What is Positive Psychology?

Updated: Mar 7

In 1998, when Dr. Martin Seligman became the president of the American Psychological Association, he used his inaugural address to urge psychological researchers to relax their grip on their almost exclusive focus on the examination of and research into mental illness. He urged psychologists to also devote their time and resources to studying that which is good and positive in life, i.e., those aspects that make up a life worth living (Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015). This call for a shift in focus in research, and psychology in general, was later emphasised by the publication of a special issue of the journal, American Psychologist, entitled “Positive Psychology: An Introduction” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

It is important to note that a positive focus in psychology, and also from a philosophical point of view, was not a new notion (Jayawickreme, Forgeard, & Seligman, 2012), but that it served to group together existing lines of research, as well as to answer the age-old question about how to define, quantify and create wellbeing (Rusk & Waters, 2013, 2015). The renewed focus on this area of research and the naming of this area as Positive Psychology, has led to a dramatic increase in journal articles, books, conferences and associations concerning themselves with research into and the promotion of wellbeing, in all its different facets, and in all walks of life (Donaldson et al., 2015).

The introduction of Positive Psychology caused researchers to ask questions, not so much about how to curb depression (for example), but instead about how quality of life, resiliency, interpersonal relationships and achievement can be enhanced (Hart & Sasso, 2011; Rusk & Waters, 2013; Seligman, 2011). Some researchers within this paradigm investigate top achievers, while further lines of research delve into the functions and benefits of positive emotions (Frederickson, 2000, 2009). Others set their sights on creating interventions in order to elicit positive emotions and their related benefits (Hart & Sasso, 2011). Positive Psychology may be said to have shifted the focus from “cure” to “prevention”; however, it has gone even further than this. Instead of asking how suicide may be prevented (for example), the question within the paradigm of Positive Psychology has become: “How can we improve wellbeing and resiliency?” (Darity, 2008; Kwok, Gu, & Kit, 2016).

Please note that Positive Psychology has “… a complex identity, one that is incongruent with the popular cultural stereotype that depicts Positive Psychology as an elite endeavour concerned solely with grinning yellow smiley faces and Pollyanna-style positive thinking” (Hart & Sasso, 2011, p.82).


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Jayawickreme, E., Forgeard, M.J.C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2012). The engine of well-being. Review of General Psychology, 16(4), 327-342

Kwok, S. Y. C. L., Gu, M., & Kit, K. T. K. (2016). Positive psychology intervention to alleviate child depression and increase life satisfaction: A randomized clinical trial. Research on Social Work Practice,26(4), 350-361

Rusk, R. D., & Waters, L. E. (2013) Tracing the size, reach, impact, and breadth of positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(3), 207-221

Rusk, R.D., & Waters, L. (2015). A psycho-social system approach to well-being: Empirically deriving the five domains of positive functioning. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(2), 141-152

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish. New York, NY: Free Press.

Seligman, M.E.P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14

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