Positive Psychology

“FOR the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only—mental illness—and has done fairly well with it. Psychologists can now measure such once-fuzzy concepts as depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism with considerable precision. We now know a good deal about how these troubles develop across the life span, and about their genetics, their biochemistry, and their psychological causes. Best of all we have learned how to relieve these disorders. By my last count, fourteen out of the several dozen major mental illnesses could be effectively treated (and two of them cured) with medication and specific forms of psychotherapy. But this progress has come at a high cost. Relieving the states that make life miserable, it seems, has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. But people want more than just to correct their weaknesses. They want lives imbued with meaning, and not just to fidget until they die. Lying awake at night, you probably ponder, as I have, how to go from plus two to plus seven in your life, not just how to go from minus five to minus three and feel a little less miserable day by day. If you are such a person, you have probably found the field of psychology to be a puzzling disappointment. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the “good life.”

Positive Psychology has three pillars: First is the study of positive emotion. Second is the study of the positive traits, foremost among them the strengths and virtues, but also the “abilities” such as intelligence and athleticism. Third is the study of the positive institutions, such as democracy, strong families, and free inquiry, that support the virtues, which in turn support the positive emotions. The positive emotions of confidence, hope, and trust, for example, serve us best not when life is easy, but when life is difficult. In times of trouble, understanding and shoring up the positive institutions, institutions like democracy, strong family, and free press, are of immediate importance. In times of trouble, understanding and building the strengths and virtues—among them, valor, perspective, integrity, equity, loyalty—may become more urgent than in good times.

Since September 11, 2001, I have pondered the relevance of Positive Psychology. In times of trouble, does the understanding and alleviating of suffering trump the understanding and building of happiness? I think not. People who are impoverished, depressed, or suicidal care about much more than just the relief of their suffering. These persons care—sometimes desperately—about virtue, about purpose, about integrity, and about meaning. Experiences that induce positive emotion cause negative emotion to dissipate rapidly. The strengths and virtues, as we will see, function to buffer against misfortune and against the psychological disorders, and they may be the key to building resilience. The best therapists do not merely heal damage; they help people identify and build their strengths and their virtues.

So Positive Psychology takes seriously the bright hope that if you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfillment: meaning and purpose.”


Seligman, Martin E. P. Authentic happiness : using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment/ Martin E. P. Seligman.