What is Positive Psychology?

10.08.2022 |

Episode #1 of the course Introduction to positive psychology by Psychology Insights Online


A warm welcome to this course on positive psychology! We are Psychology Insights Online. A team of researchers and academics who are dedicated to sharing our knowledge of psychology with the public. We hope that you enjoy this course and that what you learn here can help to enrich your own life!

The roots of psychology date all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Even during ancient times, philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics speculated as to what makes for a “good” or “noble” life. These ideas directly influenced modern psychology, which became its own academic field of study in the late 1800s. Since its founding, the overarching focus of psychology has been to explain the causes and consequences of human behavior, thoughts, and emotions. Yet, with only a few exceptions, most of the attention has been directed toward identifying what is wrong with people instead of what makes human beings thrive. For example, through psychotherapy, clinical psychology has certainly improved the lives of people suffering from various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and addictions. However, much less research has been directed toward pinpointing the reasons for why many people don’t develop a mental illness.

The movement toward developing a more positive version of psychology gained significant traction with the work of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers in the 1950s and 60s. Maslow and Rogers are widely considered as the most influential figures in the Humanistic Psychology movement. Humanistic Psychology takes the perspective that people are inherently good, have the ability to make their own decisions, and have the potential for self-actualization (i.e., reaching their full potential). It was actually Maslow who first coined the term “positive psychology” in 1954 (Resnick et al., 2001). Since the 1960s, the influence of Humanistic Psychology has waned; however, many of its core tenets were later incorporated into what became known as positive psychology.

It can be quite easily argued that no individual has been more influential in the founding of positive psychology than Martin Seligman. Seligman is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and is a past president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Early in his research career, Seligman wasn’t really interested in the positive aspects of psychology. Instead, he was actually known for his ground-breaking research on depression, helplessness, and pessimism. Clearly, these are topics that are not very “positive” in nature. However, by the 1990s, he had changed his research program to instead focus on the importance of optimism. In 1991, he published Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, a book that helped to create renewed interest on how our thoughts can influence our happiness. Importantly, as the APA president, Seligman provided an influential address and several publications outlining the need for positive psychology to become its own discipline (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

Now that we have covered some of its history, let’s discuss what positive psychology looks like today. As its own academic sub-discipline, positive psychology has grown immensely and is now one of the most popular areas in psychology. Most university psychology departments teach positive psychology in introductory psychology or as its own course. More and more universities are also offering master’s degrees and PhD programs that focus on positive psychology as well. In terms of research, there are now many established academic journals that publish original research on positive psychology topics. Finally, a clear indication of the popularity of positive psychology can be found in just about any bookstore. Many (if not most) of the best-selling books on psychology focus on positive psychology topics and are written by some of the leading academics in the field. It’s clear that positive psychology is here to stay.

In the lectures that follow, we will introduce you to the major issues and areas of study in positive psychology. For instance, we will cover the research on subjective well-being and happiness. While this is probably the most popular topic in positive psychology, it is just one aspect of a much broader field of study. You will also be introduced to motivation, flow, creativity, and wisdom to name just a few. Now, before moving on to Lecture 2, take some time to reflect on what brings you joy in life. Is it your career? Your family? Is it meeting challenges? Is it money or material possessions? Think about this now and see if your beliefs change as you progress through the course.

See you tomorrow!


Recommended book

Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness by Ilona Boniwell



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