Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Positive Psychology is NOT Happiology!

In the last two posts, we reported on the European Conference on Positive Psychology. We emphasised that Positive Psychology is NOT positive thinking. Positive Psychology is NOT Happiology. It is much more. In his TED Talk, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, explains what Positive Psychology is and why it is more than Happiology.

Martin Seligman says that until some ten years ago, psychology was about finding what is wrong with you, it was a science of mental illness. Research in the field resulted in our ability to make miserable people less miserable. But we forgot about normal people and improving their lives. This is where Positive Psychology attempts to fill in. So what is Positive Psychology? According to Professor Seligman, it has three aims:

Psychology should be:
  •  as concerned with strength as with weakness
  • as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst
  • as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling and with nurturing high talent as with healing pathology.

According to Professor Seligman, there are three happy lives:
  • The Pleasant Life: having as many positive emotions as possible
  • The Good Life (Engagement): experiencing flow (being one with what you are doing, forgetting time)
  • The Meaningful Life: knowing your strengths and using them in the service of something that is larger than you
So life satisfaction is the sum of positive affect, engagement and meaning. But positive affect is the weakest contributor of the three to life satisfaction! Furthermore, extremely happy people differ from less happy people in that they are extremely social – another factor of a positive life.

This means that there are many ways of living a fulfilling life and of obtaining personal well-being. If you don’t experience a lot of positive emotions, you have other options to be satisfied with your life, and these factors seem to be even stronger predictors of well-being than the amount of pleasure in life we experience. There are interventions that help us improve in all three domains of Positive Psychology, so many options of making our lives more fulfilling and helping us flourish. And if this is not positive news, we don’t know what else could be!


  1. Thanks for the overview!

    I think it's really great that some of the best researchers are now in the process of getting through to the public and make things happen. Sometimes it all sounds still cheesy and not new. But to help alleviating not only diseases, but getting "normal" people to a higher level of performance and satisfaction and doing this with applicable scientifically proven measures is, in my opinion, a long overdue action.

    Let's hope this idea will catch on as I think it will be. :)

  2. Positive Psychology emerged at the beginning of the new millennium as a movement within psychology aimed at enhancing human strengths such as creativity, joy, flow, responsibility, and optimal performance and achievement. Most study of human behavior has focused mainly on what goes wrong in human affairs: aggression, mental disease, failure, and so on. While it is essential to study and contain such pathologies, it is equally important to understand those aspects of human experience that make life worth living.
    psychologist nyc

  3. I am fortunate to have faculty that I know in the discipline of Positive Psychology here in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan at the Ross Business School. Jane Dutton, who specializes in High Quality Connections (HQCs) (not relationships) has released a 2 min. video describing these as deeply fortifying and nourishing.

    Some resources: Jane's recent video on HQCs:


    Jane is also doing work via the Compassion Lab:

    1. Thank you for sharing, Deb. I have picked up on your comment and will post something on High Quality Connections (using the video you mention and an article by Jane Dutton) on the 6th of March.

  4. very nice post, i definitely really like this website.
    Positive psychology is the study of happiness. Psychology traditionally focused on dysfunction—on people with mental illness or other psychological problems and how to treat them. Positive psychology, by contrast, is a relatively new field that examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled....

    Dr. Mike abrams -Psychologist NYC|Watch hisPsychology Videos at

    1. Thank you. Always nice to read when someone likes our posts :-)

  5. Positive Psychology is, well positive! Or is it?

    But it's not new. Decades ago Antonovsky introduced similar ideas (salutogenetic approach). To strengthen strengths is indeed a very common approach in paedagogics, Ruth Cohn introduced these ideas well, about 30 years ago, Ludwig Kerschensteiner in Germany about 80 years ago, the same applies for John Dewey and others. Seems no one is reading the old books since they're not available as TED videos of successful professors or as e-books on "smart" phones. So we keep on inventing the weel again and again, why not, as long as it's spinning.

    One thing makes me shiver when I read comments about pos. psych. If people - especially kids do not learn to deal with negative emotions and severe setbacks - they lack an important skill. Life can be a lemon, and even by high dosis of positive thinking or cognitive re-structuring young people must learn to call a spade a spade.
    Negative emotions make us think more critical, they enable us to deal with information more carefully, there's ample research about this fact. In times of the internet and computer cult, truth in the seas of information (= NOT knowledge!) sometimes is harder to find than a piece of soap in the bath tub. Take care out there.

    1. Thank you for giving a lot of references on previous work that has been done. I agree, this line of research is not new, but I would like to point out that Positive Psychology does not claim to have discovered something totally new. We can go back to the ancient Greek philosophers who were interested in the question what a good life can look like. Positive Psychology often refers to them when talking about hedonic (Epicurus) vs. eudaimonic (Aristotle) approaches.

      I agree, it is positive, but it is due to the fact that it does not have a deficit-oriented approach and not in that it is positive thinking. For example, there is a lot of research on resilience under the PP movement. And nobody says that positive emotions are always good and appropriate (see for example here: Or look at the research by Carol Ryff on "The Essential Role of the Negative in Adaptive Human Functioning" (on which she gave a talk at last year's ECPP).

      It is neither new nor positive thinking, but it has never claimed to be.