Groups Wiki for PosPsy for non-clinical benefits: Other Wikis:  
Help with How to wiki (new window)

This is the wiki

this is the wiki

Positive Psychology for Everyday Well-being

Non-Clinical Benefits of Positive Psychology

Just the mere heading may make some stop and think! For many the words psychology and non clinical populations appearing in the same sentence will seem unusual, as unquestionably, or so we are lead to believe, psychology is entrenched in the study of clinical populations! If at any time this has been your understanding then it is vital that you read on……

Table of Contents

(Click on title to go straight to the section)


Positive psychology for non clinical populations is everything that traditional psychology is not i.e. the scientific study of common human strengths and qualities, permitting psychology to revisit ‘‘the average person.’’

The interest in this area lies in discovering what processes contribute to the optimal functioning of individuals, groups, and organizations. It integrates the subjective experiences of an individual i.e. contentment in the past; hope and optimism for the future; and flow and happiness in the present, as well as at group level, encouraging individuals towards enhanced citizenship through responsibility, altruism, respect, tolerance, and work ethic. Hence the subject matter is valuable, and indicative of a greater proportion of normal human experience than that of traditional psychology.

Explained in this way positive psychology is an effort to rectify the imbalance presented in traditional psychology regarding the focus of research and practice which Seligman (founder of positive psychology) terms, ‘a half-baked attempt’ as it does not effectively investigate the complete human experience, choosing to focus on the negative and ignore positive aspects which promote ‘mental health’.

In 2005 Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade suggested a three-factor model of wellbeing in which genetics is thought to account for roughly 50% of the variance in well being, while demographics and circumstances account for a mere 10%, leaving 40% of the variance to be regulated by intentional activity, it is this 40% that positive psychology wishes to focus (for a review see Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005 )

As Bandura (1978) stated over thirty years ago:

"Relatively few people seek cures for neuroses, but vast numbers of them are desirous of psychological services that can help them function more effectively in their everyday lives . . . We have the knowledge and the means to bring benefit to many. We have the experimental methodology with which to advance psychological knowledge and practice. But to accomplish this calls for a broader vision of how psychology can serve people, and a fundamental change in the uses to which our knowledge is put".

Contrasting with medicine which began to emphasis illness prevention over treatment of illness decades ago, and recently shifted again from prevention of illness to enhancement of health (Snyder, Feldman, Taylor, Schroeder, & Adams, 2000), psychological research and practice has continued to operate within a disease model, therefore spending most of its time investigating all the negatives within human experience. Frederickson (2005) states that this is a defect of traditional psychology as positive emotion is not only the absence of negative emotions but encourages well-being, arguing that while negative emotions restrict individuals perspective, positive emotions expand individuals cognitions and behaviours allowing them more flexibility.

It is important to note though at this point that strategies and techniques for enhancing the quality of lives are educational, relational, social, and political interventions, and never regarded as medical treatments.

“Positive psychology has a very short history and a very long past”

Peterson, Park and Seligman (2006)

While positive psychology is one of the newest areas of psychology, having been firmly established for less than a decade, attempts to understand the factors that contribute to happiness and guide societies towards a fulfilled life are evident throughout history. Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers laid out what modern positive psychology still regards as the basic ideas for happiness and a good life. These initial theories of what could now be described as positive psychology are also evident in religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism which outline a set of principles and behaviours which are believed to lead to a happy and fulfilled life.

As psychology became recognised as a separate and respected discipline it "had three distinct missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent” (Seligman, 2000). In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1906, William James argued that in order to study optimal human functioning thoroughly, one has to consider the subjective experience of the individual. However, after World War II, the primary focus of psychology shifted to abnormal psychology and mental illness rather than recognizing and building normal, human strengths. While much time was spent identifying what constitutes abnormal or problematic human behavior, the positive aspects of human behavior were largely ignored.

From the 1950s onwards, many prominent psychologists began to recognize the increasing need for a focus on what makes individuals happy and the maintenance of good mental health. The term "positive psychology" first appeared in Maslow's book Motivation and Personality (1954). Maslow along with Carl Rogers, are widely considered to be the founding fathers of the humanistic branch of psychology, are responsible for many pieces of work that have shaped modern positive psychology and this has resulted in a long lasting link between the two fields. The relationship between positive and humanistic psychology is evident in many pieces of humanistic research such as prevention programs based on wellness by Albee (1982) and Cowen (1994), work by Bandura (1989) and others on self-efficacy, research on gifted individuals (Winner, 2000), broader conceptions of intelligence (Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1988), among many others. Marie Jahoda (1958) made the case for understanding well being in its own right, not simply as the absence of disorder or distress.

Positive psychology in its most recent incarnation began in 1998 when Martin Seligman was appointed president of the American Psychological Association and chose positive psychology as the theme for his presidency. He pointed out that for the past 50 years, clinical psychology had “been consumed by a single topic only – mental illness”, echoing the comments of Maslow and the other psychologists who had recognized the need for more than just the treatment of psychological disorders. It was Seligman’s hope that the birth of positive psychology in its most recent incarnation would redirect some focus back to the pre-war values of psychology and continue its earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.

The first positive psychology summit took place in 1999 and the First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002. Around this time, the first college courses in positive psychology, taught by Martin Seligman, Michael Frisch and colleagues were introduced to American colleges. However, despite marking major steps forward for this new area, positive psychology was given little attention until 2006 when Harvard University offered a course which became one of the most popular courses in their history.

In June 2009, the First World Congress on Positive Psychology took place and today positive psychology is making significant steps towards becoming a separate and legitimate field of psychology.

Criticisms of Traditional Psychology

Traditional psychology has contributed crucially to the understanding of human motivation and behaviour. However, it has been criticised by advocates of positive psychology for being biased in following aspects;

Firstly, psychology after the Second World War was mainly devoted to heal mental disorders and repair damage. Causes and treatment of psychopathology such as anxiety and personality disorders were extensively researched just as damaged habits, damaged relationships and damaged childhoods (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi,2000). This preoccupation with pathology understood human functioning in a disease model. Thereby it neglected positive features making life worth living for normal (healthy) individuals (Seligman, Parks & Steen,2006). Hence, traditional psychology was criticized for its focus on disease and damage rather than on human strength and personal fulfillment (Schatte et al.,2000). Additionally, the model adhered to a form of therapy which intervened after onset of the disease, rather than investigating its prevention. Seligman et al. (2000) summarizes, the traditional psychology approach was criticized for solely “repairing the worst" rather than “building the best” (p.5).

Secondly, research in traditional psychology research was biased towards a one-sided focus on negative emotions, human weaknesses and the harmful impact of adverse conditions and experiences (Seligman & Pawelski,2003). The effects of constraining experiences as trauma, discrimination and parental divorce were well documented and analyzed while outcomes of favourable conditions as mutual acceptance or fondness were highly disregarded. Additionally it was ignored that even detrimental circumstances can bring about positive effects as inner strength and staying power (Gillham,2000). The causes of emotions featuring negative valence as anger, jealousy and aggression were at the centre of research while those featuring positive valence as joy, faith and hope were mainly neglected. Rather than examining in what human are good at and capable of (to love, forgive etc) psychologist mostly investigated and discussed human weaknesses and failures (selfishness, self serving bias, etc.) (Diener & Seligman,2004). Positive psychology exponents hence called for redressing this imbalance from a predominant engagement with restricting circumstances, human malfunction and unpleasant emotions to an incorporation of advantageous circumstances, human potency and joyful emotions (Peterson et al.,2005).

Thirdly, the traditional psychology is criticized for their view of human nature. Individuals are depicted as passively responding to the external world rather than being equipped with free will and the ability for decision making (Gillham,2000). A disregard of human responsibility, which is featured in the varying disciplines of psychology, leaves humans as marionettes being mastered externally: In biological psychology they are affected and controlled by their drives and instincts, in social psychology by their gender, race and class, in developmental psychology by the child- raising and attachment style and in psychoanalysis by their childhood conflicts (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi,2000). This traditional view was denounced by the positive psychology movement as adhering to a compromised view of human nature. Positive psychologists therefore emphasized the necessity to describe humans as active decision makers with choices and preferences and the potential for mastery (Seligman & Pawelski,2003).

Summarising, we can say that traditional psychology was criticised for its predominant focus on disease and damage, its will-less approach to human nature and its preoccupation with unpleasant emotions and experiences.

Cultural Connections

At it's core, positive psychology for non-clinical benefits is an attempt to understand the nature of happiness and well-being, in order to use that information to make people happier. However, it is by no means the first attempt to answer that particular question. In fact, it is a question that has been central to the development of the human race over many years.

Western Historical Cultural Conceptions

In the Western world, the search for happiness and well-being has been dominated by two main ideas – religion, as suggested by the early Hebrews, and the good life, as proposed by the Greeks. The early Hebrews, and later the Christians, devoted themselves to one or another form of divine command theory. According to this theory, devotion to a Supreme Being (God) and the rules set out by that Supreme Being, will lead to a happier more fulfilling life. The theory requires that individuals reject simple egocentric and hedonistic behaviours in favour of a life ruled by the Ten Commandments – most of which relate to greed, anger and an acceptance of a higher power (Compton, 2005).

In contrast, the ancient Greeks posited that happiness and well-being (the good life) could be achieved through logic and rational analysis. Socrates believed that the path to the good life involved exploration of the self and ones emotions. Plato reiterated these sentiments, adding that virtue is the single most important feature in attaining the good life. However, Aristotle took a slightly different view stating that emotional extremes were to be avoided and that humans should seek out the balance between these extremes, ultimately leading them to a life of happiness. He also highlighted 12 virtues which were examples of these balances of emotion such as courage, which lies between the extremes of rashness and cowardice. It is also important to note that Aristotle did not discount external forces such as beauty as influencing factors in achieving the good life (Compton, 2005).

Modern Cultural Differences

In fact, the difference in the Greek philosopher’s opinions appears to depend to some extent on the cultural background of the individual. In Western individualist cultures, there is an emphasis placed on internal states such as emotions as predictors of life satisfaction, where as in Eastern collectivist cultures, the emphasis is equally weighted between emotions and external processes such as behaving in a socially acceptable manner (Suh et al, 1998).

Indeed, the differences in perceptions of well-being between Eastern and Western cultures have been demonstrated numerous times in the psychological literature. Oishi and Diener (2001) found that pursuit of independent goals (goal pursuit for personal enjoyment) as opposed to pursuit of interdependent goals (goal pursuit in order to please others) is dependant on cultural background. European Americans rated well-being in goal attainment at time 2 greater after pursuit of independent goals, where there was no such effect for Asians. In contrast, Asians rated well-being in goal attainment at time 2 greater after pursuit of interdependent goals, where the same effect for European Americans was greatly diminished. Together, these come as evidence that European Americans tend to attain well-being through pursuit of personal enjoyment, where as Asians tend to attain well-being by doing their best to please others around them. Clearly, culture plays a large part in determining the well-being of different individuals.

Culture as a Generator of Scientific Theory

Some pieces of research in positive psychology have stemmed from the traditions of Eastern cultures. One such non-clinical application is the idea of Mindfulness, which originates from Buddhism. This refers to the idea of focusing directly on the present and its moment by moment activities with a non-judgmental attitude. Increasingly, research into techniques derived from mindfulness have been introduced into the study of psychology, with over 70 scientific papers published in 2007 alone (Ludwig and Kabat-Zinn, 2008). A recent meta-analysis conducted by Grossman et al (2005) investigated a specific technique called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to determine its effectiveness. Although the majority of studies included in the meta-analysis considered clinical populations, at least 5 (of 20) were concerned with non-clinical populations which were simply attempting to alleviate the symptoms of stress. Indeed, as most of the studies provided positive effect sizes, it has been argued that MBSR is simply effective in reducing stress regardless of the clinical or non clinical nature of the population.

Not Just Positive Thinking

Positive psychology is often mistaken by laymen as positive thinking. The following illustrates, that there are fundamental differences between positive thinking and positive psychology.

Goals: internal vs. external

Firstly the two disciplines differ in their goals. Positive psychology aims to achieve mental satisfaction, potential fulfillment and happiness by acts of altruism or gratitude (Gillham,2000). Positive thinking on the contrary pledges the achievement of anything one strives for in life solely by thinking positively about it (Peale,1996). Constant optimism is thus claimed to lead to love, success, prosperity and the fulfillment of one´s dreams. Positve thinking thereby assumes that happiness and contentment will only result from the accomplishment of these external factors (Peale,1993). This leaves positive psychology as primarily internally oriented (inner fulfillment) whereas positive thinking is targeted externally (job, money etc.). Additionally these differing goals render the positive psychology approach as modest and realistic while positive thinking appears self deceptive in its strive for superlatives.

Evidence vs. Assumption

Secondly positive psychology unlike positive thinking is grounded in empirical and replicable scientific research. In doing so it reveals objective results as the positive impact of optimism on health, performance, and social success (Peterson et al.,2005), or the affect of expressing gratitude on physical health (Diener & Seligman,2004). Positive psychology hence defines concepts as optimism and happiness rendering them measurable. Positive thinking on the contrary lacks empirical support for their claims and methods by heavily relying on field reports and assumptions. Exemplary for this is the assumption that those anticipating success will be successful while those anticipating failure will fail (Peale, 1996). Optimistic statements like this appear oversimplified and lack any empirical evidence.

Conditional vs. Unconditional

Thirdly, contrary to positive psychology, positive thinking suggests to be unconditionally optimistic. Thereby positive thinking dictates people to allow into their awareness solely positive feelings, while ignoring and refusing any negative ones (Quillian,2003). Positive psychology however distinguishes between situations where optimism is advantageous and those where it is disadvantageous. Evidence reveals for instance that in some situations negative thinking leads to more accuracy, while optimistic thinking can be associated with an underestimation of risks (Gillham,2003). Thus positive psychology differs from positive thinking by holding confinements of optimism.

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

Positive psychology further differs from positive thinking by being rather descriptive than prescriptive. It informs people about the consequences of certain actions (effect of gratitude on happiness) without claiming omniscience (Peterson et al.,2005). Hence rather than prescribing people what to do, it describes scientific results and leaves it to people to comply. On the contrary positive thinking is prescriptive, guiding people in how to positively influence the consciousness and unconsciousness through techniques as creative visualization, auto-suggestions and self-affirmations (Peale,1996). Self-evident it is a matter of choice to conform to the positive thinking approach. However if one chooses to follow the path, it allows little latitude in how to comply (Quillian,2003)

To conclude, positive psychology differs from positive thinking by being based on and describing results of scientific research, by its conditionality towards optimism and by pursuing inner contentment in its own rather than as a result of goal achievement.

Practical Exercises for Everyday Well-Being

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

World Health Organization, 1948

One of the main goals of positive psychology is to promote and encourage well-being in all individuals. To this end, positive psychologists have developed a number of techniques to help increase this sense of well-being, and while we include a number of these techniques below, the list is by no means exhaustive. However, a number of scientific studies have shown that adopting these techniques into your everyday life can increase levels of health, well-being and overall happiness.

1. Physical Exercise

Most people are aware of the positive effects of regular physical exercise, although for many of us it's often difficult to find the time, or muster up the motivation to faithfully follow any kind of fitness routine. However in recent years, research has shown that people, who do exercise regularly, not only feel healthier but also report an increase in their overall levels of happiness. In 2007, Stubbe and colleagues carried out a co-twin study looking at the correlation between physical exercise and well-being in 8,000 subjects, and found that taking part in exercise leads to increased levels of life satisfaction and overall happiness. In addition, a 2005 cross-sectional survey by Levy & Ebbeck, of 122 adult women found that physical exercise leads to higher levels of self-esteem.

2. Have a Beautiful Day

One of the most important things we can do for our well-being is to make time for ourselves. We all lead incredibly busy lives, and research has shown that few people actually take time to switch off and do something they really enjoy. So in his book: 'Authentic Happiness', Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology encourages people to take just one day every month to indulge in your favourite pleasures. You can pamper yourself, paint, read, or go to a museum. It doesn't matter what it is you do, only that it's something you're doing just for you.

3. Gratitude

Be thankful for your life and the people you have in it. Wake up in the morning and say 'Thanks' just for being alive. If you find a coin in the street, say 'Thank you'. If you get all the green lights on the way to work, say 'Thank you'. By getting into the habit of being grateful, you're opening the door to all kinds of possibilities and opportunities. This may sound like self-help mumbo jumbo to some people, but again scientific evidence has shown a strong relationship between Gratitude and well-being. In a 2010 review, Wood and colleagues carried out research looking at the effects of gratitude on well-being, where gratitude was defined as focusing on, and being thankful for the positive aspects of life, with the researchers reporting a strong correlation between gratitude and well-being.

Another powerful Gratitude exercise is to thank someone in your life, perhaps for some good deed they've done in the past, or maybe just for being there. To do this, first write a gratitude testimony to the person you have in mind, and then arrange to meet up with this person to thank them in person. In a 2005 study by Schueller this exercise demonstrated the largest positive change on happiness and depressive symptoms.

4. Strengths Exercise

Think about your own personal strengths for a few moments. Is it easy? Or did you find yourself thinking about your lack of strengths as opposed to your actual strengths? When it comes to this exercise, many people tend to focus on all their weak areas, instead of their areas of strength.

Imagine you have a spotlight in your mind, which is directed at an imaginary list of all your attributes. For many people this list will mainly be full of negative beliefs: e.g. I'm not thin enough/ I'm not clever enough/ I'm not pretty enough/ I'm not funny/ I don't have much confidence and so on.

However, it is very important to remember that we ALL have another list, and this is our list of strengths. There is no one individual who can do and know everything. We all have things we are very good at and other things we haven't yet accomplished, or even tried but it's extremely important to focus on your list of strengths, whether it be that you're a great cook, a great swimmer or a great friend.

There are a number of ways you can uncover your strengths: Click here to visit Martin Seligman's Action Survey of Strengths, and this will give you your list of top 5 strengths. You can then try to find ways to build these strengths into every day life.

5. Meditation and Mindfulness

The Eastern practice of Meditation comes in many forms, but usually includes techniques such as awareness of the breathing, mindfulness and an internally focused state. Meditation is now widely accepted in the West as an effective complimentary intervention for a number of conditions, but is also a very important part of inducing a feeling of well-being in non-clinical populations.

In a 2009 study, Travis & colleagues carried out an investigation looking at the effects of Transcendental Meditation practice on stress & brain functioning in 50 college students and found significant positive differences in students who practiced meditation for 10 weeks. In addition, a 2009 study by Moore & Malinowsky looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and cognitive flexibility and attention. Results demonstrated that those people who meditate perform significantly better on all measures of attention than those people who don't. This suggests that mindfulness is linked to improvement in cognitive flexibility and measures of attention.

Click here for an introduction into Meditation by the Dalai Lama.

Three Essential Learning Resources

These 3 resources are an excellent starter point into the topic and come recommended as initial sources for research.

Martin Seligman on the goal of Positive Psychology (Video)

Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions (Seligman et al, 2005)

An Introduction to Positive Psychology (Compton, 2005)

Examples of Non-Clinical Applications in Positive Psychology

Although positive psychology as a field is relatively new, many psychologists are now undertaking research regarding the benefits of positive psychology on non clinical populations. These studies are vital if psychology is to open its doors to the wider experiences of human nature, as it is all well to state that feeling positive will bring happier and more fulfilling lives, but until this is proven many will just dismiss the theory.

What follows is a brief attempt to give examples of how positive psychological research is applied to everyday human experience:

For many who would consider applying positive psychological interventions within their lives the underlying question may be ‘if I make positive changes will the benefits be long term?’ In the following two studies the effectiveness of a variety of positive interventions is tested in order to rate their long term effectiveness:

  • In an investigation undertaken by Cohn & Fredrickson (2010) the rationale was to conclude whether intervention activities remain valuable in the long term, and whether the new resources an individual employs would be retained after the intervention ends. This was accomplished by employing a 15-month follow-up survey of participants from a loving-kindness meditation intervention. The results implied that many participants continued to practice meditation, also continuing to describe additional positive emotions (PEs) than participants who stopped meditating or never undertook meditation. All the participants nonetheless maintained gains that had been made during the initial intervention, whether mediation was continue or not. Generally, the results implied that positive psychology interventions are not merely efficacious but also are significant in real life settings.

  • In another study conducted by Peters, Flink, Boersma & Linton (2010) the intention was to examine whether a brief manipulation utilizing positive future thinking may increase optimism. Before undertaking the study all participants were measured for positive and negative future expectancies and positive and negative affect. Participants in the positive future thinking condition (n = 44) recorded their best possible self (BPS) for 15 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of mental imagery. Control participants (n = 38) recorded and imagined a typical day in their own lives. In contrast to controls, the positive future thinking manipulation demonstrated significantly larger increases in positive affect and positive future expectancies, which were not dependent on mood effect, implying that imagining a positive future can amplify positive future expectancies.

As many positive psychology interventions can be carried out as solo or social exercises it would seem fair to assume that those employing these interventions would be interested in which type of intervention would lead to optimal outcomes.

  • In a survey style study, as well as two experimental designs carried out by Walker (2010), the hypothesis was that social flow is more pleasurable than solitary flow. With the survey study it was established that recalled social flow events were regarded more pleasurable than solitary flow. In experimental condition one, when challenge and skill was on a par regardless of whether social or solitary, social flow was still described as more enjoyable. In experiment two when level of social interdependence was manipulated it was discovered that those in highly interdependent teams experienced more joy. The three investigations maintained the inference that although solitary flow is pleasurable, social flow is deemed more pleasurable.

With daily news being crammed with acts of prejudice and intolerance based on stereotypical views of those out with ones own ethnic origin, it seems that any understanding of why this occurs as well as investigations into intervention which can alter these cognitions and behaviours would be met with open arms.

  • With this in mind Wellman, Czopp, & Geers (2009) utilized positive psychology in order to rate its effectiveness on prejudice, i.e. in the form of standing up against prejudice. As those high in dispositional optimism strongly pursue goals, regardless of obstacles, it was suggested that combining high optimism and salient egalitarian goals would result in the confrontation of prejudice. Within the study, those high and low in optimism and prejudice were randomly assigned to either listen to a racist style joke followed by an argument, or with no argument. It was established that low-prejudice optimists who heard the argument were extremely likely to tackle a subsequent prejudice act, upholding theories of a self-regulatory approach to confrontation.

  • Similarly Nelson (2009) undertook a study to examine whether affective states sway cross-cultural empathy. US college students were employed in the experiment. Participants read about an individual that encountered distress either in a perspective that was consistent or inconsistent with US norms. When assessing individuals with an inconsistent (versus consistent) cultural perspective, participants in neutral affect (condition 1) or negative affect (condition 2) conditions displayed less perspective taking and emotional empathy, however, this was not observed for those in a positive affect condition (condition 3) who displayed greater perspective taking and feelings of compassion and sympathy for the dissimilar target, suggesting that positive affect encourages open-minded, flexible thinking.

Many of the studies already discussed have demonstrated how positive interventions can have a direct impact on an individual affecting their cognitions and behaviours, however as already discussed positive psychology although often implemented at an individual level can have positive affects on many.

  • One such study was conducted by Duckworth, Quinn, & Seligman (2009). Duckworth et al (2009) hypothesised that positive traits would directly effect teacher effectiveness. In a longitudinal study, trainee teachers (N = 390) who had been situated in under-resourced public schools completed measures of optimistic explanatory style, grit, and life satisfaction prior to beginning their school year. At the end of the school year, teacher effectiveness was measured via academic gains of students. The results suggested that although all three positive traits individually forecasted their performance when entered simultaneously, only grit and life satisfaction continued to be significant predictors, suggesting that these traits should be considered within the selection of new teachers.

Although the benefits of positive psychology may seem obvious to some with regards to happiness, optimal functioning, flourishing and general psychological wellbeing it should also be noted that positive psychology can have an impact on physical health also.

  • This has been verified in an investigation carried out by Peterson, Park, & Seligman, (2006) who wished to measure how character strengths were related to recovery? A retrospective web-based study was carried out employing 2087 adults. The results established small but significant associations between physical illness and character strengths such as appreciation of beauty, bravery, curiosity, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, humour, kindness, love of learning, and spirituality. It was also implied that there was a correlation between psychological disorders and the character strengths of appreciation of beauty, creativity, curiosity, gratitude, and love of learning. Regarding physical illness, there was less of a toll on life satisfaction among individuals with the character strengths of bravery, kindness, and humour. The study proposed that recovering from an illness could be reliant on the character strengths of the individual.

The Gap Between Theory and Empirical Results

As a new area of psychology, positive psychology is particularly susceptible to criticism and it is to be expected that in such a new field there will be incomplete or incorrect theories, or gaps between theory and empirical results. Many researchers have offered criticisms or put forward suggestions for improvement within the field.

A number of researchers have voiced concerns that positive psychology is simply a reiteration of previous theories of positive psychology from decades or even centuries ago. For example, Steven and Sybil Wolin (1993) argued that the progress made in the field of positive psychology is limited and that modern theories or positive psychology are nothing more than a repeat of the views held previously. Synder and Lopez (2001) were in agreement with Wolin & Wolin's (1993) opinion and warned that the field of positive psychology is at risk of damage from media attention and stressed the importance of maintaining a scientific professionalism and of using research and studies appropriately.

One of the most important and thought-provoking criticisms of positive psychology was discussed in 2001 by Julie Norem, one of positive psychology’s most outspoken critics. She has raised the concern that “there’s no credible evidence that dispositional optimism is changeable despite studies showing that dispositional optimism is what makes your life better”. She argues that it is not useful to claim that a change in optimism could make an individual happier or more content if it is not clear that dispositional optimism can be altered. Norem has also argued that pessimism can also be a force for good when used to harness anxiety and improve persformance.

A related criticism is provided by Schwartz et al (2002) who provided evidence to suggest that attempting to maximise happiness can lead to unhappiness. Given that changing thoughts in the hope of increasing happiness is one of the key principles of positive psychology, Schwartz's finding raises some important questions regarding the effectiveness of some positive psychology theories and demonstrates that there is great deal of work still to be done before clear conclusions can be drawn from the application of positive psychology.

In 2004, another prominent critic of positive psychology, Barbara Held, raised concerns regarding the lack of consistence towards the aspect of negativity in research. She noted that there is no widely accepted or utilised measure of negativity in positive psychology and that much of the research conducted in the field is based on self-report. This has led Held to call for more standardised measures and controls to be used in positive psychology research to add credibility to its theories and findings.

Held (2004) also noted that many positive psychologists hold a simplistic, ‘one size fits all’ view in the application of positive psychology. The lack of recognition of individual differences in positive psychology could, in Held’s opinion, hinder the advancement of the field and Held strongly felt that individual differences must be incorporated into the application of positive psychology in order for it to be taken seriously.

Future Directions in Positive Psychology for Non-Clinical Benefits

"The greatest discoveries have come from people who have looked at a standard situation and seen it differently."

Ira Erwin

In a 2006 article, Linley et al asked: "What comes next in the field of Positive Psychology?" with the authors suggesting that the field will invariably widen from just settings where being successful is celebrated and encouraged to application in schools, businesses and beyond.

The authors also suggest that despite the fact that positive psychology was created as a field apart from the clinical world, this could and should be one of the future directions of positive psychology, as well as moving towards exploration in neuroscience and culture.

However, while this may be a natural progression of the discipline, it's extremely important that research continues to study the character strengths and virtues of those people who lead very happy and successful lives, and to use this research to develop and apply new techniques designed to nurture fulfillment and talent in all areas of society.

Further Resources

  • Click here for an article by Joseph Froh on the history of positive psychology and it's relationship to humanism.

  • Click here to visit Martin Seligman's website which offers a variety of resources.

  • Click here for Positive Psychology on Wikipedia

  • Click here for The Centre for Confidence & Well-being in Glasgow


Albee, G.W. (1982). Preventing psychopathy and promoting human potential. American Psychologist, 37, 1043-1050.

Bandura, A. (1978). Perceived effectiveness: An explanatory mechanism of behavioural change. In G. Lindzey, C.S. Hall & R.F. Thompson (eds). Psychology. New York, Worth.

Bandura, A. (1989). Perceived self-efficacy in the exercise of personal agency. The Psychologist, 10, 411-424.

Cohn, M.A., & Fredrickson, B.L. (in press). The neural correlates of trait resilience when anticipating and recovering from a threat. The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Compton, W.C. (2005). An introduction to Positive Psychology. Wadsworth Publishing.

Cowen, E.L. (1994). The enhancement of psychological wellness: Challenges and opportunities. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22, 149-179.

Diener, E. & Seligman, M. (2004). Beyond Money: Toward an economy of well- being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1),1-31.

Duckworth, A.L., Quinn, P.D., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2009). Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 19, 540-547.

Fredrickson, B.L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: Theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gillham, J. (2000). The science of optimism and hope: research essays in honor of Martin E. P. Seligman. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S. & Walach, H. (2004), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits: A meta analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43

Held, B.S. (2004). The Negative Side of Positive Psychology. Journal of Humantistic Psychology, 44(1), 9-41.

Jahoda, M. (1958). Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health. New York: Penguin Books.

Levy, S.S. & Ebbeck, V. (2005) The exercise and self-esteem model in adult women: the inclusion of physical acceptance. Psychology of Sports and Exercise, 6(5), 571-584

Linley, A.C., Joseph, S., Harrington, S. & Wood, A.M. (2006). Positive psychology: Past, present and (possible) future. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3-16.

Ludwig, D.S. & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008). Mindfulness in Medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association, 11, 1350-1352

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L.A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K.M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.

Maslow, A.H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Moore, A. & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition, 18(1), 176-186.

Nelson, D.W. (2009). Feeling good and open-minded: The impact of positive affect on cross cultural empathic responding. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 53-63.

Norem, J. (2001). The Power of Negative Thinking: Using defensive pessimism to harness anxiety and perform at your peak. New York: Basic Books.

Oishi, S. & Diener, E. (2001). Goals, Culture and Subjective Well-being. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(12), 1674-1682

Peters, M.L., Flink, I.K., Boersma, K., & Linton, S.J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 204-211.

Peale N,V. (1996).  The power of positive thinking. New York: Prentice Hall Inc.

Peale N,V.  (1993). Positive thinking every day: An inspiration for each day of the year. New York: Fireside.

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Greater strengths of character and recovery from illness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(1),17-26.

Peterson, C., Park, N. & Seligman, M. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: the full life vs. the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6(1), 25-41.

Quillian, S.  (2003). Positive thinking (Essential Lifeskills).  London: Dorling Kindersley.

Schatte, A., Reivich, K. & Seligman, M. (2000). Promoting human strength and corporate competencies. Psychologist, 4(2),183-196.

Schueller, S.M. (2010). Preferences for positive psychology exercises. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 192-203.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K. & Lehman, D. (2002). Maximizing versus satisticing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178-1197.

Seligman, M., Park, N. & Steen, T. (2006). A balanced psychology and a full life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. & Pawelski, J. (2003). Positive Psychology: FAQs. Psychological Inquiry, 159-163.

Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introducation. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Snyder, C.R., Feldman, D.B., Taylor, J.D., Schroeder, L.L., & Adams, V.,III. (2000). The roles of hopeful thinking in preventing problems and enhancing strengths. Applied and Preventetive Psychology, 15, 262-295.

Stubbe, J.H., de Moor, M.H.M., Boomsma, D.I. & de Geus, E.J.C. (2007). The association between exercise participation and well-being: A co-twin study. Preventive Medicine, 44, 148-152.

Synder, C. & Lopez, J. (2002). Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sternberg, R.J. (1988). The Triarchic Mind: A new theory of human intelligence. New York: Basic Books.

Travis, F., Haaga, D.A.F., Hagelin, J., Tanner, M., Nidich, S., Gaylord-King, C., Grosswald, S., Rainforth, M. & Schneider, R.H. (2009).  Effects of Transcendental Meditation practice on brain functioning and stress reactivity in college students. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 71(2), 170-176.

Walker, C. (2010). Experiencing Flow: Is doing it together better than doing it alone? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 3-11.

Wellman, J.A., Czopp, A.M., & Geers, A.L. (2009). The egalitarian optimist and the confrontation of prejudice. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 389-395.

Winner, E. (2000). The origins and end of giftedness. American Psychologist, 55, 159-169.

Wolin, S. & Wolin, S. (1993). The Resilient Self. New York: Villard.

Wood, A.M., Froh, J.J. & Geraghty, A.W.A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being. A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890-905.