During the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists who held either a behaviorist or psychoanalytic perspective were the dominant forces in American psychology. Apprehensive about what they considered the passive view of human functioning that behaviorism represented, and dissatisfied with the focus on abnormality that characterized psychoanalytic interests, a third group of psychologists called for attention to inner experience, internal processes, adaptive functioning, positive life-influences, and self-constructs. The writings of these theorists caught the attention of scholars and researchers and, during the 1950s, the humanistic movement was born. The most powerful voice in the new movement was that of Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), who proposed a dynamic theory of motivation in which internal and intrinsic motivating forces and affective processes lead to personal, social, and psychological well-being. This was a view of human functioning in which subjective experiences and positive attitudes played a prominent role.
Although widespread, the influence of humanistic psychology was erratic. The emphasis on self-processes encouraged a personal and cultural self-absorption that minimized the importance of collective well-being. Moreover, the gap from theory to practice proved difficult to breach, and many laudable but misguided efforts to nurture the self-esteem of individuals fell prey to excesses and, ultimately, ridicule. The goal of focusing on and fostering positive self-perceptions became mired in controversies over the value of self-processes in areas such as education, controversies that continue unabated to this day. Because research efforts were unsystematic and results highly inconsistent, the tenets of humanistic psychology failed to develop an empirical base. As a consequence, the humanistic movement waned during the 1980s as psychologists shifted their interest to cognitive processes and information-processing views of human functioning.
As the twenty-first century arrived, however, there was another vigorous call within the discipline for a science of psychology grounded on positive experience. This positive psychology has been described as the study of human strengths and optimal functioning, and one of its key aims is to foster research on the positive personal traits and dispositions that are thought to contribute to subjective well-being and psychological health. Such research stands in contrast to the traditional study of people’s distress, pathology, and maladaptive functioning that continues to characterize American psychology. Moreover, although positive psychology shares with the humanistic movement the aim of advancing human fulfillment, one of positive psychology’s key aims is that its methodology be firmly grounded in systematic and scientific inquiry.
The central feature of positive psychology is its dual focus on fostering wellness and preventing maladies such as depression, substance abuse, or mental disorders in individuals who are genetically vulnerable or whose problems are exacerbated by the pressures of our modern lifestyles. In education, proponents of a positive psychology call for the powerful need to prevent bullying and other school violence and to foster academic motivation.
What differentiates the approach of positive psychology from that which has characterized mainstream psychology during the last century is the abandonment of the “disease model” of human functioning in favor of a “human strengths model.” The disease model, positive psychologists observe, evolved from the psychoanalytic practice of deducing normality, mental health, and well-being from the study of abnormal individuals, a method that came to dominate the discipline of psychology. In addition, psychologists have been traditionally trained to correct problems rather than prevent them. A human strengths model shifts psychologists’ perspective from this focus on mental illness to one on mental health. Thus, prevention is viewed with equal import as correction, and the development of wellness is put on the same footing as the curing of illness. Positive psychologists working in clinical practice would focus on augmenting the strengths of their clients rather than simply correcting and repairing their weaknesses. Those who work in education would have it as their aim to help create healthy school and classroom climates that foster academic success and personal well-being. All professionals who practice a positive psychology would see it as their mission to make individuals stronger and more productive so that they can more easily maximize their own potential.
Because positive psychology promulgates a perspective focused on building competence, not on correcting weakness, proponents call for a focus on the human strengths that act as buffers against mental maladies. These include optimism, happiness, well-being, empathy, courage, friendship, faith, hope, love, honesty, self-determination, autonomy, insight, future mindedness, positive illusions, perseverance, physical health, wisdom, creativity, altruism, and flow. In each case, the aim of positive psychologists is to investigate how these constructs can foster positive human development. For example, those who emphasize the study of happiness are proponents of an evolutionary psychology in which improving that human quality can be accomplished by remaining in closer proximity or maintaining greater emotional closeness to existing kin, developing deep friendships, reducing subjective distress, managing competitive mechanisms, and exploiting knowledge of evolved desires. Other psychologists suggest that human development and potential can be fostered through the cultivation of an optimistic life view in which the causes of life’s events are interpreted in adaptive and beneficent ways.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has itself embraced this approach toward the study of optimal human functioning, making the first issue of the American Psychologist in the year 2000 a theme issue on positive psychology constructs. The APA has also joined with the John Templeton Foundation to create a new award designed to promote the advancement of the new science. The annual award provides the largest monetary prize ever given in the field of psychology.
In the area of education, researchers hope that insights available from investigations that emphasize a positive psychology will alter the present focus of drawing inferences about adaptive functioning from students who are “at-risk” or “unmotivated” to those who are resilient and resourceful. For example, positive psychology seeks to shift the emphasis from research frequently conducted on concepts such as learned helplessness and anxiety to the study of learned optimism and self-efficacy. To these ends, the new researchers urge that positive psychology constructs be integrated with those of traditional and established bodies of educational literature and lines of inquiry.
SEE ALSO Altruism and Prosocial Behavior; Behaviorism; Creativity; Empathy; Flow; Hope; Motivation; Optimism/Pessimism; Psychoanalytic Theory; Self-Determination; Self-Efficacy; Self-Esteem
Aspinwall, Lisa G., and Ursula M. Staudinger. 2003. A Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental Questions and Future Directions for a Positive Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Seligman, Martin E. P., and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, eds. 2000. Positive Psychology. Special issue. American Psychologist 55 (1).
Snyder, C. R., and Shane J. Lopez, eds. 2002. Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.