Fostering skills in service to something larger than oneself cultivates a meaningful life. Something larger than oneself can be family, institutions, religions, and the defense of moral causes.

Is this the good life? Or is this just a fantasy?

Of course, intimate bonds with spouse, family, friends, and an eclectic network of help groups, along with plenty of physical exercise and mediation, can furnish some happiness. Boosted income gains can furnish some happiness as well, but the happiness may plateau or even decrease when more gains aren’t made. [4] This premise is attributed to a 2005 study involving Seligman et al. who reviewed successes in the field of positive psychology and found certain ubiquitous strengths and virtues on a cross-cultural basis.

The American Psychological Association says:

“In a 6-group, random-assignment, placebo-controlled Internet study, the authors tested 5 purported happiness interventions and 1 plausible control exercise. They found that 3 of the interventions lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. Positive interventions can supplement traditional interventions that relieve suffering and may someday be the practical legacy of positive psychology.” [4]

A bit different from the premise expressed above are what other studies from 2010 and 2013 would unveil. There is a tentative relationship between happiness levels and a nation’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP). Overall, occupants of prosperous countries have greater happiness and well-being than those of poverty-striken countries. But increases in happiness can arguably only remain commensurate with increases in wealth up to $75,000 GDP, according to a study on 450,000 U.S. occupants done by the Gallup Organization, Kahneman and Deaton in 2010. Perhaps a lot of us would expect increased happiness and well-being with having more amenities (e.g. flashy cars and clothes, bigger houses, exotic vacations), but studies have found that humongous incomes can prevent us from fully cherishing the simple pleasures of life. [9]

Money may buy you a toothbrush, but can it buy happiness?

Positive psychology should not be conflated with insipid, over-simplistic self-help books, and double-dealing, unscientific motivational speakers, and New Age philosophy. Positive psychology is unlike traditional psychology, in the sense that, to achieve personal fulfillment in daily living, instead of focusing on what is wrong with you, we should focus on what is right with you. To work alongside traditional psychology instead of superseding it, positive psychology employs the best things in life as a foundation to repairment of the worst things in life. We should focus on strengths amidst acknowledgment of weaknesses. [5]

Learned optimism and learned helplessness

Is it possible that many of us are unhappy because we assume happiness is something that just simply and magically must happen to us? Maybe we must realize that happiness is something we must produce with our own hands and minds. The process is long and hard. Anyone who tries to promote a get-happiness-quick scheme is trying to reach into your wallet. [5]

Learned helplessness is something commonly observed in depressed people, wherein we see the expressed conviction that: “Nothing I do matters nor can I change what is happening.” The same has been observed in laboratory animals that, after experiencing un-evadable shocks at first, couldn’t evade the later shocks that involved opportunities for evasion. Humans can behave and think similarly after interminable contact with complex problems wherein they are tricked into thinking that responses and events are unrelated. The defeatist and cynical attitude underlying this kind of learning undermines other forthcoming, self-supportive types of learning and leads to giving up hope due to the lack of self-fortifying beliefs helping to identify possible solutions for concerns. [6]

I must wonder if all of this is pertinent to young people who have heard innumerable times that their low social class and unfavorable genetics are an obstacle to enhancing their vocational skills, parenting skills, and romantic skills. It isn’t surprising to think that these self-victimizing individuals probably have a childhood history of chronic abuse and neglect. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that they have a childhood history of repeated abnormal or disrupted parental attachment, wherein they were conditioned to feel impotent, vulnerable, paralyzed, unimportant, and blameworthy of the abuse. Negligence has a strange nature, considering that neglected children are less likely to know that they are being neglected and are left not knowing something can be done about it. Also, it is unsurprising that we would observe the person’s resilience (capacity to cope and thrive after adverse experiences) and self-efficacy (belief in your capabilities) declining in adulthood. However, several protective and supportive things can be used to promote and restore an abused or neglected child’s resilience. These include positive attachment, self-esteem, intelligence, emotion regulation, humor, and independence. [6]

Child abuse is linked to bad outcomes later in life!

For humans, the future has a greater gravitational pull than the past. [8] How we conceive the essence of happiness is linked to how we orient ourselves in the world and how we spend our time. [10]

Converging philosophical thinking with scientific empiricism, Carol Ryff developed the Six-factor Model of Psychological Well-Being in 1989 to argue the point that well-being is “multidimensional.”  It isn’t exclusively about “feeling good” and “positive emotions” but also about being “balanced, whole, and living virtuously.” [11]

She argued that 6 categories define well-being: 1) Self-acceptance—you acknowledge your good and bad traits and make peace with your past, 2) Personal growth—your self-improvement is continual, you are open to new experiences, you are always realizing your potential, and changing in ways that demonstrate self-knowledge, 3) Purpose in life—you have goals and direction and find meaning in your past as well as your present, 4) Positive relations with others—you cultivate love, are attentive to others’ welfare, and realize the need for mutual exchange of benefits with others, 5) Environmental mastery—you coexist well with your surroundings, navigate its complexities, and pay heed to opportunities that succor your needs and values, 6) Autonomy—you maintain self-determination, independence, self-regulation, and self-evaluations. [11]

Later empirical research was employed to test whether the facts reveal a six-factor model. Studies were employed in various cultures and found that a six-factor model is realistic. Although, it hasn’t survived without its critics, contending that “the six dimensions are insufficiently distinct after adjusting for measurement error, and that the items are insufficiently discriminating at high levels of well-being.” [12]

Empirical research was performed in Spain and Columbia [13], that involved 919 individuals; 525 were males and 417 were females, aged 16 to 74 years. Data was collected from 1260 white-collar workers, aged 32–58 years, in Sweden to test Carol Ryff’s six-factor model, as well. [14] A sample of adults, aged 18 to 86, were also studied in Hong Kong. [15]

Unfortunately, Ryff’s research is said to be unreported by the popular media. In a world where we are starving for self-empowering, virtue-building knowledge, we have to wonder why. Let’s reverse the trends.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.


[1] Editor: Jarrett, Christian, 30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute, pg. 26, Icon Books Ltd; UK ed. edition (June 21, 2011). Print.

[2] https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/frequently-asked-questions#:~:targetText=Positive%20psychology%20proposes%20to%20correct,than%20the%20undoing%20of%20problems.

[3] https://positivepsychology.com/founding-fathers/

[4] https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0003-066X.60.5.410

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qJvS8v0TTI

 [6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5141652/

[7] https://positivepsychology.com/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-father-of-flow/

[8] Stefaroi, Petru, The Humanistic Approach in Psychology & Psychotherapy, Sociology & Social Work, Pedagogy & Education, Management and Art: Personal Development and Community Development, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (December 30, 2012), Print.

[9] https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-ss-151-1/chapter/the-pursuit-of-happiness/

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_psychology

[11] http://livingmeanings.com/six-criteria-well-ryffs-multidimensional-model/

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241300/

[13] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-007-9174-7

[14] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886905003855

[15] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S019188690400251X

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