What is Positive Psychology and Why Does it Matter?

The world is objectively getting better. Over the past 40 years alone, the percentage of people in absolute poverty, living on less than $1.25 per day, has decreased from over 50% of the population to around 15% (Diamandis & Kotler, 2012). 30 years ago, 12 million kids were dying every year, but thanks to vaccines and work in public health, that number is down to around 5 million today (Garfield, 2018). We’ve eradicated entire diseases – cases of Guinea worm, a parasite that affected more than 3 million people 30 years ago, is down to mere thousands thanks to advancements in medical technology. Infant mortality is down. Crime rates are down. Child labor is down. All incredible things, and yet humanity isn’t flourishing. How can that be?

In recent years, psychologists have come to realize the absence of illness alone does not equate a life of well-being and flourishing. The field of psychology has historically focused on addressing problems in clinical populations, resulting in significant advancements in our ability to better understand life altering ailments, like depression and anxiety. On the other hand, the field contributed much less to advance our understanding of how to cultivate well-being and build lives full of positive emotion, meaning, and achievement. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) put it, “the exclusive focus on pathology that has dominated so much of our discipline results in a model of the human being lacking the positive features that make life worth living.” In 1998, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association, and the direction of psychological research took a turn northward. The central theme of Seligman’s presidential term? Positive psychology. In this new era of psychology, the absence of illness was not going to be the end of the story. Psychology was going to begin researching and understanding what it means to flourish and how to create more well-being. In the year of the election, 20 years ago, there were 53 publications on Google Scholar that mentioned ‘positive psychology’ and just over 1,000 that mentioned ‘subjective well-being.’ In the year 2017, the same searches on Google Scholar reveal over 16,000 and 20,000 publications related to each topic respectively. The era of positive psychology has officially begun.

Although sometimes colloquially referred to as the study of happiness, the psychology community refers to positive psychology as the scientific study of well-being. It is generally recognized today that happiness is an inadequate term to define the “good life,” in part due to its lack of a clear definition (a requirement for effective research) and its close, narrow association with positive emotion and pleasure. The construct of well-being has existed throughout history with ever-changing definitions, and there are still competing theories today on the proper definition. In the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher Aristippus supported the notion of hedonic happiness, suggesting the goal of life was to experience the maximum amount of pleasure (Ryan & Deci, 2001). This hedonic view, equating well-being with pleasure, has a long history and clearly still has some influence today. Aristotle considered hedonic happiness to be an unpolished and crude outlook on life, instead referring to happiness as Eudaimonia, a term that goes beyond pleasure and is centered on the process of living well (Melchert, 2002). Today, Seligman (2011) defines well-being using the PERMA model, suggesting a multi-pronged approach of well-being that encompasses Positive emotion (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M), and Achievement (A). Also a strong proponent of the multi-dimensionality of well-being, Diener (1984) introduced the concept of subjective well-being, defined as people’s overall evaluations of their lives and their positive and negative emotional experiences.

Regardless of the precise definition used, the value of scientifically studying well-being is largely tied to its ability to actually drive improved well-being and flourishing in the world. Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) suggest a person’s happiness level is determined by three factors: a genetically based happiness set point (roughly 50%), life circumstances that affect happiness (roughly 10%), and intentional activities and practices (roughly 40%). While eating well, physical activity, and getting enough sleep are naturally important components of human flourishing, positive psychologists have discovered additional, simple mechanisms to measurably improve well-being. These mechanisms are called positive interventions: evidence-based, intentional acts designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing (J. Pawelski, personal communication, October 7). And research suggests they really work. A comprehensive meta-analysis of 51 positive interventions conducted by Lyubomirsky (2009) demonstrated significant well-being enhancement (r = 0.29) and decreased depressive symptoms (r = 0.31) from the application of positive interventions.

To better understand positive interventions, it’s valuable to break down its definition into the three defining components: 1) evidence-based, 2) intentional, and 3) designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing. First, positive interventions are evidence-based. There are many ways to increase well-being, and what works for one person might not work for the next. Just because Bob or Amy find something that increases their well-being, does not by default make it a recognized positive intervention. To qualify, the positive intervention must be capable of having its impact measured and be shown to produce an improvement in at least one facet of well-being. This is not to say that non-measured activities are not worthwhile, just that they do not officially qulaify as positive interventions. 2) Positive interventions are intentional. To be counted as a positive intervention, the activity must be completed with internal agency. Although experiencing a sunny day may lead to empirically improved well-being, sunny days themelves do not qualify as a positive intervention. 3) Positive interventions are designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing. There are many important psychological interventions that are not designed specifically to increase well-being; these interventions tend to focus on lessening the negative. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is designed to treat problems by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. While this can drive positive impact on well-being, it is primarily designed to decrease the negative as opposed to specifically grow a positive element of human flourishing.

Fortunately, the positive psychology community has methodologically developed many positive interventions to cultivate well-being. In the Three Good Things intervention, participants are asked to write down three things that went well and why every night for two weeks, improving well-being by shifting focus to the positive and fostering a mindset of gratitude (Seligman, Park, & Peterson, 2005). In the Best Possible Selves intervention, participants are asked to write about what their ideal future would look like, improving well-being through increased optimism and positive emotion (Peters, Flink, Boersma, Linton, 2010). Positive interventions also have the capacity to improve marital quality, a major contributor to well-being and physical health (Finkel, Slotter, Luchies, Walton, & Gross, 2013). A 21-minute reappraisal writing intervention for couples, in which participants think about conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party, protected the participants against declines in marital quality over time. There are now a wide-array of positive interventions designed to foster various dimensions of well-being, ranging from gratitude and positive emotion to resilience and optimism to love and transcendence (Fredrickson, 2009).

This sound great, but why should we care? If you ask a group of people what they want most in life, a common response is some version of “happiness.” Well-being in of itself is a goal many of us have for ourselves and those around us. But evidence suggests that well-being can also result in a variety of additional beneficial outcomes. First and foremost, people with higher well-being tend to be healthier and live longer on average (Diener et al., 2017). High well-being has also been shown to improve social relationships, result in more pro-social behavior, and improve job productivity and earning potential (Diener et al., 2017). Barbara Frederickson’s (2009) broaden-and-build theory posits that positive emotion alone broadens people’s ideas about possible actions they can take, while also helping people discover and build new skills to help them thrive.

To keep it simple, the more well-being we cultivate, the better our lives and the lives of those around us can be. Positive psychology is dedicated to systematically understanding, cultivating, and spreading well-being throughout world, ultimately creating a world in which we truly flourish.

 

References

Diamandis, P. H., & Kotler, S. (2012). Abundance: The future is better than you think. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological bulletin95(3), 542.

Diener, E., Heintzelman, S. J., Kushlev, K., Tay, L., Wirtz, D., Lutes, L. D., & Oishi, S. (2017). Findings all psychologists should know from the new science on subjective well-being. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 58, 87-104.

Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science24(8), 1595-1601.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York, NY: Crown.

Garfield, L. (2018, Feb 14). Bill Gates says the world is objectively getting better – in spite of Trump’s ‘America First’ policies. Business Insider. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-world-is-getting-better-despite-trump-2018-2

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?. Psychological bulletin131(6), 803.

Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. The great conversation: A  historical introduction to philosophy4, 186-198.

Peters, M. L., Flink, I. K., Boersma, K., & Linton, S. J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies? The Journal of Positive Psychology5(3), 204-211.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141-156.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychology, 55, 5-14.

Seligman, M., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well‐being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice‐friendly meta‐analysis. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 467-487.

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