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This is a special two-part series. Read Preeti's blog on Integrating Positive and Community Psychology.
Academic Psychology has had a rather short history, just shy of 150 years. In this time, the field has seen numerous views on the human psyche – humans have been likened to limited capacity communication machines, non-volitional hedonistic beings seeking gratification of physical wants, information processors like computers that function on inputs and outputs, systems that learn to react to environmental inputs, and so on. Following the second World War, there was an emphasis on developing a medical, biologically-based understanding of the enigma that is the human mind – copious amounts of funds and research were dedicated to understanding ‘devious’ behaviors, identifying faulty genes that lead to such behaviors, developing classifications of illness, and developing treatments to overcome the illnesses and reach ‘normal’ functioning.
Despite these wide-ranging efforts to paint a precise picture of the human mind, there was always something lacking – an understanding of human beings as more than their limitations, diseases, and deficiencies. The father of Positive Psychology – Martin Seligman – recognized the potential of Psychology to focus not just on weaknesses, but also strengths. Not just repairing the worst, but also building the best; not just understanding how to overcome prejudice, but also learning to foster acceptance; not just healing the wounds of the distressed, but also fulfilling the lives of the healthy. And hence emerged the explosively popular Positive Psychology – the philosophy that takes into account human strength, potential, and growth.
The central tenet of Positive Psychology is that a study of human beings can never deem itself complete if it shines an exclusive focus on ‘fixing what is wrong’ – it must reach beyond, to study how humans can thrive and reach their maximal potential.
As the Positive Psychology researcher Christopher Peterson puts it, “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what goes right in life, from birth to death, and at all stops in between”. That rather sappy description of the field brings to mind many pop-psychologists, motivational speakers, self-proclaimed gurus, and BuzzFeed articles, and their lackluster, “choose to look at the glass half full” approach, and their “positivity is key” mottos. And while many do fall prey to typecasting Positive Psychology as another endeavor in the aforementioned list, it could not be more apart from them. What truly makes Positive Psychology stand apart is its strong foundation of extensive empirical research which has supported its suppositions. Interventions rooted in Positive Psychology have been shown to alleviate mental illnesses, as well as enhance growth, wellbeing, and health. Numerous elaborately researched theories and models form the backbone of the field and its understanding of what human beings are. Moreover, Positive Psychology does not negate the existence of a darker side of the human psyche (like Maslow’s Humanistic Psychology), but only urges to look beyond this darker side.
However, the true merit of Positive Psychology lies not in the intricate nature of its theories, or the extensive nature of the research designs that support it – but in the practical applications of Positive Psychology, and the real-world changes that it has been shown to effect. In fact, Applied Positive Psychology has emerged as a sub-field in itself, attempting to develop practices that touch lives. The applicability of Positive Psychology has been demonstrated in education, mental health clinics, healthcare, community settings, marital therapy, sports, and even workplaces. Organizations using interventions based on Positive Psychology have been shown to effectively increase person-job fit, employee engagement, work-life balance, organizational commitment, and organizational learning. These changes have reflected in tangible, objective outcomes such as the percentage increase in the per-person productivity and decreased annual turnover rates. In schools and classrooms, targeted positive interventions have been linked to increased levels of classroom learning and Grade Point Averages. Self-discipline is twice as good a predictor of high school grades as IQ, and can be nurtured through Positive Psychology interventions. Techniques have been developed that can be adopted in intimate partner relationships to foster love, offset divorces, and build healthier home environments.
What makes Positive Psychology special is its real-world relevance, beyond the realm of academic journals and statistical analyses of data.
It caters to anyone who wants to be happier, healthier, more optimistic and hopeful, courageous and wise. As human beings, we are all on our individual journeys, and no matter what step we’re on, Positive Psychology is a guidepost that shows us how to move courageously to the next one.
Donaldson, S. I., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Nakamura, J. (2011). Applied Positive Psychology: Improving Everyday Life, Health, Schools, Work, and Society. Routledge.
Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110. doi:10.1037/1089-2622.214.171.124
Lopez, S. J., Pedrotti, J. T., & Snyder, C. R. (2018). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Sage Publications.
Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311. doi:10.1080/03054980902934563