What is "Positive Psychology" as opposed to "Psychology as Usual"?
When I explain to people that I'm a "Positive Psychologist" I am often met with a confused look. What exactly is Positive Psychology? It's totally natural to assume that positive psychology is all about thinking positively, about focusing on the best in situations and telling yourself that everything is going to be OK. The truth is, whilst I have certainly studied happiness and optimism, this is not what Positive Psychology is limited to. Neither does Positive Psychology assume that feeling happy and positive all of the time is the answer to all of your problems.
Positive Psychology is a field of psychology that has grown in popularity and focus since Martin Seligman introduced it as a theme during his presidency term at the American Psychological Association in 1998. Traditionally, the field of psychology has had a heavy focus on disorders in thinking, feeling and behaving. Possibly because human beings have a natural tendency to focus on what's wrong, rather than what's right. It's an in-built survival instinct that helps us to work through challenges and evolve. People identify with the expression; "no news is good news". We tend to sit back and relax when things are going well rather than analyse why it's going well and what we can do to make it better. But what if we did do that? Imagine how much better we could be! It is important to acknowledge that traditional psychology hasn't completely ignored the study of human thriving and flourishing, for example, famous humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory of motivation as early as 1943. My peers in occupational psychology will also acknowledge the 'positive' nature of this field which explores in depth topics such as performance, learning, motivation and engagement. Yet comparatively, when you look at the bigger picture of Psychology, there was a much heavier bias towards disorders and problems before the 1990's. After this time, researchers turned much more of their attention towards topics such as happiness and wellbeing.
If you ask anyone where they want to be in the future I can pretty much guarantee that somewhere in the statement will be the word 'happy'. Most people want to be happy, but what does 'happiness' mean? Does it mean you want to be laughing non-stop all day? Does it mean that you want to be lying on a beach all day sipping cocktails with your friends? Does it mean achieving everything you hoped for in life? Does it mean buying a Ferrari or does it mean seeing your kids, grown, happy and successful? Is happiness always good for us? How does it relate to health and wellbeing? How does it relate to performance? These are some of the questions that are explored in the field. As we dive into the field, it becomes clear that happiness means different things to different people and there is a difference between 'happiness' and 'hedonism'. The field extends to the exploration of a broad range of 'positive' human emotions and functions; as you can see from the image attached to this article, the top half represents a sample of psychology topics that we have traditionally focused on and this has helped us to deal with and treat mental health and behavioural issues. The bottom half represents a sample of the less prioritised areas of psychology and the human experience that we are only beginning to understand in greater depth now.
It's also a case of semantics since we can generally apply a description of 'positive' to the subject areas in the bottom half of the image. Yet that doesn't mean that experience of those feelings is always positive or good for us. For example, consider unrequited love, or feeling optimistic about driving through a snow storm on a motorbike. Furthermore, too much of anything can be bad for us and without experience of the negative, there can't be positive. Therefore, to dispel any misconceptions, Positive Psychologists don't advocate experiencing 'positive' emotions all of the time to the exclusion of negative feelings or challenges. Indeed, feelings such as sadness, grief, worry and stress all have positive functions and are essential for mental health and human flourishing. Positive Psychology 2.0 is a branch of Positive Psychology that further explores these areas and focuses on the positive effects of so-called 'negative' feelings and experiences.
In summary, whilst the field is still very young and emerging, the evidence base is building and showing huge promise and potential. You may have observed a shift from a 'fixed mindset' to a 'growth mindset', a growing focus on identifying 'strengths' and virtues and a move away from command/control style teaching and leadership to autonomy, independence and empowerment. The goal of a Positive Psychologist extends far beyond 'happiness' and you will find in the field not just psychologists, but teachers, medical professionals, politicians and business leaders. It's an exciting field to follow and I believe that understanding the positive aspects of human functioning in greater depth will help us develop novel approaches and solutions for important individual, societal, economical and global challenges. For example, governments are now starting to acknowledge the importance of happiness and wellbeing and are becoming alert to the extent to which these factors can impact the achievement of goals and economic performance. Some have even argued whether a measure of wellbeing could be a better measure of success than GDP? I'll leave you with an inspirational quote by Robert F. Kennedy from his University of Kansas address in 1968;
“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”