Issue 03 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 03 is available to buy now

What is Positive Psychology?
The Basics

What is Positive Psychology?

The Basics is a series exploring the concepts and individuals essential to purposeful business.
22nd Sep 2023

American psychologist Martin Seligman was busy weeding the garden with his daughter. Seeing his daughter merrily throwing weeds in the air, he lost his patience and yelled at her to stop. Upset, his daughter told him: “Remember when I used to whine all the time? When I turned five, I decided to stop. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If I can stop whining, can you stop being such a grump?” 

Seligman considers this a watershed moment for his work in founding the field of positive psychology, in steering his study of psychology from the negative to the positive.

What is positive psychology?

At its core, positive psychology is the study of how we can promote positive emotions to enhance subjective and psychological well-being, through finding more pleasure, meaning and engagement in life. As in Seligman’s anecdote above, it was the mindset that allowed his daughter – and eventually himself – to live a happier life. 

Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the founders of the field, define positive psychology as: “the evidence based exploration of Complete Mental Health” including:

  • Positive subjective states and experiences (past, present and future)
  • Positive individual traits: identifying and using strengths
  • Positive institutions and organisational positive traits

Psychology had been too preoccupied with disorder and dysfunction, leaving no space for human potential.

Who started it?

The field was officially launched in a special edition of American Psychologist published in January 2000 by Seligman and Csikszentmihaly. But glimmers of the field were being explored long before then. 

Before its official founding as a scientific field, Abraham Maslow coined the term in 1968 with a chapter in his book Motivation and Personality entitled “Toward a Positive Psychology”. He was one of the first to claim that psychology had been too preoccupied with disorder and dysfunction, leaving no space for human potential. 

Following in Maslow’s footsteps, Seligman and Csikszentmihaly concurred that traditional psychology felt ‘half baked’. When things are going ‘right’ with people, how can we help them maintain that and cultivate it? 

What are some of the theories of positive psychology? 

As a broad field of psychology, there are many theories that have been born from observing psychology from this lens:

PERMA+ model. One of the building blocks of positive psychology is the theory that there are five (and more) components to be pursued that can contribute to wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning and accomplishments, plus anything else that might related such as physical activity and nutrition. 

Growth mindset. Spearheaded by Carol Dweck, growth mindset is the belief that your mindset can influence your potential. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that intellect can develop, leading to a greater sense of free will and higher levels of achievement.

Positive and negative affect. Positive psychology isn’t just about looking on ‘the bright side’. It’s about acknowledging that we experience positive and negative emotions, and that these may come at the same time – even operating independently. 

Social connection. Social wellbeing can be defined as developing and maintaining positive interactions with other people, as we ll as with local and global communities. 

Flow. Flow is a state of mind in which someone becomes fully immersed in an activity. 

Resilience. People can survive the most challenging ordeals, and some may even thrive. Positive psychology works to realise how resilience is formed and how it can develop.

Why might businesses benefit from theories of positive psychology? 

The field is “thriving and flourishing, to use two terms so often used in positive psychology research”, says James E. Maddux, a scholar in the field of positive psychology. It’s flourishing in how people live as individuals, and how they share their lives with others, in the workplace and beyond.

A key tenet of positive psychology is finding and curating meaning from life; this can manifest in work. Flow, resilience and connection are further aspects of positive psychology that can benefit organisations; to increase productivity, but more importantly, help employees to continually foster meaning in what they do. 

“Direct yourself to choices where your strengths are required and your weaknesses are made irrelevant.”

 Dr Selin Kesebir

As positive psychology is as much an exploration of causality as practicality, it gives many leaders a toolset on how to lead effectively. For example, positive psychology reveals the power of gratitude and praising employees.

Success isn’t immediate, interventions might not materialise for weeks, months or even years. But as Carol Dweck says, “becoming is better than being”; the pursuit is just as meaningful as the destination.