What’s with Positive Psychology?

I read from a variety of sources and it is often the case that someone will write about Positive Psychology as being “focused on positive thoughts” as though thinking positive will make you happy. A cursory glance in our direction could lead the person to assume that our field is concerned with making happy people who are bright-eyed optimists, always upbeat and chipper. This is a gross misunderstanding on so many fronts as to be tragic.

First, the topic of writing. An honest investigation of research studies, presentations, classes, and books by Positive Psychologists will show much more than mere happiness. But let us stick with this for a moment, what is happiness? Is it a transitory state? Is it an overarching condition of one's life? Would we ask for appraisals of affect and average over time? Would we distinguish between simple pleasures and more meaningful ones? And once we start to narrow down different types of happiness, what conditions and habits enable it? Money? Work? Purpose? Relations? And should we concern ourselves with happiness at all as a goal? Aren't there better things for humans to pursue, such as achievement? All of these and more are the subject of happiness studies within Positive Psychology as well as other topics as virtue, grit, fortitude, perseverance and more.

But I will take a stab here at the confusion over the word “positive”. It is automatically assumed by many that this refers to the thoughts of the person. It seems that people have a misunderstanding that Positive Psychology can be summed up as “the answer is to think positive thoughts”. If we pause and think about this, it clearly becomes absurd, for could an entire discipline of science be built on “wishful thinking”? No no no, a thousand times no.

Instead, let is start with a Bell Curve. Take a population of people and measure them on something and you'll have a Bell Curve distribution of scores. Psychology, outside of Cognitive Psychology and especially in Clinical Psychology, has looked at the left side of the curve, the negative side. It has looked at those individuals who are 2 or more Standard Deviations from the Mean on the negative side and have worked to move them toward the Mean. The Mean, also known as the Average, also known a Normal. Once the depressed person, for example, is no longer depressed and is normal, then the clinician's job is over. Other than the occasional treatment to prevent the client from sliding back into the negative, the person is cured and expected to live their life the same as the rest of us, a life mixed with work and family, worry and joy, grief and accomplishment. Once the client is *cured of depression (or whatever other malady they have), they then are told to find their own way in life.

Some psychologists, notably Martin Seligman, Chris Peterson, and others, wondered what science could do to inform us about moving from the mean toward the right side of the Bell Curve, the positive side. Take one person from the far left side of the curve and one person from the far right side, and compare them. Would there be differences in outlook? Habits? Social support? How would these two respond to a negative event, such as being downsized from a job? Perhaps the person on the left side would respond with withdrawal from supportive family, exhibit aggressive behavior, blame other people, and begin drinking heavily. Perhaps the person on the right side of the curve would respond with reaching out for support, networking for opportunities, take self improvement classes, and spend some the new extra time in the gym. Who is likely to rebound from the negative faster and healthier? Here is an interesting question, which one was disappointed and worried when initially downsized? Both? Which one ruminated on the negative and which one sought out avenues of influence?

This is the focus of Positive Psychology. What enables a person to not only survive a horrific event, but to find purpose and meaning, and to come away from the event stronger than before? Is there a connection between time spent driving in traffic and stress and heart attacks? Yet some people don't respond negatively, but instead are energized by their commute time. What are the differences? Traditional psychology moves people from the negative side of the curve to the middle by healing the illness, fixing the broken, mending the tone, adjusting the maladaptive. Positive Psychology is a strengths-based approach where to move from the middle to the positive side of the curve we look at what makes one stronger, more resilient, to thrive and flourish.

And here we are at a very important point, one which Positive Psychology does not deny, that life, the human condition, involves both the uplifting and the tragic, healing and building. Positive Psychology doesn't seek to supplant Negative (Traditional) Psychology, but instead to bring balance to Psychology as a whole.

 

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One thought on “What’s with Positive Psychology?

  1. This really helps explain to those who don’t know/understand psychology very well what Positive Psychology is in terms and images that are easy to consume. Thank you.

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