Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology

Young child of about eight with long curly brown hair holds plant up under shaft of sunlightPositive psychology, a relatively new form of psychology, emphasizes the positive influences in a person’s life, such as character strengths, optimistic emotions, and constructive institutions. This theory is based on the belief that happiness is derived from both emotional and mental factors, and positive psychology aims to help people identify happiness from moment to moment rather than only appreciating happy moments when looking back on them.

People seeking therapy who desire to experience a greater sense of joy and liberation from their current life circumstances may find this approach helpful, and many find it easier to remain focused on the positive emotions they experience in the present moment after treatment has ended.

History and Development

Though influential psychologists such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Erich Fromm, and Albert Bandura played a role in the development of ideas and theories regarding human happiness and productivity, it was not until 1998 that Martin Seligman brought new focus to the concept of “positive psychology” as president of the American Psychological Association. In his book Authentic Happiness, which was published in 2002, Seligman expressed his belief that the field of psychology's decades-long exclusive focus on mental health concerns was not the most helpful approach, and he encouraged psychologists to instead focus on the promotion, nurture, and enhancement of positive human attributes and talents.

The first positive psychology summit was hosted in 1999, and in 2002, the First International Conference on Positive Psychology was held. Positive psychology caught the attention of the general public in 2006 when Professor Tal Ben-Shahar’s positive psychology class became Harvard’s most popular course, with an enrollment of 855 students. In 2009, the University of Pennsylvania hosted the First World Congress on Positive Psychology.

Since the emergence of positive psychology in 1998, there has been an increasing divide between the proponents of positive psychology and humanistic psychology. Supporters of positive psychology hold that positive psychology theories are based on solid scientific evidence and are therefore superior to humanistic theories that lack supportive empirical evidence. On the other hand, some humanistic psychologists have criticized Seligman for attempting to claim credit for decades of research conducted by his predecessors in humanistic psychology.

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While Martin Seligman has been the major driving force behind the movement, other individuals have made significant contributions to the development of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Don Clifton, Ed Diener, C.R. Snyder, Christopher Peterson, Shelley Taylor, Barbara Fredrickson, Michael Argyle, and Daniel Gilbert among them. 

Techniques Used in Positive Psychology

Positive psychotherapy, the application of positive psychology principles in a professional therapeutic setting, is based on the concept that the emotion of happiness may be broken down into three more manageable components: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. The exercises used in positive psychotherapy are specifically designed to enhance one or more of these components in a person’s life.

Some of the techniques used in this form of therapy involve examining the activities of the person in therapy and exploring the positive implications of each activity. A common practice is the use of beepers or pagers. Therapists may, with the consent of the person receiving therapy, beep the individual to remind them to record the experiences they are having. These records are expanded upon when an individual adds daily entries to describe the details of the past day. These methods, often referred to as short-term sampling, are then evaluated with long-term appraisals.

People in therapy are also generally encouraged to keep a gratitude journal. This record acts as a tangible reminder of the positive events and accomplishments of each day, and the practice can often help offset the tendency to ruminate on things that may not have gone according to plan. 

How Can Positive Psychology Help? 

Humans are hardwired to attend more strongly to negative experiences. As such, it is often the case that people in therapy do not know what factors influence the happiness in their life from one event to the next. Many mental health care professionals believe this incongruity may be a result of perception. A person may not be able to identify specific emotions during the experience but might clearly recognize these emotions when they reflect upon that same experience later. Positive psychology aims to bring a person’s attention, expectation, and memory away from the negative and catastrophic and toward the positive and hopeful in an attempt to achieve a balanced perspective

Positive psychology has led to the development of several key concepts that have proven to be highly therapeutic for individuals experiencing depression and anxiety. Some studies have shown that a lack of positivity may contribute to the development of or exacerbate the presence of a low or depressed mood, though depression does not develop solely because of this lack  Positive psychology does not solely target negative symptoms, it also seeks to enhance character strengths and positive emotions and can offer benefit to people simply wishing to develop in these areas. 

Studies indicate that both positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy are effective in the reduction of negative symptoms experienced by people with depression, but the results of one comparative study between the two therapeutic approaches indicated that positive psychotherapy may be more effective at increasing the overall happiness of a person experiencing depression.

Positive Psychology vs. Positive Psychotherapy 

Though their names are similar, positive psychology and positive psychotherapy are two distinct approaches. One approach is grounded in the positive psychology theory developed by Seligman in 1998, and the other, a cross-cultural approach developed in 1968 by Nossrat Peseschkian, incorporates psychodynamic and humanistic influences. 

Though Seligman’s positive psychology and Peseschkian’s positive psychotherapy are similar in that they both assume humans are innately good and attempt to encourage personal development, there are several key differences between the approaches.

  • Seligman’s approach does not deny negative experiences, but Peseschkian’s approach views all negative experiences in a positive light, seeing them as opportunities for growth
  • Seligman’s approach is primarily Westernized, while Peseschkian’s approach is more transcultural
  • Seligman’s approach distances itself from its humanistic influences, and Peseschkian’s approach embraces its humanistic and psychodynamic background

Limitations and Concerns

Due to the popularity of positive psychology in the media, a number of psychologists have expressed concerns as to whether practical applications of the approach have outstripped the scientific research on its effectiveness. Multimillion dollar companies such as IBM, FedEx, and Adobe have hired “happiness coaches” for their employees; some schools have implemented concepts of positive psychology into their curriculum; and even the United States Army is developing resilience training programs to increase the well-being of all soldiers. Critics do agree positive psychology may lead to improved mental health in many situations, but the field lacks the empirical evidence to support of the claims made regarding its benefit, and more rigorous testing is needed to determine how long any beneficial effects last. Positive psychology has also been criticized for rejecting, denying or devaluing earlier work that is closely related to the field. 

One potential concern with positive psychology is that it may be very easy to take possible applications of the approach to the extreme. For example, some individuals in treatment may believe that they can resist the effects of serious physical and mental health problems by simply being optimistic. At the other end of the spectrum, the approach’s emphasis on personal responsibility may lead some individuals who are experiencing mental health conditions or any level of emotional distress to feel responsible for these concerns, though it is widely known that mental health conditions are not the fault of the person who experiences them.

The approach is believed to be less helpful and possibly ineffective when used in the treatment of certain serious or chronic mental health issues such as schizophrenia or traumatic brain injury.

Research has shown that being optimistic and positive may not benefit everyone. Some individuals, who can be termed "defensive pessimists" actually thrive on the fact that they approach situations from a negative viewpoint. These individuals are better able to achieve success by first anticipating possible setbacks and then working to avoid failure. Research has further demonstrated that this type of pessimism may actually help some individuals cope with anxiety, adapt more readily, and outperform strategic optimists.

A final criticism of positive psychology is that the approach is somewhat westernized, as it primarily focuses on virtues and values that reflect the individualism of American society. This limited set of values may not accurately reflect the belief of other cultures, and so a more universal definition of terms may be necessary for many individuals.


  1. Asgharipoor, N., Farid, A. A., Arshadi, H., & Sahebi, A. (2012). A comparative study on the effectiveness of positive psychotherapy and group cognitive-behavioral therapy for the patients suffering from major depressive disorder. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, 6(2), 33-41. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3940016
  2. Azar, B. (2011). Positive psychology advances, with growing pains. Monitor on Psychology, 42(4), 32. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/04/positive-psychology.aspx
  3. Della Porta, M. D., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sin, N. L. (2010). Tailoring positive psychology interventions to treat depressed individuals. Retrieved from http://sonjalyubomirsky.com/wp-content/themes/sonjalyubomirsky/papers/SDL2011.pdf
  4. Rashid, T. (n.d.). Positive psychotherapy. Retrieved from http://tayyabrashid.com/pdf/ppt.pdf
  5. Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T. & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychology, 61(8). 774-788. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17115810


Last updated: 05-30-2017

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