What is positive psychology?

By: Josh Clark

Downers such as alcoholism are the domain of psychology. See more mental disorder pictures.

Addiction, depression, suicide, schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder, anxiety, detachment and much more: Modern psychology deals with some serious mental issues. Since William James published the seminal "Principles of Psychology" in 1890, countless people have undergone years of schooling and professional training and dedicated their careers to restoring positivity to the lives of the mentally ill.

Some treatments found in the annals of psychology have been more effective than others. The transorbital lobotomy, for example, reduced major symptoms of psychosis in some patients -- at the cost of their personalities. Other patients actually lost their lives to the procedure, which destroys brain tissue by inserting ice pick-like instruments directly into the brain's frontal lobe through its orbital cavity and moving the instruments back and forth.


Despite some missteps, the field of psychology has proven effective in studying and treating mental illness. The field has proven so effective that some believe it's time to stop directing research toward what makes us mentally ill and start studying what makes us happy. This new subfield is called positive psychology.

The field of positive psychology is a young one. It was born in the late 1990s under the guidance of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. Since then, it's gained some traction among psychologists and the public, especially since proponents are looking for ways to apply accepted psychological techniques to investigating happiness.

Positive psychologists face some challenges, however: Psychology successfully brings "people up from negative eight to zero, but [it's] not as good at understanding how people rise from zero to positive eight," writes positive psychologists Shelly L. Gable and Jonathan Haidt [source: Gable and Haidt]. They say it's time that the field explores the phenomenon of happiness with the same scientific rigor and discipline it used to study mental maladies. After all, everyone wants to be happy.