Throughout history, across generations and thousands of years, all cultures and all types of people have pondered the human experience. It’s interesting, then, that psychology as a scientific discipline is relatively new, rising to prominence in the late 19th century thanks to the work of pioneers Wilhelm Wundt and William James.
In 1879, Wundt opened the world’s first psychology lab at the University of Leipzig, Germany. James was responsible for the rapid rise of psychology in America, with his book, The Principles of Psychology, earning him the title of the “father” of psychology.
Since then, many schools of thought have developed, from Sigmund Freud’s iconic psychoanalysis, which introduced the idea of the unconscious mind, to behaviorism, which focused exclusively on observable behavior.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to take a deep dive into the history of psychology and its various practices. Instead, we’ll focus on positive psychology principles, and how the newest scientific approaches toward the human mind can ehlp you explore areas relevant to self-development and the fulfillment of your greatest potential. It may even help you answer the question “what makes a meaningful life?”
What is positive psychology?
Psychoanalysis and behaviorism dominated the early 20th century. Much of the work during this time focused on dysfunction of the mind and psychological disorders. Freud’s big area of research was on hysteria, which explained “excessive” emotional reactions to certain events.
This approach to treating mental illness had its roots in Victorian thought, which linked symptoms of hysteria and negative emotions mostly to women. Behaviourism, on the other hand, viewed human behavior as being a response to environmental factors.
The study of the psyche has always explored what makes a life worth living, such as the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia (“the good life”). Yet psychology as a scientific discipline only started to move in this direction with the “third force of psychology” in the later part of the 20th century. This was thanks to the humanistic movement, which emphasized the exploration of human potential.
Positive psychology interventions
Psychoanalysis and behaviorism were criticized for being overly focused on abnormal behaviors or attempts to mechanically break down and explain the rich complexities of the mind into component parts.
The humanistic movement attempted to rectify this instead by placing emphasis on a human-centered approach. Its leading principle was phenomenology, the philosophy of experience that views the lived experience as meaningful and valuable in its own right. Each person is seen as a unique individual exceeding individual components.
Positive psychologists and positive psychology resources emerged as a field and discipline in its own right in 1998. Leading thinkers in the field, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who introduced the theory of flow state), define positive psychology as: “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.”
Who created positive psychology?
During his spell as president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman introduced positive psychology as a theme. During his inaugural address, Seligman explained his belief that psychology had “moved too far away from its roots” as a discipline aimed at helping people live fulfilling, productive lives. He then stressed the importance of positive psychology as:
“A reoriented science that emphasizes the understanding and building of the most positive qualities of an individual: optimism, courage, work ethic, future-mindedness, interpersonal skill, the capacity for pleasure and insight, life satisfaction and social responsibility.”
Seligman’s ethos was to shift perspective away from weaknesses, towards character strengths. He recruited some of the world’s most prominent psychologists and mental health professionals to what might be called the first “positive psychology summit,” in an to attempt to recalibrate psychology towards this ethos. In just over 20 years, positive psychology has exploded in popularity, receiving hundreds of millions in grants and helping fuel the self-help movement.
However, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi have been criticized for not giving enough credit to the humanistic movement’s influence. Although Seligman explained psychology had lost its roots, there’s a treasure trove of theories, research, and methodology in the humanistic movement that fully value the “positive” aspects of human nature.
Building upon the humanistic movement
There’s no denying positive psychology (and positive psychotherapy) was built upon the shoulders of the giants of the humanistic movement, namely Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, and Eric Fromm. Each of these influential psychologists shared a similar trait — an unwavering belief in human potential, and an unyielding determination to study the best ways to unlock that potential.
Maslow was the first person to use the term positive psychology in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality. Echoing Seligman’s sentiment over four decades earlier, Maslow was concerned psychology was wide of the mark and didn’t capture the full view of personal strengths, positive emotion and human potential that can influence a pleasant life and authentic happiness. He wrote:
“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half.”
It’s worth noting that the work of William James was way ahead of its time, too. Some have even considered him the “first positive psychologist” due to his emphasis on the importance of subjective experience and optimizing human potential. “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude,” James once wrote, displaying his belief in the potential of human flourishing to transform and grow from within.
How is positive psychology and positive thinking applied?
Because positive psychology emphasizes flourishing and human potential, it’s relevant to everyone, not only those experiencing mental illness. You could argue the rise of the self-help guru has been supported by the popularity of positive psychology, especially the recent growth of fields such as life coaching and a broad range of NLP practitioners.
But how is positive psychology applied, and how can you use it to learn how to be happy? Fortunately, anyone can benefit from the growing bodies of research to continue to grow, live a more meaningful life, and cultivate positive emotions.
Below are three of the biggest takeaways from the research to date. Adding these to your self-development repertoire will have a positive impact on your overall well-being.
1. Cultivate important virtues and character traits
Wanting to gain clarity on the making of a meaningful life, Seligman and his colleague Chris Peterson vigorously studied major philosophical traditions from across the world. Different cultures emphasize different qualities to various degrees, but their research revealed the moral foundation of these traditions, which resulted in the six virtues of positive psychology.
They include characteristics that allow the virtues to be developed:
- Wisdom: curiosity, love of learning, judgment, ingenuity, emotional intelligence.
- Courage: valor, perseverance, integrity.
- Humanity: kindness, loving.
- Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership.
- Temperance: self-control, prudence, humility.
- Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, spirituality, forgiveness, humor, zest
As a starting point of applying positive psychology, consider these virtues and character traits, and how you can incorporate more of them in your life. Can you create a value system and slowly calibrate your decisions and behaviors towards this system?
This isn’t an overnight process, but hopefully, the above list gives you inspiration on what qualities lead to a fulfilling life. The more these are internalized and acted upon, the more habitual alignment with such values will become. Knowing your values, and acting in accordance with them, is a fundamental exercise in living a more purposeful and life.
2. Begin with positive emotions and a gratitude practice
While virtues are common across major religions and philosophical traditions, so too are practices of gratitude. Multiple studies have found that expressing appreciation for the good things in life leads to greater happiness and wellbeing. One of the world’s leading researchers in the science of gratitude, Robert Emmons, identifies two key qualities with gratitude.
“First it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. [Secondly] we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that other people— or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset — gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Seligman’s original desire to shift focus from the negative to the positive was inspired by a conversation he had with his daughter in his rose garden. After telling her off for messing up a pile of weeds, she said to him: “Daddy, remember when I used to whine all the time? Well, when I turned 5, I decided to stop whining. If I could stop whining, then you can stop being such a grump.”
The conversation stuck with Seligman, encouraging him to focus on the power of positive thinking, and how to use those patterns to change. Gratitude is a key practice because it’s an outlook on life that changes the way you interpret the world. In a way, it’s a form of positive confirmation bias — the more we choose to look for things to be grateful for, the more you notice them, the more appreciation grows and expands.
Use the PERMA model as a guide
To help explain the components of wellbeing, Seligman produced the PERMA model, building upon Maslow’s work on self-actualization. The name of which is an acronym for five key pillars of wellbeing. Working towards these qualities has also been found to reduce psychological distress, as well as cultivate greater wellbeing. The pillars are:
These include happiness, joy, awe, wonder, compassion. A gratitude practice is one way to cultivate positive emotions, but consider other activities in the realm of positive thinking such as indulging in a favorite hobby or following a passion that inspires you.
This closely aligns with flow state, it’s the experience of being fully present in the moment, going with life’s flow. You might access this through positive experiences like hobbies, creative expression, sports, or spending time in nature and getting away from modern technology.
This focuses on positive relationships, from family, friends, romantic partners to colleagues or members of your local community. Activities to cultivate this pillar include joining groups you’re interested in, making time to connect intimately with people close to you, or refining communication skills for better understanding.
Gaining clarity on your values helps. But there are other ways to create a life of purpose, including becoming involved in positive events, like a cause you believe in, unleashing your creative potential, and doing your best to be a positive influence in people’s lives.
Success, or mastery, is a key factor of positive psychology. Many leading psychologists, including Maslow, saw the value of striving to become better, to learn, and improve, as hallmarks of flourishing. What goals would you like to achieve to help achieve a happy life? What would you aim for if you knew you wouldn’t fail?
The gift of positive psychology is the shift in focus to what makes up a meaningful, well-lived life. Using methodology, vigor, and scientific research methods to understand what leads to lasting happiness and fulfillment has resulted in many breakthroughs and insights. Thanks to the work of Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, and all those who walked before them, the scientific understanding has helped create the building blocks of purpose and meaning that have never been clearer.
Better yet, the pursuit of happiness doesn’t have to be so perplexing, but instead, the path is laid out in tangible steps, with new discoveries adding to our understanding. The next step is to apply these bodies of knowledge to your own life, in order to continue to grow, to continue to flourish, to reach your true psychological height, and to take steps each day towards your fullest potential.