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Is 'Positive Psychology' Simply Re-marketing Traditional Topics?

"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending"

- Maria Robinson


Rogers (1977) claimed that in the past decade there has been a 'quiet revolution' in psychology from a focus on repairing the worst things in life to the better qualities.(Seligman, 2000) But is it really a revolution? Many scholars have argued that positive psychology is simply re-marketing traditional topics without any new ideas. This wiki critically discusses this debate with particular focus on key ideas from the positive psycholoy movement. The wiki first looks at the 'positive psychology' movement as whole- compares it too other traditions and questions its originality. Second, the wiki intoduces three key ideas in the 'positive psychology' and discuss whether the concepts bring something new to field of psychology .

Therefore, the wiki is split into three sections:
  1. The General idea of 'Positive Psychology' as a whole.
  2. Key ideas in 'Positive Psychology' - Flow, Mindset Theory, and Gratitude.
  3. Reflections.

1. The 'Positive Psychology' Movement

The idea of ‘positive psychology’ (conscious thought processes resulting in psychological benefits) has been seen as far back as 350BC when Aristotle claimed: “Happiness … must be some form of contemplation” (Neomachean Ethics, Book X, Chapter 8).

Aristotle believed that happiness and contemplation – the capacity for thought – to be two virtues that were bestowed only upon humans and that therefore they must be intertwined.

Since then, the idea of positive psychology has continued to be discussed. For example, in the early 20th century, William James wrote about ‘‘healthy mindedness’’ (James, 1902).

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), however, declared that any interest in ‘positive psychology’ had been lost since World War II. They claimed that pre-WWII the key aims of psychology were to cure mental illness, to increase productivity, and to encourage talent within individuals but that with the foundation of the Veterans Administration (VA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the late 1940s, the later two of psychology’s original goals appeared to have been dropped. In their opinion, post-WWII psychology seemed to focus on curing mental illness and nothing else. They felt it was time to bring psychology back to what it originally was meant to be. Hence the Positive Psychology movement was born.

However, many people argue that these key aims of psychology were not lost. More than fifty years previous to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘return’ to these more positive aspects, Maslow had voiced his dissatisfaction with what he perceived as psychology’s “ voluntarily (restriction of ) itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that, the darker, meaner half” (p.354). In fact, Maslow was the first to key the term ‘positive psychology’. The final chapter of his book Motivation and Personality (1954) was titled: ‘Toward a Positive Psychology’. This chapter outlined a research agenda that is not dissimilar to the proposal put forward by Seligman in 1999.

Indeed, the Positive Psychology movement has a lot in common with the earlier established humanistic approach. Generally speaking, both disciplines take a holistic approach with emphasis on the fully functioning person and the self (including such aspects as self worth, self-image, and self-actualisation) and both study healthy individuals (Rogers, 1961; Maslow, 1968). Like the newly establish Positive Psychology movement, the humanistic approach was interested in what keeps us happy and satisfied in life – it was not interested in treating mental illness.

So: positive thinking has existed since Aristotle…humanism seems to have a very similar idea…Seligman and his colleagues may have been a bit over the top about the changes since WW2…does this mean that Positive Psychology is not new?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – one of the world’s leading researchers of positive psychology – blatantly stated that positive psychology is most definitely not ‘new’ but also that no one had ever claimed it was new! He explained that “even the most obvious insights have to be revisited every few generations, so that their truth can be restated within the evolving context of knowledge” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

In line with this, Linley et al (2006) argue that positive psychology has always existed as an integral part of psychology. What they believe the Positive Psychology movement has done is define and draw attention to what was already known about the promotion and maintenance of healthy psychological functioning. The Positive Psychology movement has done something both simple and crucial – it has brought a scientific approach to the study of happiness.

Taking everything in to account, it would seem that Positive Psychology, while more developed than some previous ideas, is not an entirely novel idea. Why then, you might ask, was Martin Seligman awarded $30,000,000 in 1998 to study it? Well, it may have a lot to do with the socioeconomic climate of that time. At the time when Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers had tried to introduce similar ideas, the USA was experiencing war, economic difficulty and social struggle. The Positive Psychology movement was proposed at a time when the majority of the United States was experiencing wealth, peace, and optimism. Unlike the times of Maslow and Rogers, in 1998 people were content with life. The next step was to become extremely happy – exactly what Seligman’s Positive Psychology proposed to do. It would seem that unlike his predecessors, Seligman had great timing!!

2. Key Ideas in 'Positive Psychology'

This section looks at three key ideas in ‘Positive Psychology’.

1: Flow

A key concept in positive psychology is a phenomenon called 'Flow'. This concept shows several similarities with earlier research from a humanistic tradition- that of peak experience (Maslow, 1962) and peak performance (Privette, 1964). This section discusses similarities between the concepts and questions the uniqueness of 'Flow' as a separate construct.

What is 'Flow'?

'Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience' was coined by Mihlaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. He stated that 'flow' was the 'holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement'. In simpler terms, 'flow' is a mental state a person achieves when they become wholly involved in an activity to the extent that they are fully engrossed in it.

This is a sensation that you may be able to relate with and it is thought to occur in a wide range of activities including, music, religion, education, sport and occupation.

Mihlaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) later identified 9 factors which he believed were involved in the experience of 'flow' and which help explain the process:

  • Clear goals
  • Concentration
  • A loss of self consciousness
  • loss of sense of time
  • Feedback
  • Balance between ability and challenge level
  • sense of control
  • intrinsic rewards
  • becoming one with the activity

In 2002, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi further extended the definition where a 'flow' like experience occurred when a person was working at full capacity, where the difficulty of the task provided them with enough challenge (not too hard nor too easy) ad activity induced intense engagement with effortless action.

For mor information please see video with Mihlaly Csikszentmihalyi: flow-

This page will focus more on Flow and its connections with other ideas from previous traditions. It is worth noting however that 'Flow' is a much wider concept that it has been given credit in this page. For a deeper understanding below is a link to last years wiki page devoted entirely to 'Flow'. It discusses more scientific findings of the concept, discusses practical applications and most importantly discusses criticisms with the concept.

Flow:The Psychology of Optimal Experience- last year wiki page.

Connections with other areas

As I have mentioned, in 1975, Csikszentmihalyi coined the term 'flow' to describe an intense joyful experience of full engrossment in an activity. However, this is not the first time an experience of a similar nature had been explored in research.

Previous research by Murphy (1972) and Unsworth (1969) describe a similar 'flow' like experience; they described optimal experience in specific activities like golf and rock climbing. Despite these authors describing similar 'flow' like experiences, they focus on a connection between mental state and individual activity. In converse, Csikszentmihalyi (1975) describes 'flow' as a process independent of any specific activity or situation.

Furthermore, research from a humanistic approach has developed constructs- peak experience and peak performance - which also describe intense, positive experience in a similar way to 'flow'.

For a more in-depth analysis see key review paper: Privette, G. (1983). Peak Experience, Peak Performance, and Flow: A comparative Analysis of Positive Human Experiences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 45, 6, 1361-1368.

Firstly, Peak Experience (Laski, 1962, Maslow, 1962, 1964, 1971) explains an intense moment of joy which can be highly valued (Maslow, 1962).

Secondly, Peak Performance (Privette, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1981, 1982) describes an episode of superior function where an individual performs to their fullest capacity.

It is clear that 'flow' appears to share many characteristics with these humanistic concepts. So, considering this, is positive psychology with particular focus to flow just simply re marketing traditional topics?

It would appear that the answer to this is no, whilst it shares many similarities there is still something unique about the concept of flow. The next paragraphs discuss this.

Connections between 'Flow', 'Peak Experience','Peak Performance'

It is clear that these three characteristics share many characteristics. Some common characteristics common to all phenomenons are:

  • absorption, attention and clear focus.
  • Joy and valuing.
  • integration, effortless and spontaneous nature of the person in the event
  • integration and personal identity
  • optimal intensity.

Considering the baffling number of similar characteristics it is hard to differentiate between the three constructs. However, despite these similarities Csikszentmihalyi concept of 'flow' is still unique in what it attempts to convey.

Unique Quality of 'Flow'

Despite similarities, all three constructs are individual in some way. For instance, as well as all the points above, Peak experience differs in that it has a mystic, trans personal quality to the construct.

Peak Experience focuses on the self and the valued object in the transaction.

Most importantly, 'flow' focuses on fun. Along with everything else the activity that brings along a flow like experience should be ultimately something that you really enjoy.

Conclusion/ Reflection

Flow' is a key concept in positive psychology. Despite it sharing many similarities to earlier concepts from humanistic literature, the concept of 'flow', still attempts to bring a new slant to the research by focusing more on the fun and positive aspects.

To reiterate a previous point, Csikszentmihalyi (2003), stated that positive psychology never intended to create something new, but instead he believed that every now and again, concepts can be revisited and taken in a slightly new direction or involve a new purpose.

This is what positive psychology has done, although the ideas may have existed in existing research, the researchers revolutionized the ideas and built upon them by attempting to provide empirical evidence. Everything must have a start point, positive psychology does not simply re-market traditional topics instead, it utilisies insightful ideas and rebuilds them.

2: Learned Helplessness vs Mindset Theory

There are many theories from psychology that build off of previously stated theories and concepts of other psychologists. Learned helplessness and mindset seem to be two theories in different areas of psychology that build off of each other. Learned helplessness seems to be a type of mindset, specifically the fixed mindset. Learned helplessness was originally studied in 1972, where as the theory of mindsets is much more recent and has only really been discussed in the past ten years. So it would seem that mindsets are a theory that may branch from learned helplessness.

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned Helplessness was originally discovered when a dog was placed in a cage with electric shocks on the floor and no matter what the dog did or where it moved, it would still be shocked. Eventually, the dog just stopped trying to avoid it, gave up and sat down. In another experiment, the same dog was placed in a cage with electric shocks on the floor, but this time there was a way out, but the dog didn’t even attempt to find it because he had learned (from the previous experiment) that there was nothing that would help him to get away from the shocks.

Learned helplessness stems from the social psychology branch and is a form of Classical Conditioning. It is the idea that a person has become conditioned from his or her environment that failure or pain is the only outcome, so they simply expect failure and do not do anything to avoid it. A person will sit there passively, much like the dog.

What is Mindset?

In the positive psychology branch, there is a concept called mindset, a theory originally produced by Carol Dweck. There are 2 types of mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset suggests that a person is fairly rigid in their thinking and not open to change. In the fixed mindset, a person is either good at sports or they aren’t; they are good or bad; they are rigid in their thinking. The growth mindset suggests the opposite; people are malleable and have a lot of potential for growth and change; with enough practice, a person can become extremely good at a musical instrument or a sport.

The two mindsets are mainly focused around education and the idea that if a person has a fixed mindset, they will not be able to learn new information as easily because they assume that they will not be able to learn. And in the growth mindset, the person understands that with practice and work, they will eventually be able to play the piano or win a football game.


It would seem that the mindset theory is a branch off of the learned helplessness research. Learned helplessness mainly describes the first mindset, the fixed mindset. But, it is easily suggested that the idea of learned helplessness was taken and re-imagined with two possible spectrum's because it is understood that not everyone has learned helplessness and there must be an alternative to it. Much the same way that Freud came to understand that there could not just be a death drive, there must also be a life drive, Dweck realized that people could not simply be helpless or society would fall apart if that were the case, so there had to be an opposite mindset. In Dweck’s research, she found that people can also have the ability to learn and grow from failure, instead of simply giving up.

3: Gratitude

Gratitude, as it exists in positive psychology, has been accused of being a re-marketing of the benefits of writing but based on experimental evidence and the legacy of gratitude it appears the reality differs considerably from the perception. It will be argued that gratitude supplements existing literature by exploring the perspective of increasing happiness and has a substantial contribution to make to the state of well being.

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude is derived from the Latin word “Gratia” meaning grace, graciousness or gratefulness. It has been present across time and culture in some form and has permeated Jewish, Christian Muslim and Buddhist ideology. (Carmen & Streng 1989). In these representations being grateful is seen to have a restorative effect on the individual who has taken time to reflect and be thankful. Practical exercises expressing gratitude include letter writing, counting blessings and keeping a journal.A practical example of which is demonstrated by Emmons et al in their paper below.

Key Gratitude Paper

Emmons,R.A. & McCullough?,M.E. 2003. "Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 84, No. 2, pp.377

Perhaps the misconception of gratitude as more of a transient emotion lacking any solid or scientific purpose can be alleviated by empirical evidence. In this key paper the authors sought to experimentally investigate the effects of a "grateful outlook" on psychological and physical well being. They also investigated whether "counting ones blessings" caused enhanced psychological and physical functioning compared to focusing on complaints or neutral life events.

Participants in the first two studies were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions where they kept daily or weekly records of their positive and negative affect, coping behaviours, health behaviours, physical symptoms and overall life appraisals in a journal.

Study (1) had 192 undergraduates as participants who filled out their journal weekly and lasted 6 weeks. The authors compared gratitude to hassles and life events where positive results were gained for the gratitude group who felt better about their lives and had higher levels of optimism. This group was also found to exercise more and suffered fewer significant complaints.

Study (2) had 155 undergraduates and lasted 16 days. This time gratitude was compared to hassles and downward social comparisons. In this study a stronger manipulation was sought with the authors changing the diary completion to daily over two weeks, “life events” was replaced with “downward social comparison” and a wider range of well being outcomes were introduced. They found higher levels of positive effect for the gratitude group who had a higher likelihood of reporting helping someone or offering emotional support thus displaying pro social motivation.

Study (3) lasted 3 weeks and had 64 adult participants who had a form of Neuromuscular disease. Participants were assigned to either gratitude or the control condition with the gratitude group consistent with studies (1) and (2) and the control condition requiring completing affect, well being and global appraisals. Having compared the gratitude and control group Emmons et al found gratitude manipulation was again seen to affect subjective life appraisals and caused increases in positive affect.


These results are encouraging displaying that this facet of positive psychology has a legitimate intervention to offer. However the therapeutic benefit of writing was long used before the positive psychology movement. However it mainly focused the user on writing about traumatic events in order to overcome them.

Benefits of writing before positive psychology movement

Prior to the introduction of positive psychology in the Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi paper in 2000 the concept of writing as a mode of treatment had been well established and was found in a meta analysis by Smyth et al 1998 to be an acceptable treatment intervention. However these studies were found to focus on writing about negative emotional experiences only and this lends itself to only one avenue of relief. Pennebaker et al wrote numerous papers on the subject and believed that writing negatively although lending itself to the psychoanalytical perspective of human behaviour didn’t offer the element of any “healing power of writing”. In a following study Pennebaker et al established that health improvements from essay writing are not significantly dependent on negative emotional focus and found optimal writing style would have relatively high levels of positive emotion words, a moderate level of negative emotion words and increasing insight words over the course of the writing.

This combination of positive and negative words for optimal letter writing illustrates the theme of this section quite well!

According to Pennebaker & Seagal 1999 the mechanism for the healing power of writing lies in narrative sources rich in meaning allowing the writer to better understand their life. King et al had a similar position in that they believed that the individuals discovery of their priorities and better understanding of the root of their emotional reactions allows for gains in physical health regardless of what tone they write with.

Contribution of Gratitude

Writing positively, an example of gratitude, offers a different dimension of treatment for behavioural disorders. King 2002 highlighted there are different aspects of patient experience when writing about positive rather than negative experience. Surely it can therefore be accepted that if there is a key mechanism in writing which promotes well being and is innate to both a positive and negative approach then it should be reflected in treatment approaches. As outlined by Seligman et al 2005 in a paper on the progress of positive psychology the mandate of interventions brought forward by positive psychology should be that they are integrated with the existing treatment models. In this paper the idea of the DSM being supplemented with a CSV , character strengths and virtues, is mooted as means of combining what is accepted in the current model with what is now seen to be empirically convincing approaches such as those offered by gratitude "counting your blessings". Gratitude in can be concluded is not a re-marketing of the benefits of writing but a refinement. By contributing what is at the heart of positive psychology by focusing on the pursuit of happiness and not singularly the relief of suffering steps can continue to be taken to evolve the therapeutic benefit of writing

3. Reflections

In 1977, Carl Rogers discussed the 'quiet revolution' towards a 'positive psychology'. Part 1 of the wiki discusses that whilst Rogers and others made an attempt in the 70's to revolutionise psychology towards positive thinking, it never really took off until the late 90's when Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi got involved. So are the critics right? Is this present movement just revisiting an old idea but with better luck?

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi would argue no. They stress that whilst the ideas may not be entirely novel, they have revolutionised the study of positive thinking with a focus on empirical research and theory. This idea fully encapsulates our quotation at the top of the page, often we can revisit previous ideas but with a new intention to create something different from them.

Furthermore, this wiki discussed three concepts in 'positive psychology' research. With 'Flow' it was argued that whilst similarities with humanistic concepts are present, 'Flow' does attempt to bring something new to the literature and therefore cannot be guilty of simply rebranding traditional topics.

The section on Mindset (another key idea in 'positive psychology') and learned helplessness concluded
that perhaps mindset theory is a branch off of the learned helplessness research, but, that the idea of learned helplessness was taken and re-imagined because it is understood that not everyone has learned helplessness and there must be an alternative to it.

And finally, the section argues that gratitude can be concluded as not a re-marketing of the benefits of writing but a refinement given the contributions a positive or grateful "counting your blessings" approach offers to writing treatments.

So, in answer to the critics- Is Positive Psychology simply re-marketing traditional topics? Our answer would be - not exactly.

It is true that it has taken several ideas from previous literature but it has not simply nicked the ideas, the movement has made an attempt to revolutionise the early ideas and lead it in a different direction. Just like psychology evolves from philosophical thinking, 'Positive psychology' has branched from early humanistic ideas.

It is a natural evolution of academic thinking and is there really anything wrong with that??

That is for you to decide!!!!


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