Positive psychology

This page last updated June 13th, 2016

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Traditionally, psychology addressed people with problems, pathological conditions, and tried to help them achieve a more “normal” life. But in recent decades, positive psychology has researched how reasonably healthy people can lead a happier life.

You can make a difference in your life with this new branch of psychology.

What is positive psychology?

Positive Psychology is a new branch of psychology which focuses on helping people live happier lives. (Psychology has tended in the past to focus on dealing with problems.)

Probably the key figure in this movement is Dr Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Centre. His Authentic Happiness website says positive psychology:

focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. His research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier – to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms.

Positive psychology aims to build happiness by helping a person in three areas:

  1. positive emotions and experiences – bringing happiness, pleasure and wellbeing into our lives
  2. positive character traits – character, values, talents, etc, enable us to have positive experiences
  3. positive enabling institutions – families, communities, organisations, etc, enable us to develop positive traits and hence have positive experiences.

Research has led to the definition of 24 “character strengths” grouped under 6 “virtues”. The identified virtues, together with examples of associated character strengths are:

  • wisdom and knowledge – for example, open-mindedness, love of learning, creativity
  • courage – e.g. authenticity, persistence, zest
  • humanity – e.g. kindness, love
  • justice – e.g. fairness, leadership, teamwork
  • temperance – e.g. forgiveness, modesty
  • transcendance – e.g. gratitude, humour, hope, appreciation of beauty and excellence, religiousness

Becoming a happier person

Research has shown that development of these character strengths can help a person be happier. Some strengths (for example, zest, gratitude, hope and love) are more associated with happiness than others. Happier people are more successful and more socially engaged, so there are many good reasons to try to be happier.

Positive psychology sums up all this information by identifying three areas (or “domains”) of life which are keys to happiness:

  • The Pleasant Life. Having as much pleasure and positive emotion as possible. However our capacity for positive emotion is largely determined genetically, so the following are more important for most of us.
  • The Engaged Life. Being absorbed and immersed in our work, love, friendship and leisure. This requires us to strengths and virtues and build our lives around them. This allows us to be more absorbed in our life, have a greater zest for living and be more positive about what we are doing.
  • The Meaningful Life. This requires us to go beyond ourselves and our pleasures and use our strengths and virtues in the service of something that we believe is more important than we are.

Positive psychology research has found that those who pursue these three lives, pleasure, engagement, and meaning, have by far the most life satisfaction, with engagement and meaning far and away the biggest contributors to fulfillment.

The good news for those who want to be happier is that it is possible to make ‘interventions’ to increase happiness. Interventions take the form of exercises which reinforce positive character strengths. Among the ones that work are:

  • Identifying your top strengths and using one of them in a new way.
  • Nightly recording three things that went well today and why they went well.
  • Increasing your optimism by learning to recognize and dispute catastrophic thoughts.
  • Writing a gratitude letter and then making a visit to someone who made a big difference in your life who you never properly thanked.

A personal assessment

The ‘old fashioned’ virtues, such as forgiveness, gratitude and modesty, often seem to be lost in today’s competitive world, where image, looking after one’s own interests, striving for material success and avoiding being a ‘loser’ are important values. But it seems that much of this is counter-productive. Happiness, for most of us, really lies elsewhere, in these and other “forgotten” virtues. I find this somehow reassuring.

(However I’m not holding my breath waiting for everyone to change – the pressures of materialism, advertising and our competitive culture prevent many people from seeing these truths.)

However it is interesting that very little I have read about positive psychology is based on ethics. The whole movement points strongly to the worth of traditional ethical values, even self scrifice for a larger cause in the “meaningful life”, yet the reasons given are generally not ethical (“you should do this”), but personal (“this will make you happier”). It criticises self indulgence and shallowness and could be used to reinforce an ethical belief, but it also seems capable of leading to narcissism and selfcentredness.

I wonder whether it is easy, or even possible, to live for a cause “higher” than oneself for selfish reasons? Thus I’m inclined to think the positive psychology is an extemely useful tool, but to be fully effective may need to be at the service of a world view that provides purpose and ethics.

Photo: MorgueFile.


The following websites provide information, on-line tests to assess your happiness and character strengths, and opportunities to sign up to receive additional help and support:

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