Introduction to Positive Psychology

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Introduction to Positive Psychology

This article is a basic introduction to Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology Introduction

Positive psychology is the study of what is right with people and what makes life worth living. For many years psychology has focused on pathology and pain with a goal of curing illnesses. It overlooked developing an equally robust exploration of what is “positive.”

In contrast, the field of coaching has focused on the client being “whole” and able to access solutions to challenges. However, this perspective lacked a reservoir of theory and research to support its assumptions. As you’ll discover as you familiarize yourself with the wide body of research and theory in positive psychology, many of the techniques, tools and orientation coaches have developed through experience have strong alignment with the science of positive psychology. In many ways positive psychology provides the scientific legs upon which the field of coaching can stand.

Positive psychology as a full movement is just over a decade old. However, much of what it studies is not new, but is rooted in the tenets of ancient philosophy and the modern humanistic movement.   During Marty Seligman’s tenure as the president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he worked with other leaders to establish a new focus for the field with an emphasis on encouraging rigorous research and theory development.

The initial group of positive psychology leaders also included Edward Diener and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, (pronounced CHEEK-sent-mee- high). These were the first to recognize that the focus of traditional psychology was too narrow.. Never before had there been an emphasized scientific exploration of optimal health and performance and ways to enhance the lives of typical ‘healthy-minded’ people.

Listen to Dr. Martin Seligman describe what positive psychology is and why it is a strong area of study.

The field of positive psychology was officially launched January 2000 in a special issue of the American Psychologist. In his seminal article, positive psychology founder MARTIN SELIGMAN  and his co-author, MIHALYI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, propose that traditional psychology is “half baked.” That is, while the full mission of psychology was to cure disease, help the life of ordinary people and foster genius. However, for the first 100 years psychology worked on only the first, did not address the other areas. In 2000 they felt it was time to “bake” the rest. They felt that we should now study positive experiences, traits and institutions with the same level of scientific rigor that we study negative experiences, character and systems.


Personal note from the director: The above paragraph may sound a bit academic and impersonal. Let me share what this article meant to me. In 2000 I had been in private practice for nearly 20 years, often labeled as a bit naïve because of my persistence on focusing on the potential of people rather than their pathology. While earlier in my career I had been enthusiastically working in various clinical areas, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, I’d become convinced that focusing on what people could do, rather than what they could not, was most important. I found myself less and less interested in the field and even let my membership in the American Psychology Association lapse as I wasn’t interested in pathology anymore. One day I went to get my mail and saw this special issue on Optimal Functioning – it was addressed to a colleague, I picked it up and walked into my office. I stood, leafing through the issue at my window, and saw – here was an entire group of people who had felt as I did – but they had banded together and done something about it. They gave a language to what had been bothering me for years. At this pivotal moment, my career shifted. Little did I imagine as I turned those pages that my life as a positive psychologist, a coach and eventually starting this Institute would be the direct result of my reading that article back in January 2000. I wonder how many other stories there are like mine?

So What Exactly is Positive Psychology?

In the special issue of the American Psychologist, January 2000, Marty Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (aka “Mike C”) defined positive psychology as:

The evidence based exploration of Complete Mental Health including:

  • Positive subjective states and experiences (past, present and future)

  • Positive individual traits: identifying and using strengths

  • Positive institutions and organizational positive traits

Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt (2005) offered another definition:

Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups and institutions”.

 Jonathan Haidt is the author of the very well known book, The Happiness Hypothesis. If you are interested to a more in depth introduction to the field, watch this 30 minute interview of Jon discussing how he came to positive psychology and his exploration of uplifting emotions. 


The second definition speaks to how to put positive psychology into action. For example, how does an emphasis on positive emotion, or strengths create a different environment within which people can thrive.

As coaches, leaders, teachers, parents or spouses, how can you create the conditions that contribute to flourishing or optimal functioning? The principles of positive psychology and help with this effort with individuals, teams or entire organizations.

In her introductory presentation about positive psychology, Ilona Boniwell, founder of the European Network of Positive Psychology (ENPP), gives a brief background on the field as well as its aims to shift the paradigm of psychology.

Positive Psychology is NOT:

It is NOT the belief that everyone is a paragon of virtue, maturity and mental health. Positive psychologists do not think that expressing positive emotions is more important than expressing negative ones. In fact, research shows that those who experience both high amounts of positive and negative emotion are the most likely to experience optimal functioning.

How Did Positive Psychology Really Come About? – The Behind the Scenes Look.

The idea struck Dr. Martin Seligman over a decade ago, when he was considering what his mission be after he was elected to president of the American Psychological Association. Martin, known to be goal oriented and some what of a grouch, was spending a day with his five- year-old daughter, Nikki, weeding in the garden. While he saw it as a task that needed to be done quickly and efficiently, Nikki was happily “helping” him by throwing the weeds up in the air and twirling around in a shower of grass-confetti. After yelling at her to stop it, Nikki pointed out to her father that since she had turned five, she had been working to stop whining (on his request) and if she could do that then he could stop being such a grump.

Marty realized then that his daughter was right. Although he considered himself ‘normal’ in the sense of mental health, he had been living his whole life with a ‘half-glass empty’ attitude. That is when he recognized that psychology as a discipline was only “half baked”, for it should cover much more that simply “fixing” what we view as wrong with people. It is just as significant to help people find what they are best at and identify and apply their strengths so that they can function optimally in all areas of life.

So then what? Studying positivity and happiness is a good idea, but how can you actually do it? Happiness and well being seem so ephemeral, how could on possibly capture and study something like this? First step? Break it into parts. Happiness is an unwieldy concept, there are in fact many kinds of happiness. 

Three Paths to Happiness: Emotion, Engagement & Meaning

Seligman identified three pathways to happiness:

(1) through the emotions,

(2) through connection with internal or external activity, and

(3) through personal meaning.

 He calls these the Pleasant Life, the Engaged Life, and the Meaningful Life.

Research has found that not everyone experiences happiness the same way. In fact, Martin Seligman argues that there are three distinct pathways to happiness.

  • The Pleasant Life: Think of moments in your life when you experience sensory pleasures and positive emotions; those would be categorized under the pleasant life pathway. Most often we think of this pathway leading us to lasting happiness. However, it is scientifically supported that our brain adapts quickly to repeated sensory input. Thus, something that you found initially pleasurable may not keep you happy for long. 

  • The Engaged Life: This refers to being fully involved in life activity in work, relationships, and avocational pursuits (taken from the Heart of Coaching paper). Also known as the ‘flow’ state’, the engaged life leads to a feeling of feel deep enjoyment when one is in a state of consciousness that keeps them completely enthralled in life activities.

  • The Meaningful Life: The meaningful life addresses ways in which one can find meaning and purpose and connection to a greater cause (from the Heart of Coaching paper). This pathway refers to the ability to experience happiness outside the scope of oneself, for example taking care of others or helping charitable organizations.

Martin Seligman discusses why positive psychology is significant and what a decade of scientific research has revealed about how you can improve human flourishing.


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