Positive Psychology: Definition, Theories, and Examples
By Sarah Sperber
What is positive psychology? Read on to learn the history of positive psychology, theory, examples, and how positive psychology can help you.
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Are you interested in learning more about positive psychology? Maybe you've heard about it in a class, on a TV show, or online. Well, in this article, we'll give you some more in-depth information. We'll talk about what positive psychology is, the history behind it, some of the most popular positive psychology books, and how you can use it to improve your life.
Given your interest in positive psychology, we thought we'd first tell you about our well-being quiz which will tell a bit about your current level of well-being. Or, if you're an entrepreneur, counselor, or coach, download our Wellness Business Growth eBook to get expert tips, tools, and resources to grow your business fast. Now, let's define positive psychology.
What Is Positive Psychology? (A Definition)
When people think about the field of psychology and what psychologists do, clinical issues such as anxiety and depression come to mind. Positive psychology arose, in part, as a reaction against the field of psychology’s traditional focus on mental health “problems.” Instead of trying to fix what is “wrong” with people, positive psychology asks how we can cultivate human strengths such as resilience, joy, and meaning.
If you are not familiar with the field of positive psychology, the name might seem like it is referring to something along the lines of “positive thinking.” However, while optimism is certainly relevant to positive psychology (and will be discussed below), it is simply one concept of many under the broad umbrella of positive psychology.
The psychologists, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who are often considered the founders of the positive psychology field, define it as “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life” (2000).
The History of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology did not arise in a vacuum but rather was inspired by various psychological and philosophical traditions. While the above definition comes from an article introducing positive psychology in 2000, similar areas of study existed long before the new millennium.
For example, humanistic psychology, which arose in the mid-20th century and has roots in ancient Greek philosophy, is often considered an important influence on positive psychology. Prominent humanistic psychologists include Carl Rogers, known for his development of client-centered therapy, and Abraham Maslow, known for his hierarchy of human needs. In contrast to the somewhat pessimistic theories about human functioning that characterized earlier psychoanalytical theory (e.g. Freud), Rogers, Maslow, and other humanistic psychologists focused on humans’ potential and inherent good qualities.
In her book, Positive Psychology in a Nutshell, psychologist Ilona Boniwell traces this history of positive psychology back to this humanistic movement (2008). She highlights that before World War II, the field of psychology had three goals: 1) to cure the mentally ill, 2) to improve normal lives, and 3) to identify and nurture high talent. Due to the reduced resources and pronounced suffering as a direct result of the war, focus narrowed to the first aim and there was less interest in the latter two. From this point on, psychology operated under a “disease model,” an approach that focuses on identifying what is “wrong” with people.
When Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi introduced positive psychology, they aimed to shift the field away from the disease model. In their words, “The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).
Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology
Seligman does not see positive psychology as a replacement for traditional psychology but instead highlights some of the shortcomings of the disease model and how positive psychology can fill these gaps. While the disease model led to important innovations (“we can make miserable people less miserable”), Seligman asserts that “we forgot about improving normal lives” (Seligman, 2008).
Positive Psychology Theories
Positive Psychology Theory:PERMA
The ultimate aim of much of human psychology (not just positive psychology) is greater well-being. While traditional psychology generally eliminates barriers to well-being (e.g., mental illness), positive psychology tries to add facilitators to well-being (e.g., resilience). Seligman theorizes five “pillars” of well-being in what he calls the PERMA model (Seligman, 2018):
1. Positive emotion
Seligman asserts that each of the above components is intrinsically motivating and contributes to well-being.
Positive Psychology Theory: Three Happy Lives
In a related theory, Seligman suggests that life satisfaction is the result of three types of “happy lives” (Seligman, 2008):
1. The Pleasant Life. This refers to a life characterized by as much positive emotion as possible. Certain skills, such as savoring and mindfulness, can amplify these emotions and contribute to the Pleasant Life. A few drawbacks to only pursuing this type of life is that researchers have found that it is 50% heritable, positive emotions are not entirely modifiable, and positive emotion habituates rapidly, meaning we get used to it quickly.
2. The Life of Engagement. This refers to a life characterized by flow, which we will discuss below. In this life, much of your time is spent doing activities (work, parenting, leisure, etc.) that are so engaging to you that you lose track of time. To pursue the Life of Engagement, Seligman suggests that you identify your highest strengths and recraft your life to use them as much as possible.
3. The Meaningful Life. This life is characterized by a deep sense of meaning. Similar to the Life of Engagement, you are aware of what your highest strengths are. However, you find greater meaning by using your strengths to belong to, and in the service of, something larger than yourself.
While these lives may all result in different types of well-being, Seligman’s research indicates that the Meaningful Life is the strongest contributor to overall life satisfaction.
Examples of Positive Psychology
As mentioned above, positive psychology is a broad umbrella that covers many different topics and ideas. Various areas of research have grown and developed under this umbrella - below are a few examples of these different areas.
Flow in Positive Psychology
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, mentioned earlier, is considered one of the founders of the modern positive psychology movement. He is perhaps best well-known for coining the term “flow” and popularizing this concept in the field of psychology. Flow refers to a particular mental state that is characterized by intense absorption: “during flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life” (Csikszentmihalyi & Bar, 1990). To figure out how this concept can help you, it might be helpful to notice which activities produce this “flow” state for you and try to increase these activities in your life.
Mindfulness and Positive Psychology
Another topic that has received much attention in the world of positive psychology is mindfulness, “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). As mentioned above, cultivating mindfulness is one of the ways that Seligman says can contribute to “the Pleasant Life,” by amplifying or helping us become more aware of enjoyable emotions and experiences.
Learned Optimism and Positive Psychology
Martin Seligman did not research positive psychology for his entire career. Quite the opposite, some of his earlier work focused on a specific theory of depression called “learned helplessness.” This theory posits that clinical depression arises from an individual’s perception that they have no control over negative experiences (Seligman, 1972).
Seligman was later inspired to take a different direction with his research, focusing on psychological traits that are essentially the opposite of helplessness such as optimism. As a nod to his past work, Seligman titled one of his newer books Learned Optimism (2011). The message of this book is that optimism is a learnable skill that can counteract stressful experiences.
Positive Psychology Interventions
Mindfulness / Savoring and Positive Psychology
“The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” - Sharon Salzberg
Above we discussed how mindfulness can help increase positive emotions. As well as cultivating mindfulness through techniques such as meditation, Seligman suggests the following specific activity to further foster positive emotions. For this activity, you design a “beautiful day” for yourself involving enjoyable activities. You then follow this plan, mindfully savoring each experience (2008).
Gratitude and Positive Psychology
Seligman describes the following exercise as an example of how cultivating gratitude can improve one’s life: think of someone who did something important that positively changed your life, and whom you never properly thanked. Write a 300-word testimonial for that person, and then read what you wrote to that person. Research has shown that people who complete this exercise are happier and less depressed (Seligman, 2011).
Positive Psychology Activities For Relationships
Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger emphasizes the importance of high-quality relationships for lasting well-being, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier” (Waldinger, 2016). He describes the following exercise, which aims to not only strengthen an existing relationship but also incorporates another positive psychology idea - identifying and utilizing one’s strengths. For this exercise, a couple identifies their highest strengths and designs an evening where they both use their strengths.
Another activity that Waldinger suggests to highlight the importance of relationships is to do both a fun activity and an altruistic activity and contrast the two experiences. Waldinger asserts that while you will enjoy the fun activity, the sense of contentment that results from the altruistic activity and helping others will be longer-lasting.
Positive Psychology Journaling
Positive psychologists often encourage self-reflection as a way of gauging current levels of well-being. Identifying one’s strengths and areas of happiness both increases well-being directly as well as highlighting areas for improvement. You can measure different types of happiness and compare your scores with the average at a website founded by Seligman.
Journaling could be an effective way to record your results, reflect on where you might like to focus for improvement, and track any changes over time.
Additionally, Ilona Boniwell presents some tips for positive psychology journaling (2008). For example, the following two prompts encourage you to reflect on how you can spend your time in the present to be your happiest self in the future.
3 Ted Talks on Positive Psychology
Video: The new era of positive psychology
Video: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness
Video: The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance
8 Positive Psychology Quotes
10 Books on Positive Psychology
And here's our ebook to help you build positive neural networks: Positivity eWorkbook: Train your brain to make positive memories (ebook)
More Articles Related To Positive Psychology
Here are a few more articles that may help you learn more about positive psychology.
Positive psychology is more than just “positive thinking.” It is a broad area of psychological practice and research that aims to identify and nourish human strengths and positive experiences. By learning more about positive psychology and incorporating some of its lessons into your own life, you have the power to improve your well-being.