What is positive psychology?

By: Josh Clark

The Psychology of Happiness

Is having a family like this the definition of happiness? No. The definition of happiness is leading a pleasant, engaged and meaningful life.
Is having a family like this the definition of happiness? No. The definition of happiness is leading a pleasant, engaged and meaningful life.

As a nascent subdiscipline, positive psychology had to overcome two obstacles on the road to greater acceptance. First, proponents had to assuage any fears that -- despite what its name might imply -- positive psychology represents an indictment of traditional psychology. In other words, the emergence of positive psychology isn't meant to suggest that conventional psychology is negative. Rather, positive psychologists contend their field studies positivity -- specifically, happiness and ways humans can live happier lives.

Second, positive psychologists had the daunting task of actually defining happiness. To quantify or qualify anything so intangible, one must first establish exactly what that thing is. In this case, Seligman and his colleagues define happiness as a pleasant, engaged and meaningful life [source: Seligman, et al]. Of these three factors (more specifically, gaining pleasant feelings from experiences, eliminating boredom or apathy and gaining meaning from work, home and personal life) positive psychologists place the most emphasis on the latter two. This makes sense, since people who seek engagement and meaning tend to score higher on life satisfaction tests than people who go after pleasant feelings.


To add gravity to the new subfield and to help "diagnose" happiness and the factors needed to lead a happy, fulfilled life, Seligman and his colleagues compiled "Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification" (CSV), which could be the antithesis of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM) that traditional psychologists use to diagnose mental illness. Rather than negative issues, the CSV identifies universal positive character traits and strengths that support them [source: Seligman, et al].

Through online self-reporting studies, psychologists are learning to develop treatments to help patients achieve happiness. Much like cognitive psychology uses techniques that allow patients to consciously separate real problems from overblown ones, positive psychologists are investigating and identifying an individual's signature strengths. These are positive character traits that a person may not even be aware of, but are vital to how that person gets through everyday life [source: Mayerson]. By bringing these traits into focus, a person can learn how to use them more effectively in the pursuit of an engaged, meaningful and pleasant life.

Other positive psychologists are studying real-life interactions to cull information about how happiness is realized in the real world. Couples in romantic relationships, for example, are studied to learn the mechanisms behind their positive interactions the same way that traditional psychologists study dysfunction in relationships [source: Gable and Haidt].

The field of positive psychology is too young to say what form it will ultimately take. Proponents are still collecting data and pinning down certain aspects of happiness. What's more, they have yet to fully establish what "treatment" will look like. In fact, critics of positive psychology say this form of treatment is not only fruitless, it's also potentially dangerous.