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Positive Psychology

Added 3 September 2019
What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology, officially established in 1998, is one of the newer branches of psychology. This particular approach is concerned with how we as indiviudals can flourish and find meaning and purpose in our lives (Peterson, 2008). Positive psychology acknowledges the human experience of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviour, and encourages us to focus on our strengths instead of our weaknesses. “Traditional psychology” on the other hand, is primarily concerned with identifying and treating mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression. This approach is crucially important for those experiencing mental health issues. Mental health problems are on the rise within Australia with 20% of our population being diagnosed with a mental illness. It is therefore vital that we employ a range of approaches in dealing with mental health. 

Positive psychology is most concerned with how one can promote their wellbeing instead of “repairing” their negative experiences. This is not to discredit the importance or place that traditional psychology has within clinical settings. Positive psychology can be useful in assisting indiviudals with ways to proactively deal with their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours and perhaps even reduce the severity of mental illness. This is done by indiviudals focusing on their internal strengths and building these in such a way that they become a foundation of support and harmony.
Founder of Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman’s research from the 1960s and 70s provided the foundation for the psychological theory known as “learned helplessness”. This research-based theory explains that human beings and even animals can become helpless when they feel they have lost control over what happens to them or around them. Essentially, we “learn” to become helpless and give up the concept of hope or well-being. Seligman aligned this type of learned behaviour with depression. The link here may be quite obvious: often times, indiviudals suffering from depression may also feel helpless and hopeless. 

Seligman grew frustrated with the traditional approach to mental health and psychology. Specifically, he found that a disproportionate amount of attention was paid to trauma, suffering, pain, and abnormal psychology. He believed that there was very little attention being paid to indiviudals strengths, resilience, happiness, and optimism. 

Motivated by the psychology landscape at the time, Seligman focused his attention on characteristics, traits, and perspectives that individuals could learn and harness. Specifically, he discovered that concepts such as learned optimism and resilience would form the foundation for overcoming learned helplessness. He even created “resilience programs” which were administered to members of the military, young children, and other suffering indiviudals. With this, it becomes clear that the idea of learning optimism or positivity can indeed be healing and therapeutic. 

In 1998, Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association. With his new position, he ran with the opportunity to alter and diversify the field and direction of psychology. His new, influential position allowed him the opportunity to create a new subfield of psychology. Positive psychology arose which emphasised focus on those qualities which are “life-giving” rather than those that are “life-depleting”. 

Three core pillars of Positive Psychology

The main premise of positive psychology is to focus on the positive influences and events in our lives. There are three key elements:

  1. Subjective positive experiences: these include feelings of joy, happiness, love, inspiration, “flow”, optimism, and well-being. This particular element is concerned with how indiviudals feel good. 
  2. Personal states, traits and qualities: this element includes the personal qualities that one deems necessary in order to be a “good person”. Qualities such as compassion, resilience, patience, gratitude, forgiveness, love, and courage are fundamental to this idea. 
  3. Input to the group or community: this element is concerned with the social interactions and responsibilities we have as indiviudals. This theory posits that by engaging positively with those around us, we develop more meaningful connections. This further contributes to our experience of a meaningful and purposeful life. 

Benefits of Positive Psychology

There are numerous studies which support the workings of positive psychology. These include but are not limited to: 
  • The power of a positive mood to cultivate the experience of a happier disposition. This is not to simply say that putting on a happy face will result in feelings of happiness. Rather, when indiviudals are aware and make a concerted effort to cultivate a positive mood, they will begin to harness a deeper connection with themselves. This in turn will provide them with the experience of well-being and feelings of joy, happiness, and contentment. 
  • Simple and small actions can have the biggest effect on our mood. For example, if an individual creates a habit of keeping track of all the things they are grateful for, they may in turn experience more moments of happiness and joy because they are “priming” their minds to be open to such experiences. 
  • We are truly resilient beings. Positive psychology is extremely useful in contributing to this narrative as indiviudals are encouraged to focus on their strengths. In doing so, limited time is spent ruminating on our short-comings or failures. By approaching ourselves in this way, we begin to realise that we are far stronger than we give ourselves credit for. This self-love creates a cycle of positive thinking in which indiviudals become better equipped to treat themselves with kindness, compassion, and understanding.  

Peterson, C. (2008). What is positive psychology, and what is it not? Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Written by Tyla – ADAVIC Volunteer

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