Overview of Positive Psychology
23 Jun 2017
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Research in Positive Psychology took off when Martin Seligman became the President of American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998. Seligman implored the community to invest in Positive Psychology, a niche discipline within psychology.
What is Positive Psychology?

Let us divide the general population into four broad categories:

  1. Mentally sick: Individuals with symptoms so severe that psychiatric treatment is necessary.
  2. Languishing: Not dysfunctional but suffering from emotional problems. Unfulfilled.
  3. Moderate mental health: Those who are getting by, neither sad nor joyful.
  4. Flourishing: Those in great health with joyful, purposeful lives.

Seligman noted that for several decades, psychology and psychiatry had focused on individuals in Category A (mentally sick). They had succeeded in building reasonable models of mental sickness, come up with diagnostic criteria and devised therapies to make such individuals feel better. However, mental health researchers had missed out on studying people in Category D (flourishing). Wouldn't it be awesome to study these people and identify lifestyle techniques that help them flourish? Then everybody (including those in Categories B and C) could apply these techniques and feel better. Thus society would benefit as a whole!


Soon after Seligman's address to APA in 1998, funding in positive psychology increased. Lots of studies were done in various universities and labs. Within 10 years, summary books on positive psychology were penned down. One such book is The How of Happiness (384 pages, 2008) by Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky. I really like this book. It is engineering oriented. Chapter by chapter, practical techniques for boosting our happiness index are described. Each chapter has references to psychological research papers and personal stories.

Here are some techniques commonly found in positive psychology books:

Acts of Service
Opening Up
Positive Thinking
Flow Activities
Social Connectedness
Forgiveness & Compassion
Self Belief

Relationship with Spiritual Literature

In the modern world, positive psychology is playing an important role in identifying ideas that promote well being in aggregate populations. In a way, it formalizes, evaluates and refines ideas found in spiritual literature and self help books. The formalization and evaluation is done in a structured way, using statistical techniques to validate models and interventions. Results are disseminated via talks, articles, books, workshops and programs.

Considerable overlap exists between techniques found in positive psychology books and spiritual literature from any tradition. For example, the ideas of service, thankfulness, opening up, positive thinking, social connectedness and forgiveness are common to both. Some new ideas in positive psychology are: goal setting and physical fitness, which are responses to the pressures of modern lifestyle that is becoming increasingly sedentary and competitive.

Modern psychology is quantitative and statistical in nature. On the other hand, spiritual literature is qualitative.

Inspiration in spiritual literature stems from admiration of a colossal figure like St Francis of Assisi or Buddha. A modern scientist might call such individuals 'outliers', which are not representative of the entire population, in a statistical sense. Modern psychologist focus on aggregate populations. They draw inspiration from experiments and studies that demonstrate increase in well being metrics in a fair number of participants.

Spiritual literature strives for perfection: to root out the last bit of 'negative reaction' (craving or aversion) that we may be carrying inside us. The goals of positive psychology are modest by comparison: to improve overall well being in aggregate populations.

On the whole, positive psychology is an awesome subject to study. Techniques developed by the positive psychology community help increase peace and joy in our day to day life.

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