When there are so many natural disasters in the world, almost every day a lot of people face with hunger and war, even the ordinary challenges we encounter seem to heavier, you may think that “positive” is one of the latest titles that identify the psychology of society. You are right. Under these conditions, our psychological state may fail to be positive most of the time, yet positive psychology as a scientific discipline, provides empirically validated solutions to challenges on individual and collective basis. But how? Before answering this question, let’s look at how positive psychology does not bypass negativity unlike the popular belief and define what it is and is not.
How did "Positive Psychology" come up?
After psychological destruction that was caused by the Second World War, the science of psychology focused on three main objectives:
Treating mental illness
Making the lives of people more productive and fulfilling
Identifying and nurturing high talent
However, with the lapse of time, it has reduced these three priorities to one main goal and finding solutions to behavioural problems became the sole purpose of psychology. In the 1950s, the pioneers of humanism, Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm and Abraham Maslow, returned to the other two neglected areas and put much emphasis on happiness and the positive aspects of human nature. Thus, these concepts, which have been the backbone of philosophical debate for centuries, began to be the subject of scientific studies. In 1998, as president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman introduced the "science of happiness", positive psychology, to the world of psychology.
What is Positive Psychology?
In 2006, Dr. Tal Ben Shahar taught the most popular course of Harvard University, which is called, "positive psychology." In his amazing book, The Pursuit of Perfect, Dr. Shahar uses one of the most comprehensive and descriptive definitions of positive psychology, which is taken from The Positive Psychology Manifesto:
"Positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning. It aims to discover and promote the factors that all individuals and communities to thrive. "
Even though this illuminating academic definition clearly explained the mission of positive psychology, it has not answered an important question in mind yet: "Why Positive?"
Prof. Christopher Peterson from University of Michigan holds that positive psychology examines the elements that make life worth living; puts weight to our weaknesses as our strengths ; interests in building the best while repairing the worst; concerns with presenting solutions to normal people for fulfilling life as treating mental illness. So where does this “positive state” come from? If positive psychology stands equidistant to both positive and negative, why is the name of it "positive?"
I've included the first part of the definition of positive psychology that was taken from Positive Psychology Manifesto. The second part of the definition explains the reasons for the positive attributes of positive psychology as follows:
“The positive psychology movement represents a new commitment on the part of research psychologists to focus attention upon the sources of psychological health, thereby going beyond prior emphasis upon disease and disorder."
Obviously, positive psychology embraces not only positive, but rather it emerges as a complementary branch to psychology, which generally has a "problem-oriented" perspective. In this sense, positive psychology, underlines that not being depressed cannot be equated with a joyful life. Thus, it conceives psychological well-being among the topics of psychology as pathologies. Besides positive psychology includes thousands of scientific research and plenty of applications on various topics that can be integrated into everyday life namely happiness, optimism, awareness, strengths, positive thinking, hope, resilience, quality of life, posttraumatic growth.
What is not Positive Psychology?
Considering its roots that rely upon humanistic psychology, positive psychology with its 64 years of history, is one of the sub-branches of psychology that covers philosophical discussions on happiness and meaning. In order to label a field as scientific, it should produce theories against evidences and prove them. Due to the fact that putting positive psychology to the same place with untested self-help movement of American style “happyology” is a big misunderstanding of this empirical discipline. In order to be considered an area to produce scientific theories and should prove it. Even just a basic search on "Google Scholar" about "positive psychology", finds the results of 2.56 million of scientific research. Frankly, contrary to the first impression its name had created in people’s mind, positive psychology has no association with footless affirmations of most of the new-age approaches.
Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. McGraw-Hill Publishing, Berkshire.
An enlightening speech of Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology
An illuminating and delighting animation on the definition of Positive Psychology
© 2016 by Aydan Bayir
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