When I first heard about positive psychology it made immediate and great sense to me. For the last century, psychology has rightly focused on the pressing matter of psychopathologies such as phobias, depression, and schizophrenia. It has met these terrible causes of suffering head-on by cultivating theories, gathering scientific evidence, and establishing effective treatment protocols.
However, over time this focus has inadvertently cast a shadow over the possibility of a psychology that focuses on the positive. Martin Seligman first posited this idea in the mid-90s, when he was president of the American Psychological Association. In his first formulation, he gave a lot of weight to positive emotions, particularly happiness, and the application of “life satisfaction” testing. However, after receiving substantial professional criticism, Seligman moved toward a more sophisticated framework. He now uses “well being” as the optimal goal, where happiness and positive emotions are only one element. In his definition of well being Seligman also includes the quality of engagement or flow, the presence of meaning (which is being committed to something bigger than yourself, whether secular or spiritual), positive relationships, and achievement or mastery.
If you are interested in these ideas and practices around cultivating character strengths, virtues, and talents rather than solely attending to negative conditions, you might want to check out Authentic Happiness for the nuts and bolts of Seligman’s approach, or Flourish for his more recent theoretical developments and the application of positive psychology in larger institutions. You can also check out Seligman's website for more information.
p.s. There is a Canadian Positive Psychology Association, chaired by Jamie Gruman, currently a professor at the University of Guelph.
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