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Frequently Asked Questions

Following are answers to frequently asked questions about positive psychology. These are based largely on Christopher Peterson’s book Primer in Positive Psychology (2006), Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness (2002), and an article by Seligman and Pawelski (2003).

1. Is positive psychology an abandoning or rejection of the rest of psychology?

In a word, no. Since World War II, psychology has focused its efforts on psychological problems and how to remedy them. These efforts have reaped large dividends. Great strides have been made in understanding and treating psychological disorders. Effective treatments now exist for more than a dozen disorders that were once seen as intractable (Barrett & Ollendick, 2004; Evans et al., 2005; Hibbs & Jensen, 1996; Kazdin & Weisz, 2003; Nathan & Gorman, 1998, 2002; Seligman, 1994).

One consequence of this focus on psychological problems, however, is that psychology has little to say about what makes life most worth living. Positive psychology proposes to correct this imbalance by focusing on strengths as well as weaknesses, on building the best things in life as well as repairing the worst. It asserts that human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, that life entails more than the undoing of problems.

Psychology’s concern with remedying human problems is understandable and should certainly not be abandoned. Human suffering demands scientifically informed solutions. Suffering and well being, however, are both part of the human condition, and psychologists should be concerned with both.

2. Is positive psychology just about making people happy?

“Happiness” is commonly defined as a state of well being or pleasurable experience, but this notion of happiness is only a small part of positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. According to Seligman (2002), positive psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotion entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of meaning and purpose as well as the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.

Each of these three domains is related to a different meaning of the scientifically unwieldy term “happiness,” and each has its own road to happiness (Seligman, 2002). Positive emotions lead to the pleasant life, which is similar to the hedonic theories of happiness. Using one’s strengths in a challenging task leads to the experience of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and the engaged life. Deploying one’s strengths in the service of something larger than oneself can lead to the meaningful life (e.g., belonging to and serving institutions such as education, free press, religion, democracy, and family, to name a few).

3. Is positive psychology the same as positive thinking?

Positive psychology is different from positive thinking in three significant ways. First, positive psychology is grounded in empirical and replicable scientific study. Second, positive thinking urges positivity on us for all times and places, but positive psychology does not. Positive psychology recognizes that in spite of the advantages of positive thinking, there are times when negative or realistic thinking is appropriate. Studies find that optimism is associated with better health, performance, longevity, and social success (Seligman, 1991; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005), but there is evidence that in some situations negative thinking leads to more accuracy and being accurate can have important consequences (Alloy, Abramson, & Chiara, 2000). Optimistic thinking can be associated with an underestimation of risks (Peterson & Vaidya, 2003). For example, we do not necessarily want a pilot or air traffic controller to be an optimist when deciding whether to take off during a storm.

The third distinction between positive thinking and positive psychology is that many scholars of positive psychology have spent decades working on the “negative” side of things – depression, anxiety, trauma, etc. We do not view positive psychology as a replacement for traditional psychology, but merely as a supplement to the hard-won gains of traditional psychology.

4. Is positive psychology discovering anything surprising? Is this just stuff my mother knows?

Some of the findings of positive psychology seem like common sense. Does this add anything to what we already know about the good life? It is easy to claim something is obvious after the evidence is in. It is the job of science to empirically prove or disprove what we consider as the common wisdom. Sometimes this common “wisdom” is true, sometimes it is not. One person’s wisdom can be another person’s folly. Positive psychology research is discovering some things that might not be considered wisdom to all.

To name just a few:

  1. Wealth is only weakly related to happiness both within and across nations, particularly when income is above the poverty level (Diener & Diener, 1996).
  2. Activities that make people happy in small doses – such as shopping, good food and making money – do not lead to fulfillment in the long term, indicating that these have quickly diminishing returns (Myers, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  3. Engaging in an experience that produces ‘flow’ is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate feedback on progress toward the goal. In such an activity, concentration is fully engaged in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and sense of time is distorted (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
  4. People who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, optimism, progress toward goals, well-being, and help others more (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).
  5. Trying to maximize happiness can lead to unhappiness (Schwartz et al., 2002).
  6. People who witness others perform good deeds experience an emotion called ‘elevation’ and this motivates them to perform their own good deeds (Haidt, 2000).
  7. Optimism can protect people from mental and physical illness (Taylor et al., 2000).
  8. People who are optimistic or happy have better performance in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people. Further, optimism can be measured and it can be learned (Seligman, 1991; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005).
  9. People who report more positive emotions in young adulthood live longer and healthier lives (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001).
  10. Physicians experiencing positive emotion tend to make more accurate diagnoses (Isen, 1993).
  11. Healthy human development can take place under conditions of even great adversity due to a process of resilience that is common and completely ordinary (Masten, 2001).
  12. There are benefits associated with disclosive writing. Individuals who write about traumatic events are physically healthier than control groups that do not. Individuals who write about the perceived benefits of traumatic events achieve the same physical health benefits as those who write only about the trauma (King & Miner, 2000). Individuals who write about their life goals and their best imagined future achieve similar physical health benefits to those who write only about traumatic events. Further, writing about life goals is significantly less distressing than writing about trauma, and is associated with enhanced well-being (King, 2001).
  13. People are unable to predict how long they will be happy or sad following an important event (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg & Wheatley, 1998; Wilson, Meyers, & Gilbert, 2001). These researchers found that people typically overestimate how long they will be sad following a bad event, such as a romantic breakup, yet fail to learn from repeated experiences that their predictions are wrong.
5. Is the science of positive psychology descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, are we trying to tell people how they should live?

Positive psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive, at least in Seligman’s view, although others disagree. We are not telling people which choices they should make; we are merely informing them about what is known about the consequences of their choices. The good life for one person is not necessarily the good life for another. Objective, empirical research on the conditions that lead to different outcomes, however, can help people make more informed choices, but we take no theoretical stand on the desirability of the different choices.

6. As long as there is suffering in the world, how can we justify devoting time and resources to positive psychology? Isn’t human suffering more important than well being?

Research has shown that one way to help suffering people is to focus on the building of strengths. Major strides in prevention have come largely by building strengths. Prevention researchers have discovered that there are strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future mindedness, optimism, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, and the capacity for flow and insight, to name several. Prevention can be far more effective than cure - witness how immunizations have largely eliminated polio and other diseases. Further, people care about more than just the relief of their suffering. These people also care about living a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Positive psychology interventions can both increase happiness and alleviate symptoms of depression (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). Fredrickson (2001) found that positive emotion can “undo” negative emotion and be the building blocks of resilience that combat physical illness. Lyubomirsky’s (2001) research on the conditions that enhance happiness has relevance for the practice of clinical psychology and the relief of mental disorders. Strengths function as a buffer against adversity and against psychological disorders, and they may be the key to resilience (Masten, 2001). The responsibility of a psychologist is not merely to heal damage and treat disorder, but also to guide people toward a life that can be fulfilling and meaningful.

7. Are happy people stupid?

There seems to be a bias in our culture to perceive happy people as less intelligent. We call someone a Pollyanna if we want to dismiss their optimism as foolish. We call someone a grinning idiot if we want to say that happiness is naïve. Perhaps this stereotyping results from the view that life is tragic.

Although there is evidence that in some situations, negative thinking leads to more accuracy (Alloy, Abramson, & Chiara, 2000) and that optimistic thinking can be associated with an underestimation of risks (Peterson & Vaidya, 2003), most of the research does not support this view of happy people: People who are optimistic or happy are more successful in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people (Seligman, 1991; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005).

8. Is positive psychology a new field?

No, it is not. Positive psychology has many distinguished ancestors. Since at least the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the “good life” has been the subject of philosophical and religious inquiry. Psychologists have been working in positive psychology for decades. It just hasn’t been called positive psychology. To name just a few: Rogers (1951) and Maslow (1970) who are founders of the field of humanistic psychology, prevention programs based on wellness by Albee (1982) and Cowen (1994), work by Bandura (1989) and others on self-efficacy, research on gifted individuals (e.g., Winner, 2000), broader conceptions of intelligence (e.g., Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1985), among many others. Marie Jahoda (1958) made the case for understanding well being in its own right, not simply as the absence of disorder or distress.

Positive psychology acknowledges a debt to humanistic psychology, which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s and has many followers to this day. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers (among others) proposed that people strive to make the most of their potential in a process called self-actualization, which can be thwarted or enabled by a variety of conditions. Humanistic psychology emphasizes the goals for which people strive, their awareness of this striving, and the importance of rational choice in this process.

Today’s positive psychologists have not invented the study of happiness, well being, or strengths. The contribution of contemporary positive psychology has been to make the explicit argument that what makes life most worth living deserves its own empirically based field of study, to provide an umbrella term that brings together isolated lines of theory and research, to promote the cross-fertilization of ideas in related fields through conferences, summer institutes and research grants, to develop a comprehensive conceptual view of broad notions of happiness, to bring this field to the attention of various foundations and funding agencies, to help raise money for research, and to firmly ground assertions on the scientific method.


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