What Is Positive Psychology?

I recently decided to wipe the slate and start my blog from scratch. However, there are some articles from my past that I'd like to update and reintroduce to the blog. For the next several weeks, I'll be sharing some of these articles. If you've been following my writing since the beginning of The Simpler Life, you may recognize some of them. More than likely, however, this will be brand new content to you.

Inevitably the first question I’m asked any time I tell someone I’m in a graduate program in positive psychology is, “What’s positive psychology?” It’s a logical question that I’m going to do my best to answer in this short article. Obviously, explaining any academic discipline in 1000 words or less is a tall order, but I’ll try to lay out the basics.


Traditionally, the focus of psychology has been on diagnosing and “fixing” mental disorders. Schizophrenia, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental sicknesses are usually what psychologists are looking to diagnose and correct. This is obviously very important work that strives to improve the quality of life for many, many sick people. However, positive psychology focuses on a different aspect of human behavior.

Instead of taking people who are in the negative range of the mental well-being continuum and trying to elevate them back up to neutral, positive psychologists are interested in studying how to take people who are perfectly healthy and elevating them to an even higher level of well-being. Instead of going from −7 to −1, the aim is going from 0 to +8. This is a fairly new, and yet, ancient aim. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates and Epictetus all asked the same question that positive psychologists ask, “What does it mean to live a good life?”


Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are generally considered the “founding fathers” of positive psychology and each head up graduate programs at their respective universities (Seligman at University of Pennsylvania and Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University). Obviously, it’s not that well-being and the other aspects of positive psychology weren’t being investigated prior to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, but they led the charge in creating a specific subset of psychology focused on the positive approach.


The topics positive psychologists are interested in are incredibly broad. A good place to start is with the research interests of the two most well known positive psychologists, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi.


Seligman first did work on learned helplessness. This is the idea that animals, and people, can learn to become helpless when they are placed in a situation in which they have no control. This helplessness can then be transferred to a completely different situation that is actually under their control. Because of the helplessness that was learned in the first situation, most animals then don’t even try to escape in the new situation. If you think you’re helpless, what’s the point of even trying?

However, Seligman noticed that there was always a minority of test subjects that were resistant to learned helplessness. These subjects were very resilient and led him to ask, why don’t they become helpless when most of the other test subjects do? Thus, his research into "learned optimism," the antithesis to learned helplessness, was born.


Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his work on the concept of flow. Flow is the state of mind you enter when you’re working on something that challenges your abilities, provides direct feedback on your success, and is autotelic (you do it just for the sake of doing it). Any time you have lost track of the time because you were completely engrossed in a project or sporting event is probably an example of being in the flow state. Why can some people enter this state with nearly everything they do and others seem to never experience flow? How can work and school be structured to become conducive to flow? Can entering the flow state be taught and practiced?


These are only two of the many topics that positive psychologists cover. Other topics include motivation, mentoring, effective leadership, organizational dynamics, happiness, emotions, longevity, health, decision making, character, and developing passion. As you can see, positive psychology is truly the science of studying what is right with people and how to live a better life.

Over the next several weeks I will be unveiling a series of articles that break down some of the more important topics, issues, and introduce the most important people of positive psychology.