Why so serious? The untapped value of positive psychology
All we can ever hope to do, Sigmund Freud once wrote, is “to change neurotic misery into common unhappiness”. This pessimistic statement from arguably the most influential psychological theorist of modern times captured the mood that prevailed in psychology through most of the 20th century. That is, most psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts were essentially guided by a model of the patient that was based on what was wrong with people, and how to deal with these deficiencies.
It goes without saying that it’s important that therapists' energies are devoted to addressing the issues that trouble their patients. However, it’s become increasingly apparent that this near-exclusive focus on deficits and disorders doesn’t do justice to the rich potential of human existence. What about the strengths and virtues that make some people so admirable and worth emulating? What about those beautiful aspects of life that give us reason to get up in the morning? What about cherished experiences of love and laughter, hope and happiness? Why isn’t psychology striving to understand and promote these positive aspects of human lives?
These topics weren’t entirely neglected. There were scholars exploring these issues, particularly those who might define themselves as human-centric or “humanistic” psychologists. Above all was Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), widely regarded as the founder of humanistic psychology and a passionate advocate for the need to go beyond the deficit model exemplified by Freud by adding a complementary focus on the brighter aspects of human life.
Writing in 1968 Maslow said: “It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.” Spurred on by his example, a minority of psychologists have striven to explore this more positive territory. But for the most part, this focus on the positive has not attracted much attention, or respect, among those in mainstream psychology.
The positive case
This suddenly changed at the end of the 1990s, when the hugely influential Professor Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association. Inspired by the work of people like Maslow, he used his inauguration to initiate the idea of positive psychology. Essentially this took on the mantle of humanistic psychology as an evolution, an adaptation, or even a re-branding of the earlier field, depending on your perspective. Seligman’s initiative quickly attracted considerable attention, and since then scientific research on the positive aspects of human functioning - from hope to meaning in life - has entered mainstream psychology.
To capture the essence of positive psychology, take Corey Keyes’ idea of a scale running from minus 10 representing illness, through zero, to plus 10 representing wellness. Prior to positive psychology’s emergence, clinical psychology would endeavour to move people in distress from the negative scale (experiencing mental health issues) to a notional zero (an absence of such issues). However, the absence of mental health issues is not the same as flourishing. Even if we are free of disorder and distress, this isn’t the same as living life to the full and developing to the peak of our capacity. This is how positive psychology has defined its role, in helping people to rise above zero, above a mere absence of pain and into positive territory.
The metaphor isn’t perfect. It was soon recognised that people can suffer psychological issues and still flourish in other ways. As such, it’s maybe better to think of people as existing along more than one scale simultaneously: doing well on some – being in a loving relationship, for example – and less well on others, such as lacking a fulfilling job. Caveats aside, I think the metaphor is useful: we can all aspire to aim higher, not merely to be free of problems, but to try and truly flourish as human beings and make the most of our all too brief lives.
How we can learn from the positive
Positive psychology aims to help us do that, through empirical research and theoretical models, and through practical positive psychology interventions, such as helping people to find or create more meaning in their lives. For instance, scholars have been working on developing a detailed typology of character strengths – a positive counterpart to the classification of mental disorders used by psychiatrists. People can then use diagnostic tools such as the Values in Action framework, not only to better understand their unique values and talents but to work on cultivating them, and thereby fulfilling their potential.
The field continues to develop and evolve in interesting ways. There has been increasing critical attention paid to the social dimensions of flourishing, a process I’ve referred to as positive social psychology. This recognises that well-being is not simply a positive mental state that some people are fortuitous enough to enjoy, but something that is intertwined with social factors.
This critical perspective has been brought to bear even on the very notions of “positive” and “negative” that underpin psychology. A trend referred to as second wave positive psychology, this holds that ostensibly dysphoric (negative) feelings can under some circumstances be conducive to flourishing: finding positive power in negative emotions, and giving credence to the idea that hardship can develop the fortitude that may lead to later successes.
Aspects of positive psychology continue to cross over into other domains, from education to the arts, exploring how best these may be harnessed so as to help us live the best life possible. While positive psychology is by no means a panacea for all ills, if it can add a little extra light in dark times - which I do believe it can - then surely that is to be welcomed.