Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology


Positive Psychology is a relatively new form of psychotherapy that focuses on making the patient happier (or more positive) instead of focusing on curing mental disorders. This form of psychology was developed by Martin Seligman, whose presidential term at the American Psychological Association focused on this. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology, however, was not held until 2002. Harvard University’s most popular class in 2006 was a course on Positive Psychology. Only four years ago in Philadelphia saw the first World Congress on Positive Psychology, where Seligman was a speaker. The popularity of Positive Psychology has expanded drastically in the last ten years.

Goals of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology uses positive individual traits, emotions, and institutions to give patients present happiness, hope for the future, and contentment with the past. Positive traits may include integrity, self-control, wisdom, curiosity, love, hard work, compassion, moderation, courage, resilience, creativity, and compassion. Positive institutions involves bettering communities like leadership, tolerance, justice, parenting, teamwork, purpose, responsibility, nurturance, and civility. Positive Psychology strives for workplaces with high satisfaction and productivity, therapists that nurture their patient’s strengths, communities that highlight civic engagement, and families and schools that allow children to flourish.

When is Positive Psychology Used?

Unlike most forms of psychotherapy, Positive Psychology can be used in a variety of real world situations not just by therapists, but coaches, employers, and teachers as well, as it can be very helpful in the areas of stress management, therapy, self-help, education, and the workplace. A study also proved positive psychology to be beneficial in treating depression, 55% of the treated depression patients reaching remission.

How Positive Psychology Works

Usually the focus of the first session with Positive Psychology is the absence of positive resources available to the client and how this leads to depression and an empty life. It is taught that we are at our best when we maintain our positive emotions, meaning, and character strengths. The second session delves further into these character strengths, discussing how they have been used by the patient in the past to form happy memories. From here, particular situations involving these positive character strengths are mentioned which are meant to increase engagement, pleasure, and meaning. The fourth session teaches the patient about bad memories, how dwelling on bitterness only maintains depression. Forgiveness can change these bitter feelings into feelings of neutrality or even positivity. Gratitude is also introduced. From here, the importance of maintaining positive emotions is emphasized by the use of character strengths and expressed through writing. The first half of the session series is usually complete at this point.

The eighth session introduces the idea that striving for perfection is actually worse for the patient’s well being than feeling their work is satisfactory. Bad events should always be looked at as changeable and temporary in order to maintain optimistic and hopeful. At this point, the patient is asked to identify the positive character strengths of their significant others. The patient is taught how to find these character strengths in family members as well. From here, the patient should also be able to identify the origins of their character strengths. Positivity is maintained by the technique of savoring. In the second to final session, it is taught that the patient can give “the gift of time”, meaning moments when their positive character strengths come into play which involves a good amount of time invested. The fourteen session, which is usually the last, covers the idea that one must incorporate engagement, pleasure, and meaning in order to live a full life.

Other findings taught in positive psychology may include that spending money on other people makes one happier, that meaningful work with a purpose is important to well-being, and that strong social relationships can fight negativity.

Criticisms of Positive Psychology

Julie Norem, author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking”, points out that dispositional optimism, which has been shown to improve one’s life, may not actually be changeable. Barbara Held, author of “Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching” points out that happiness may not even be virtuous, or that virtuous actions result in well-being. Adam Philips, author of “Going Sane”, points out that happiness can be attributed to luck, which obviously cannot be learned. He also points out the studies that have shown depressed or negative people to be more realistic about the world around them while those in a perpetual state of happiness tend to be delusional. If someone is constantly and consistently happy, are they truly happy or only living a delusion?


Gable, S. & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and Why) is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110

Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A.C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist (61),8,772-788.

Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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