Positive psychology

For the positive mental attitude, see Optimism. For the belief that positive thoughts result in positive life events, see Law of attraction (New Thought).

Positive psychology is the branch of psychology that uses scientific understanding and effective intervention to aid in the achievement of a satisfactory life,[1][2][3] rather than treating mental illness. The focus of positive psychology is on personal growth rather than on pathology, as is common among other frameworks within the field of psychology.

Positive psychology is a relatively new field of academic study with the first positive psychology summit taking place in 1999 and the first International Conference on Positive Psychology taking place in 2003.

The findings of positive psychology indicate that happiness is improved and affected in a large number of different ways. Social ties with a spouse, family, friends and wider networks through work, clubs or social organisations are of particular importance. Happiness increases with increasing financial income but reaches a plateau at which point no further gains are made. Physical exercise is correlated with improved mental well being as is living in flow and meditation.


The "positive" branch complements, without intention to replace or ignore, the traditional areas of psychology. By adding an important emphasis to use the scientific method to study and determine positive human development, this area of psychology fits well with the investigation of how human development can falter. This field brings attention to the possibility that focusing only on disorder could result in a partial, and limited, understanding of a person's condition.[4]

The words, "the good life" are derived from speculation about what holds the greatest value in life – the factors that contribute the most to a well-lived and fulfilling life. While there is not a strict definition of the good life, positive psychologists agree that one must live a happy, engaged, and meaningful life in order to experience "the good life." Martin Seligman referred to the good life as "using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification."[5]

Topics of interest to researchers in the field are: states of pleasure or flow, values, strengths, virtues, talents, as well as the ways that these can be promoted by social systems and institutions.[6] Positive psychologists are concerned with four topics: (1) positive experiences, (2) enduring psychological traits, (3) positive relationships and (4) positive institutions.[7] Some thinkers and researchers, like Seligman, have collected data to support the development of guiding theories (e.g. "P.E.R.M.A.", or The Handbook on Character Strengths and Virtues).

Research from this branch of psychology has seen various practical applications. The basic premise of positive psychology is that human beings are often, perhaps more often, drawn by the future than they are driven by the past. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi define positive psychology as "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life."[8] L.M. Keyes and Shane Lopez illustrate the four typologies of mental health functioning: flourishing, struggling, floundering and languishing. However, complete mental health is a combination of high emotional well-being, high psychological well-being, and high social well-being, along with low mental illness.[9]

Most psychologists focus on a person's most basic emotions. There are thought to be between seven and fifteen basic emotions. The emotions can be combined in many ways to create more subtle variations of emotional experience. This suggests that any attempt to wholly eliminate negative emotions from our life would have the unintended consequence of losing the variety and subtlety of our most profound emotional experiences. Efforts to increase positive emotions will not automatically result in decreased negative emotions, nor will decreased negative emotions necessarily result in increased positive emotions.[10] Russell and Feldman Barrett (1992) described emotional reactions as core affects, which are primitive emotional reactions that are consistently experienced but often not acknowledged; they blend pleasant and unpleasant as well as activated and deactivated dimensions that we carry with us at an almost unconscious level.[11]

From the time it originated in 1998, this field invested tens of millions of dollars in research, published numerous scientific papers, established several masters and Ph. D programs, and has been involved in many major news outlets. The International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) is a recently established association that has expanded to thousands of members from 80 different countries. The IPPA’s missions include: (1) “further the science of positive psychology across the globe and to ensure that the field continues to rest on this science” (2) “work for the effective and responsible application of positive psychology in diverse areas such as organizational psychology, counselling and clinical psychology, business, health, education, and coaching”,(3) “foster education and training in the field.”[12]

The goal

In cognitive therapy, the goal is to help people change negative styles of thinking as a way to change how they feel. This approach has been very successful, and changing how we think about other people, our future, and ourselves is partially responsible for this success. The thinking processes that effect our emotional states vary considerably from person to person. An ability to pull attention away from the chronic inner chatter of our thoughts can be quite advantageous to well-being. A change in our orientation to time can dramatically affect how we think about the nature of happiness. Seligman identified other possible goals: families and schools that allow children to grow, workplaces that aim for satisfaction and high productivity, and teaching others about positive psychology.[13]


Several humanistic psychologists—such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm—developed theories and practices pertaining to human happiness and flourishing. More recently, positive psychologists have found empirical support for the humanistic theories of flourishing. In addition, positive psychology has moved ahead in a variety of new directions.

To Martin Seligman, psychology (particularly its positive branch) can investigate and promote realistic ways of fostering more well-being in individuals and communities.

Positive psychology began as a new area of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association,[14] though the term originates with Maslow, in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality,[15] and there have been indications that psychologists since the 1950s have been increasingly focused on the promotion of mental health rather than merely treating illness.[16][17] In the first sentence of his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman claimed: "for the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only – mental illness",[18]:xi expanding on Maslow’s comments.[19] He urged psychologists to continue the earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.[3]

The first positive psychology summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002.[3] More attention was given by the general public in 2006 when, using the same framework, a course at Harvard University became particularly popular.[20] In June 2009, the First World Congress on Positive Psychology took place at the University of Pennsylvania.[21] Positive psychology is the latest effort by human beings to understand the nature of happiness and well-being, but it is by no means the first attempt to solve that particular puzzle. Different westerners have their own individual views of what positive psychology actually is. Hedonism focuses on pleasure as the basic component of the good life.

The Early Hebrews believed in the divine command theory which finds happiness by living according to the commands or rules set down by a Supreme Being. The Greeks thought that happiness could be discovered through logic and rational analysis. In Islam, happiness comes from "a contented heart," which can only be achieved via the remembrance and good pleasure of God (e.g. "The hearts of those who believe find contentment in the remembrance of Allah; for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find contentment." [Sûrah al-Ra`d: 28]. Christianity was based on finding happiness in the message and life of Jesus, which is one of love and compassion. In the Baha'i Faith, happiness is closely related to the positive psychology principle of virtue. Virtue is seen as reflecting the names and attributes of God, and is considered the purpose of life.

Buddhism has some very specific roots in the understanding of the mind and happiness. The historical Buddha taught that there is dukkha in life (suffering, stress, discontent) that arises from our clinging to certain unskillful ideas and expectations about life and the nature of reality. That through the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path (a series on interconnected principles of how to live an ethical and compassionate life), we can gradually eradicate our sense of unhealthy self and the suffering that accompanies unrealistic views of life. Presently a number of scientists are studying the teachings of the Buddha and interrelating them to what neuroscience is now learning about mindfulness, meditation, and an approach to life that cultivates freedom from unhealthy attachments, toward a more skillful, ethical and happy life.

The field of positive psychology today is most advanced in the United States and Western Europe. Even though positive psychology offers a new approach to the study of positive emotions and behavior, the ideas, theories, research, and motivation to study the positive side of human behavior is as old as humanity.[22]

Historical roots

Positive psychology has roots in the humanistic psychology of the 20th century, which focused heavily on happiness and fulfillment. As scientific psychology did not take its modern form until the late 19th century, earlier influences on positive psychology came primarily from philosophical and religious sources. (See History of psychology)

The ancient Greeks had many schools of thought. Socrates advocated self-knowledge as the path to happiness. Plato's allegory of the cave influenced western thinkers who believed that happiness is found by finding deeper meaning. Aristotle believed happiness, or eudaimonia is constituted by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. The Epicureans believed in reaching happiness through the enjoyment of simple pleasures. The Stoics believed they could remain happy by being objective and reasonable, and described many "spiritual exercises" comparable to the psychological exercises employed in cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology.[3][23]

Judaism has 3,000-year tradition of wisdom regarding happiness.[3][24][25] It also promotes a Divine command theory of happiness: happiness and rewards follow from following the commands of the divine.

Christianity continued to follow the Divine command theory of happiness. In the Middle Ages, Christianity taught that true happiness would not be found until the afterlife. The seven deadly sins are about earthly self-indulgence and narcissism. On the other hand, the Four Cardinal Virtues and Three Theological Virtues were supposed to keep one from sin.[3]

During the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, individualism was valued. Simultaneously, creative individuals gained prestige, as they were now considered artists, not just craftsmen. Utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill believed moral actions were actions that maximized happiness for the most number of people; they suggested an empirical science of happiness should be used to determine which actions are moral (a science of morality). Thomas Jefferson and other proponents of democracy believed "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are inalienable rights, and violation of these justifies the overthrow of the government.[3]

The Romantics valued individual emotional expression and sought their emotional "true selves," which were unhindered by social norms. At the same time, love and intimacy became main motivations for marriage.[3]


Positive psychology is concerned with three issues: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Positive emotions are concerned with being content with one's past, being happy in the present and having hope for the future. Positive individual traits focus on one's strengths and virtues. Finally, positive institutions are based on strengths to better a community of people.[13] "Happiness" encompasses different emotional and mental phenomena. One method of assessment is Ed Diener's Satisfaction with Life Scale. According to Diener, this five-question survey corresponds well with impressions from friends and family, and low incidence of depression.[26]

The "Remembering self" may not be the best source of information for pleasing the "Experiencing self"

Rather than long-term, big picture appraisals, some methods attempt to identify the amount of positive affect from one activity to the next. Scientists use beepers to remind volunteers to write down the details of their current situation. Alternatively, volunteers complete detailed diary entries each morning about the day before.[26] An interesting discrepancy arises when researchers compare the results of these short-term "experience sampling" methods, with long-term appraisals. Namely, the latter may not be very accurate; people may not know what makes their life pleasant from one moment to the next. For instance, parents' appraisals mention their children as sources of pleasure, while "experience sampling" indicates parents were not enjoying caring for their children, compared to other activities.[26][27]

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this discrepancy by differentiating between happiness according to the "experiencing self" compared to the "remembering self": when asked to reflect on experiences, memory biases like the Peak-End effect (e.g. we mostly remember the dramatic parts of a vacation, and how it was at the end) play a large role. A striking finding was in a study of colonoscopy patients. Adding 60 seconds to this invasive procedure, Kahneman found participants reported the colonoscopy as more pleasant. This was attributed to making sure the colonoscopy instrument was not moved during the extra 60 seconds – movement is the source of the most discomfort. Thus, Kahneman was appealing to the remembering self's tendency to focus on the end of the experience. Such findings help explain human error in affective forecasting – people's ability to predict their future emotional states.[27]

Psychologists Peter Hills and Michael Argyle developed the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire[28] as a broad measure of psychological well-being. The approach was criticized for lacking a theoretical model of happiness and for overlapping too much with related concepts such as self-esteem, sense of purpose, social interest, kindness, sense of humor and aesthetic appreciation.[29]

Neuroscientific approach

Neuroscience and brain imaging have shown increasing potential for helping science understand happiness and sadness. Though it may be impossible to achieve any comprehensive objective measure of happiness, some physiological correlates to happiness can be measured. Stefan Klein, in his book The Science of Happiness, links the dynamics of neurobiological systems (i.e., dopaminergic, opiate) to the concepts and findings of positive psychology and social psychology.[30]

Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel and researcher Cynthia Fu described very accurate diagnoses of depression just by looking at fMRI brain scans.[31] By identifying neural correlates for emotions, scientists may be able to use methods like brain scans to tell us more about the different ways of being "happy". Richard Davidson has conducted research to determine which parts of the brain are involved in positive emotions. He found that the left prefrontal cortex is more activated when we are happy and is also associated with greater ability to recover from negative emotions as well as enhanced ability to suppress negative emotions. Interestingly, Davidson found that people can train themselves to increase activation in this area of their brains.[32] It is thought that our brains can change throughout our lives as a result of our experiences; this is known as neuroplasticity. Determining whether emotions have a genetic trait or not were studied by David Lykken and Auke Tellegen. They found that up to 80% of a long-term sense of well-being is due to heredity. Basically, our families are important to our eventual emotional lives as adults because they provide us with genetic material that largely determines our base emotional responsiveness to the world. Therefore, genetic makeup is far more important to the long-term quality of our emotional lives than is learned behavior or the quality of our early childhood environment, at least as found in our current socio-economic paradigm.[33] The remaining 20%, however, still leaves room for significant change in thoughts and behavior from environmental/learned sources that should not be understated.

Evolutionary approach

The evolutionary perspective offers an alternative approach to understanding happiness and quality of life. Key guiding questions: What features are included in the brain that allow humans to distinguish between positive and negative states of mind? How do these features improve humans' ability to survive and reproduce? The evolutionary perspective claims that the answers to these questions point towards an understanding of what happiness is about and how to best exploit the capacities of the brain with which humans are endowed. This perspective is presented formally and in detail by the evolutionary biologist Bjørn Grinde in his book Darwinian Happiness.[34]

General findings by topic

Happiness has become a common discussion topic in popular culture, especially in the Western world. Many studies have undertaken to demystify the factors involved in happiness. The following describes related research.


The midlife crisis may mark the first reliable drop in happiness during an average human's life. Evidence suggests most people generally become happier with age, with the exception of the years 40 – 50, which is the typical age at which a crisis might occur. Researchers specify that people in both their 20s and 70s are happier than during midlife, although the extent of happiness changes at different rates. For example, feelings of stress and anger tend to decline after age 20, worrying drops after age 50, and enjoyment very slowly declines in adulthood but finally starts to rise after age 50.[26][35][36] Wellbeing in late-life is more likely to be related to other contextual factors including proximity to death.[37][38] However most of this terminal decline in well-being could be attributed to other changes in age-normative functional declines including physical health and function.[39] Also, there is growing debate that assumptions that a single population estimate of age-related changes in well-being truly reflects the lived experiences of older adults has been questioned. The use of growth mixture modelling frameworks has allowed researchers to identify homogenous groups of individuals who are more similar to each other than the population based on their level and change in well-being and has shown that most report stable well-being in their late life and in the decade prior to death.[40] These findings are based on decades of data, and control for cohort groups; the data avoids the risk that the drops in happiness during midlife are due to populations' unique midlife experiences, like a war. The studies have also controlled for income, job status and parenting (as opposed to childlessness) to try to isolate the effects of age. Researchers found support for the notion of age changes inside the individual that affect happiness.

This could be for any number of reasons. Psychological factors could include: greater awareness of one's self and preferences; an ability to control desires and have more realistic expectations – unrealistic expectations tend to foster unhappiness; moving closer to death may motivate people to pursue personal goals; improved social skills, like forgiveness, may take years to develop – the practice of forgiveness seems linked to higher levels of happiness; or happier people may live longer and are slightly overrepresented in the elderly population. Age-related chemical changes might also play a role.[35][36][41][42]

Other studies have found older individuals reported more health problems, but fewer problems overall. Young adults reported more anger, anxiety, depression, financial problems, troubled relationships and career stress. Researchers also suggest depression in the elderly is often due largely to passivity and inaction – they recommend people continue to undertake activities that bring happiness, even in old age.[43]

The activity restriction model of depressed affect suggests that stressors that disrupt traditional activities of daily life can lead to a decrease in mental health. The elderly population is vulnerable to activity restriction because of the disabling factors related to age. Increases in scheduled activity as well as social support can decrease the chances of activity restriction.[44]


Over the last 33 years, a significant decrease in women's happiness leads researchers to believe that men are happier than women.[45] Part of these findings could be due to the way men and women differ in calculating their happiness. Women calculate the positive self-esteem, closeness in their relationships and religion. Men calculate positive self-esteem, active leisure and mental control.[46] Therefore, neither men nor women are at greater risk for being less happy than the other. Earlier in life, women are more likely than men to fulfill their goals (material goals and family life aspirations), thereby increasing their life satisfaction and overall happiness. However, it is later in life that men fulfill their goals, are more satisfied with their family life and financial situation and, as a result, their overall happiness surpasses that of women.[47] Possible explanations include the unequal division of labor within the household,[48] or that women experience more variance (more extremes) in emotion but are generally happier.[42] Effects of gender on well-being are paradoxical: men report feeling less happy than women,, however, women are more susceptible to depression.[49]

A study was conducted by Siamak Khodarahimi to determine the roles of gender and age on positive psychology constructs – psychological hardiness, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy and happiness – among 200 Iranian adolescents and 200 young adults who were questioned through various tests. The study found that the males of the sample showed significantly higher rates in psychological hardiness, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy and happiness than females, regardless of age.[50]


Positive emotional states have a favorable effect on mortality and survival in both healthy and diseased populations. Even at the same level of smoking, drinking, exercise, and sleep, happier people seem to live longer.[51] Interventional trials conducted to establish a cause-effect relationship indicate positive emotions to be associated with greater resistance to objectively verifiable colds and flu.[52][53]

There is growing evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is related to greater happiness, life satisfaction, and positive mood as well. This evidence cannot be entirely explained by demographic or health variables including socio-economic status, exercise, smoking, and body mass index, suggesting a causal link.[54] Further studies have found that fruit and vegetable consumption predicted improvements in positive mood the next day, not vice versa. On days when people ate more fruits and vegetables, they reported feeling calmer, happier, and more energetic than normal, and they also felt more positive the next day.[55]

Cross-sectional studies worldwide support a relationship between happiness and fruit and vegetable intake. Whether it be in South Korea,[56] Iran,[57] Chile,[58] or USA,[59] those eating greater fruits and vegetables each day have a higher likelihood of being classified as “very happy.” This could be due to the protective benefits from chronic diseases and a greater intake of nutrients important for psychological health.[60]

Personal finances

Money, once one reaches middle class, may be best spent ensuring one's job and social ties are enjoyable

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert described research suggesting money makes a significant difference to the poor (where basic needs are not yet met), but has a greatly diminished effect once one reaches middle class (i.e. the Easterlin paradox).[61] One study found money ceased to aid level of happiness after a person makes over US $75,000 a year, and people overestimate the influence of wealth by 100%.[62] Professor of Economics Richard Easterlin noted job satisfaction does not depend on salary. In other words, having extra money for luxuries does not increase happiness as much as enjoying one's job or social network.[63] Gilbert is thus adamant, people should go to great lengths to figure out which jobs they would enjoy, and to find a way to do one of those jobs for a living (that is, provided one is also attentive to social ties).

A more recent study has challenged the Easterlin paradox. Using recent data from a broader collection of countries, a positive link was found between GDP and well-being; and there was no point at which wealthier countries' subjective well-being ceased to increase. It was concluded economic growth does indeed increase happiness.[64]

Wealth is strongly correlated with life satisfaction but the correlation between money and emotional well-being was weak.[65] The pursuit of money may lead people to ignore leisure time and relationships, both of which may cause and contribute to happiness.[62] The pursuit of money at the risk of jeopardizing one's personal relationships and sacrificing enjoyment from one's leisure activities seems an unwise approach to finding happiness.

Money, or its hectic pursuit, has been shown to hinder people's savoring ability, or the act of enjoying everyday positive experiences and emotions. In a study looking at working adults, wealthy individuals reported lower levels of savoring ability (the ability to prolong positive emotion) relative to their poorer peers.[66]

Studies have routinely shown that nations are happier when people's needs are met.[67] Some studies suggest, however, people are happier after spending money on experiences, rather than physical things.[68]

Lottery winners report higher levels of happiness immediately following the event. But research shows winner's happiness levels drop and return to normal baseline rates within months to years. This finding suggests money does not cause long-term happiness.[69]

Education and intelligence

English poet Thomas Gray said "Where ignorance is bliss, ’Tis folly to be wise."[70] Research suggests neither a good education nor a high IQ reliably increases happiness.[26] Anders Ericsson argued an IQ above 120 has a decreasing influence on success. Presumably, IQs above 120 do not additionally cause other happiness indicators like success (with the exception of careers like Theoretical physics, where high IQs are more predictive of success). Above that IQ level, other factors, like social skills and a good mentor, matter more.[71] As these relate to happiness, intelligence and education may simply allow one to reach a middle-class level of need satisfaction (as mentioned above, being richer than this seems to hardly affect happiness).[72] According to the findings of the study, Using Theatrical Concepts for Role-plays with Educational Agents by Klesen, she expresses how role- playing embeds information and educational goals and causes people to learn unintentionally. Studies has shown that enjoyment in things as simple as role playing increases a person's IQ and their happiness.[73]

Martin Seligman has said: "As a professor, I don't like this, but the cerebral virtues—curiosity, love of learning—are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love."[26]


While the mantle of parenting is sometimes held as the necessary path of adulthood, study findings are actually mixed as to whether parents report higher levels of happiness relative to non-parents. Folk wisdom suggests a child brings partners closer; research has found couples actually become less satisfied after the birth of the first child.[74] The joys of having a child are overshadowed by the responsibilities of parenthood.[75] Based on quantitative self-reports, researchers found parents prefer doing almost anything else to looking after their children. By contrast, parents' self-report levels of happiness are higher than those of non-parents. This may be due to already happy people having more children than unhappy people. In addition, it might also be that, in the long-term, having children gives more meaning to life.[76][77] One study found having up to three children increased happiness among married couples, but not among other groups with children.[78] Proponents of Childfreedom maintain this is because one can enjoy a happy, productive life without the trouble of ever being a parent.

By contrast, many studies found having children makes parents less happy. Compared with non-parents, parents with children have lower levels of well-being and life satisfaction.[79] In addition, parents report more feelings of depression[75] and anxiety[80] than non-parents. However, when adults without children are compared to empty nest parents, parenthood is positively associated with emotional well being.[75] People found parenthood to be more stressful in the 1970s than they did in the 1950s. This is thought to be because of social changes in regards to employment and marital status.[80]

Males apparently become less happy after the birth of a child due to added economic pressure and taking on the role of being a parent.[74] A conflict between partners can arise when the couple does not desire traditional roles, or has an increasing number of roles.[74] Unequal responsibilities of child-rearing between men and women account for this difference in satisfaction. Fathers who worked and shared an equal part in child-raising responsibilities were found to be the least satisfied.[81] Research shows that single parents have higher levels of distress and report more mental health problems than married persons.[75]


Seligman writes: "Unlike money, which has at most a small effect, marriage is robustly related to happiness.... In my opinion, the jury is still out on what causes the proven fact married people are happier than unmarried people." (pp. 55–56[18]). Married persons report higher levels of happiness and well being than single folks.[82] Other data has shown a spouse's happiness depends on the happiness of their partner. When asked, spouses reported similar happiness levels to each other. The data also shows the spouses' happiness level fluctuates similarly to one another. If the husband is having a bad week, the wife will similarly report she had a bad week.[83] There is also little data on alternatives like polyamory, although one study stated wife order in polygyny did not have a substantial effect on life or marital satisfaction over all.[84] This study also found younger wives were happier than older wives. On the other hand, at least one large study in Germany found no difference in happiness between married and unmarried people.[85] Studies have shown that married couples are consistently happier and more satisfied with their life than those who are single.[86] Some research findings have indicated that marriage is the only real significant bottom-up predictor of life satisfaction for men and women and those people who have a higher life satisfaction prior to marriage, tend to have a happier marriage.[87] Surprisingly, there has been a steady decline in the positive relationship between marriage and well-being in the United States since the 1970s. This decline is due to women reporting being less happy than previously and single men reporting being happier than previously.[88] Research does exist, however, suggesting that compared to single people, married people have betterp physical and psychological health and tend to live longer.[89] With this, a two-factor theory of love was developed by Barnes and Sternberg. This theory is composed of two components: passionate love and companionate love. Passionate love is considered to be an intense longing for a loved one. This love is often experienced through joy and sexual fulfillment, or even through rejection. On the other hand, companionate love is associated with affection, friendship and commitment. Stutzer and Frey (2006) found that the absence of loneliness and the emotional support that promotes self-esteem are both important aspects that contribute to individual well-being within marriage.[89] Both passionate and companionate love are the foundations for every variety of love that one may experience.[90] When passionate and companionate love are compromised in a marital relationship, satisfaction is decreased and the likelihood of divorce increases.[91] In other words, the lack of positive support and validation increases the risk for divorce. Because of the expansive research done on the significance of social support within a marriage, it is important to understand that this research was inspired by a theory called the attachment theory perspective. Attachment theory stresses the importance of support and care giving in a relationship for the development of trust and security. Attachment theory, as conceptualized by Collins and Feeney (2000) is an interpersonal, transactional process that involves one partners caregiving responses.[92]


Ed Diener et al. (1999) suggested this equation: positive emotion – negative emotion = subjective well-being. Since tendency to positive emotion has a correlation of 0.8 with extroversion and tendency towards negative emotion is indistinguishable from neuroticism, the above equation could also be written as extroversion – neuroticism = happiness. These two traits could account for between 50% to 75% of happiness.[93] These are all referring to the Big Five personality traits model of personality.

An emotionally stable (the opposite of Neurotic) personality correlates well with happiness. Not only does emotional stability make one less prone to negative emotions, it also predicts higher social intelligence – which helps to manage relationships with others (an important part of being happy, discussed below).[42]

Cultivating an extroverted temperament may correlate with happiness for the same reason: it builds relationships and support groups. Some people may be fortunate, from the standpoint of personality theories that suggest individuals have control over their long-term behaviors and cognitions. Genetic studies indicate genes for personality (specifically extroversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness), and a general factor linking all 5 traits, account for the heritability of subjective well-being.[94] Recent research suggests there is a happiness gene, the 5-HTT gene.[95]

Social ties

In the article "Finding Happiness after Harvard", George Vaillant concluded a study on what aspects of life are important for "successful living". In the 1940s, Arlie Bock, while in charge of the Harvard Health Services, started a study, selecting 268 Harvard students from graduating classes of 1942, '43, and '44. He sought to identify the aspects of life contributing to "successful living". In 1967, the psychiatrist George Vaillant continued the study, undertaking follow-up interviews to gauge the lives of many of the students. In 2000, Vaillant again interviewed these students as to their progress in life. Vaillant observed: health, close relationships, and how participants dealt with their troubles. Vaillant found a key aspect to successful living is healthy and strong relationships.[96]

A widely publicized study from 2008 in the British Medical Journal reported happiness in social networks may spread from person to person.[97] Researchers followed nearly 5000 individuals for 20 years in the long-standing Framingham Heart Study and found clusters of happiness and unhappiness that spread up to 3 degrees of separation on average. Happiness tended to spread through close relationships like friends, siblings, spouses, and next-door neighbors; researchers reported happiness spread more consistently than unhappiness through the network. Moreover, the structure of the social network appeared to affect happiness, as people who were very central (with many friends, and friends of friends) were significantly happier than those on the network periphery. People closer with others are more likely to be happy themselves.[97] Overall, the results suggest happiness can spread through a population like a virus.[98][99] Having a best friend buffers one's negative life experiences. When one's best friend is present Cortisol levels are decreased and feelings of self-worth increase.[100]

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak studies morality, oxytocin, and trust, among other variables. Based on research findings, Zak recommends: people hug others more often to get into the habit of feeling trust. He explains "eight hugs a day, you'll be happier, and the world will be a better place".[101]

Recently, Anderson et al. found that sociometric status (the amount of respect one has from face-to-face peer group) is significantly and causally related to happiness as measured by subjective well-being.[102]


Much research has pointed at the rising rates of depression, leading people to speculate that modernization may be a factor in the growing percentage of depressed people. One study found that women in urban America were much more likely to experience depression than those in rural Nigeria.[103] Other studies have found a positive correlation between a country's GDP per capita, as quantitative measure of modernization, and lifetime risk of a mood disorder trended toward significance (p=0.06).[104]

Many people believe it is the increased number of pressures and expectations, increased isolation, increased individualism, and increased inactivity that contribute to higher rates of depression in modern societies.


Some evidence suggests sunnier climates do not predict happiness. In one study both Californians and Midwesterners expected the former's happiness ratings to be higher due to a sunnier environment. In fact, the Californian and Midwestern happiness ratings did not show a significant difference.[26] Other researchers say the necessary minimum daily dose of sunlight is as little as 30 minutes.[105]

That is not to say weather is never a factor for happiness. Perhaps the changing norms of sunlight cause seasonal affective disorder, which undermines level of happiness.


Religiousness and spirituality are closely related but distinct topics. Religion is any organized, and often institutionalized, system of cultural practices and beliefs pertaining to the meaning of human existence. It occurs within a traditional context such as a formal religious institution.[106] Spirituality, on the other hand, is a general term applied to the process of finding meaning and a better understanding of one's place in the universe. It is the individual or collective search for that which is sacred or meaningful in life.[107] One may therefore be religious but not spiritual, and vice versa.

Religiousness has often been found to correlate with positive health attributes. People who are more religious show better emotional well-being and lower rates of delinquency, alcoholism, drug abuse, and other social problems.[108]

Six separate factors are cited as evidence for religion's effect on well-being: religion (1) provides social support, (2) supports healthy lifestyles, (3) promotes personality integration, (4) promotes generativity and altruism, (5) provides unique coping strategies, and (6) provides a sense of meaning and purpose.[109] Many religious individuals experience emotions that create positive connections among people and allow them to express their values and potential. These four emotions are known as "sacred emotions," which are said to be (1) gratitude and appreciation, (2) forgiveness, (3) compassion and empathy, and (4) humility.[110]

Social interaction is necessarily a part of the religious experience. Religiosity has been identified to correlate positively with prosocial behavior in trauma patients, and prosocial behavior is furthermore associated with well-being.[111] It also has stronger associations with well-being in individuals genetically predisposed towards social sensitivity in environments where religion prioritizes social affiliation.[112] It has also been linked to greater resilience against stress[113] as well as higher measures of self-actualization[114] and success in romantic relationships and parental responsibilities.[115]

These benefits, while being correlational, may come about as a result of becoming more religiously involved. The benefit of having a secure social group likely plays a key part in religion's positive effects. One form of Christian counseling uses religion through talk therapy and assessments to promote mental health.[116] In another instance, people who were not Buddhist, but were exposed to Buddhist concepts, scored higher on measures of outgroup acceptance and prosociality.[117] This effect was found not only in Western countries, but also in places where Buddhism is prevalent, indicating a general association of Buddhism with acceptance. This finding seems to indicate that merely encountering a religious belief system such as Buddhism may allow some of its effects to be transferred to nonbelievers.

However, many disagree that the benefits the religious experience are due to their beliefs, and some find there to be no conclusive psychological benefits of belief at all. For example, the health benefit that the elderly gain from going to church may in fact be the reason they are able to go to church; the less healthy cannot leave their homes. Meta analysis has found that find studies purporting the beneficial results of religiosity often fail to fully represent data correctly due to a number of issues such as self-report bias, the use of inappropriate comparison groups, and the presence of criterion contamination.[118] Other studies have disputed the efficacy of intercessory prayer positively affecting the health of those being prayed for. They have shown that, when scientifically rigorous studies are performed (by randomizing the patients and preventing them from knowing that they are being prayed for), there is no discernible effect.[119][120]

Religion has power as a cohesive social force, and whether or not it is always beneficial is debated. Irrespective of a group's beliefs, many find that simply belonging to a tight social group reduces anxiety and mental health problems. In addition, there may be a degree of self-selectivity amongst the religious; the behavioral benefits they display may simply be common aspects of those who choose to or are able to practice religion. As a result, whether or not religion can be prescribed scientifically as a means of self-betterment is unclear.


Many people describe themselves as both religious and spiritual, but spirituality represents just one particular function of religion. Spirituality as related to positive psychology can be defined as "a search for the sacred".[121] What is defined as sacred can be related to God, life itself, or almost any other facet of existence. It simply must be viewed as having spiritual implications which are transcendent of the individual.[122] Spiritual well-being addresses this human need for transcendence and involves social as well as existential well-being. Spiritual well-being is associated with various positive outcomes such as better physical and psychological well-being, lower anxiety, less depression, self-actualization, positive relationships with parents, higher rates of positive personality traits and acceptance.[123] However, the results are typically associative and not causal. Research that includes both spirituality and virtues (love, kindness, etc.) reports the effects of spirituality are better explained by virtues.[124]

Reaching the sacred as a personal goal, also called spiritual striving, has been found to correlate highest with well-being compared to other forms of striving.[125] This type of striving can improve a sense of self and relationships and creates a connection to the transcendent[122] Additionally, multiple studies have shown that self-reported spirituality is related to lower rates of mortality and depression and higher rates of happiness.[126][127][128]

Currently, most research on spirituality examines ways in which spirituality can help in times of crisis. Spirituality has been found to remain constant when experiencing traumatic events and/or life stressors such as accidents, war, sickness, and death of a loved one. When confronted with an obstacle, people might turn to prayer or meditation. Coping mechanisms involving spirituality include meditative meditation, creating boundaries to preserve the sacred, spiritual purification to return to the righteous path, and spiritual reframing which focuses on maintaining belief. One clinical application of spirituality and positive psychology research is the "psychospiritual intervention," which represents the potential that spirituality has to increase well-being.[122] These coping mechanisms that aim to preserve the sacred have been found by researchers to increase well being and return the individual back to the sacred.[122]

Overall, spirituality is a process that occurs over a lifetime and includes searching, conserving, and redefining what is sacred in an extremely individualized manner. It does not always have a positive effect and in fact has been associated with very negative events and life changes. Research is lacking in spirituality but it is necessary because spirituality can assist in enhancing the experiences of the uncontrollable parts of life.


Various cultures have various perspectives on the nature of positive human functioning. For example, studies on aversion to happiness, or fear of happiness, indicates that some individuals and cultures are averse to the experience of happiness, because they believe happiness may cause bad things to happen.[129] Empirical evidence indicates that there are fundamental differences in the ways well-being is construed in Western and non-Western cultures, including the Islamic and East Asian cultures.[130] Exploring various cultural perspectives on well-being, Joshanloo (2014) identifies and discusses six broad differences between Western and non-Western conceptions of well-being. For example, whereas Western cultures tend to emphasize the absence of negative emotions and autonomy in defining well-being, Eastern cultures tend to emphasize virtuous or religious activity, self-transcendence, and harmony.[131]

Eunkook M. Suh (University of California) and Shigehiro Oishi (University of Minnesota; now at University of Virginia) examined the differences of happiness on an international level and different cultures' views on what creates well-being and happiness. In a study, of over 6,000 students from 43 nations, to identify mean life satisfaction, on a scale of 1–7, the Chinese ranked lowest at 3.3; and Dutch scored the highest at 5.4. When asked how much subjective well-being was ideal, Chinese ranked lowest at 4.5, and Brazilians highest at 6.2, on a scale of 1–7. The study had three main findings: (1) People living in individualistic, rather than collectivist, societies are happier; (2) Psychological attributes referencing the individual are more relevant to Westerners; (3) Self-evaluating happiness levels depend on different cues, and experiences, from one's culture.[132]

The results of a study by Chang E. C. showed that Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans have similar levels of optimism but Asian Americans are far more pessimistic than Caucasian Americans. However, there were no major differences in depression across cultures. On the other hand, pessimism was positively linked to problem solving behaviors for Asian Americans, but was negatively linked for Caucasian Americans.[133]

Political views

Psychologists in the happiness community feel politics should promote population happiness. Politics should also consider level of human happiness among future generations, concern itself with life expectancy, and focus on the reduction of suffering.[134] Based on political affiliation, some studies argue conservatives, on average, are happier than liberals. A potential explanation is greater acceptance of income inequalities in society leads to a less worried nature.[135] Luke Galen, Associate Professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University, mentioned political commitments as important because they are a sort of secular world view that, like religion, can be generally beneficial to coping with death anxiety (see also Terror management theory and religion and happiness).[136][137][138]


Arguably, some people pursue ineffective shortcuts to feeling good. These shortcuts create positive feelings, but are problematic, in part because of the lack of effort involved. Some examples of these shortcuts include shopping, drugs, chocolate, loveless sex, and TV. These are problematic pursuits because all of these examples have the ability to become addictive. When happiness comes to us so easily, it comes with a price we may not realize. This price comes when taking these shortcuts is the only way to become happy, otherwise viewed as an addiction.[139] A review by Amy Krentzman on the Application of Positive Psychology to Substance Use, Addiction, and Recovery Research, identified, in the field of positive psychology, three domains that allow an individual to thrive and contribute to society.

One of these, A Pleasant Life, involves good feelings about the past, present, and future. To tie this with addiction, they chose an example of alcoholism. Research on positive affect and alcohol showed a majority of the population associates drinking with pleasure. The pleasure one feels from alcohol is known as somatic pleasure, which is immediate but a short lived sensory delight. The researchers wanted to make clear pleasure alone does not amount to a life well lived; there is more to life than pleasure. Secondly, the Engaged Life is associated with positive traits such as strength of character. A few examples of character strength according to Character Strength and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Seligman and Peterson (2004) are bravery, integrity, citizenship, humility, prudence, gratitude, and hope, all of which are shown in the rise to recovery. To descend into an addiction shows a lack of character strength; however, rising to recovery shows the reinstatement of character strengths, including the examples mentioned above. Thirdly, the Meaningful Life is service and membership to positive organizations. Examples of positive organizations include family, workplace, social groups, and society in general. Organizations, like Alcoholics Anonymous, can be viewed as a positive organization. Membership fosters positive affect, while also promoting character strengths, which as seen in the Engaged Life, can aid in beating addiction.[139]


Research has shown it is possible to help suffering people by building their strengths. In addition, prevention researchers have discovered strengths act as buffers against mental illness. The strengths that represent major strides in prevention include: courage, future mindedness, optimism, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, and the capacity for flow and insight.[140]

Suffering can indicate behavior worthy of change, as well as ideas that require a person's careful attention and consideration.[141] Generally, psychology acknowledges suffering can not be completely eliminated, but it is possible to successfully manage and reduce suffering. The University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center explains: "Psychology’s concern with remedying human problems is understandable and should certainly not be abandoned. Human suffering demands scientifically informed solutions. Suffering and well being, however, are both part of the human condition, and psychologists should be concerned with both."[140] Positive psychology, inspired by empirical evidence, focuses on productive approaches to pain and suffering, as well the importance of cultivating strengths and virtues to keep suffering to a minimum[140][142] (see also Character strengths and virtues (book)).

According to Peterson, the Buddhist saying that "Life is Suffering" can be understood as a reality that humans must accept, as well as a call to cultivate virtues.

In reference to the Buddhist saying "Life is suffering", researcher and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson suggested this view as realistic, not pessimistic, where acceptance of the reality life is harsh, provides a freedom from the expectation one should always be happy. This realization can assist in the management of inevitable suffering. To Peterson, virtues are important because they provide people with essential tools to escape suffering (e.g., the strength to admit dissonant truths to themselves). Peterson maintained suffering is made worse by false philosophy (i.e., denial that natural suffering is inevitable).[143]

Similarly, Seligman believes positive psychology is "not a luxury", saying "most of Positive Psychology is for all of us, troubled or untroubled, privileged or in privation, suffering or carefree. The pleasures of a good conversation, the strength of gratitude, the benefits of kindness or wisdom or spirituality or humility, the search for meaning and the antidote to "fidgeting until we die" are the birthrights of us all."[144]

Positive coping is defined as "a response aimed at diminishing the physical, emotional, and psychological burden that is linked to stressful life events and daily hassles"[145] It is found that proper coping strategies will reduce the burden of short-term stress and will help relieve long-term stress. Stress can be reduced by building resources that inhibit or buffer future challenges. For some people, these effective resources could be physiological, psychological or social.[145]

Changes in happiness levels

Humans exhibit a variety of abilities. This includes an ability of emotional Hedonic Adaptation, an idea suggesting that beauty, fame and money do not generally have lasting effects on happiness (this effect has also been called the Hedonic treadmill). In this vein, some research has suggested that only recent events, meaning those that occurred within the last 3 months, affect happiness levels.[146]

The tendency to adapt, and therefore return to an earlier level of happiness, is illustrated by studies showing lottery winners are no happier in the years after they've won.[26] Other studies have shown paraplegics are nearly as happy as control groups that are not paralyzed (p. 48[18]), after equally few years. Daniel Kahneman explains: "they are not paraplegic full time...It has to do with allocation of attention". Thus, contrary to our impact biases, lotteries and paraplegia do not change experiences to as great a degree as we would believe.

Adaptation can be very slow and incomplete process. Distracting life changes such as the death of a spouse or losing one's job can show measurable changes in happiness levels for several years.[26] Even the "adapted" paraplegics mentioned above did ultimately report lower levels of pleasure (again, they were happier than one would expect, but not fully adapted).[147] Thus, adaptation is a complex process, and while it does mitigate the emotional effects of many life events it cannot mitigate them entirely.

Happiness set point

The happiness set point idea is that most people return to an average level of happiness – or a set point – after temporary highs and lows in emotionality. People whose set points lean toward positive emotionality tend to be cheerful most of the time and those whose set points tend to be more negative emotionality tend to gravitate toward pessimism and anxiety. Lykken found that we can influence our level of well-being by creating environments more conductive to feelings of happiness and by working with our genetic makeup.[33] A reason why subjective well being is for the most part stable is because of the great influence genetics have. Although the events of life have some effect on subjective well being, the general population returns to their set point[148]

Fujita and Diener found that 24% of people changed significantly between the first five years of the study and the last five years. Almost one in four people showed changes in their well-being over the years; indeed sometimes those changes were quite dramatic.[149] Bruce Headey found that 5–6% of people dramatically increased their life satisfaction over a 15- to 20-year period and that the goals people pursued significantly affected their life satisfaction.[150]

Two different goals on the continuum are known as nonzero-sum goals and zero-sum goals. Nonzero-sum goals are associated with greater life satisfaction consisting of commitments to family and friends, social or political involvement, and altruism. This term implies that the person involved and others can both benefit. Zero-sum goals are associated with a person who gains advantage at the expense of others, did not promote life satisfaction.

In the recipe for one person's happiness, it is nonsensical to blame one ingredient (because all are necessary). However, when comparing two people's happiness, ingredients like genetics can account for as much as half the difference.

In her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky similarly argued people's happiness varies around a genetic set point. Diener warns, however, that it is nonsensical to claim that "happiness is influenced 30–50% by genetics". Diener explains that the recipe for happiness for an individual always requires genetics, environment, and behaviour too, so it is nonsensical to claim that an individual's happiness is due to only one ingredient.

Only differences in happiness can be attributed to differences in factors. In other words, Lyubomirsky's research does not discuss happiness in one individual; it discusses differences in happiness between two or more people. Specifically, Lyubomirsky suggests that 30–40% of the difference in happiness levels is due to genetics (i.e. heritable). In other words, still, Diener says it makes no sense to say one person's happiness is "due 50% to genetics", but it does make sense to say one person's difference in happiness is 50% due to differences in their genetics (and the rest is due to behaviour and environment).[33][147]

Findings from twin studies support the findings just mentioned. Twins reared apart had nearly the same levels of happiness thereby suggesting the environment is not entirely responsible for differences in people's happiness.[33] Importantly, an individual's baseline happiness is not entirely determined by genetics, and not even by early life influences on one's genetics. Whether or not a person manages to elevate their baseline to the heights of their genetic possibilities depends partly on several factors, including actions and habits. Some happiness-boosting habits seem to include gratitude, appreciation, and even altruistic behavior.[26] Other research-based habits and techniques for increasing happiness are discussed on this page.

Besides the development of new habits, the use of antidepressants, effective exercise, and a healthier diet have proven to affect mood significantly. In fact, exercise is sometimes called the "miracle" or "wonder" drug – alluding to the wide variety of proven benefits it provides.[151][152] It is worth mentioning that a recent book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, challenges the use of non-conservative usage of medications for mental patients, specially with respect to their long-term positive feedback effects.[153]


Broad theories

Some positive psychology researchers[18]:275 posit three overlapping areas of investigation:

  1. Research into the Pleasant Life, or the "life of enjoyment", examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.). Despite the attention given, Martin Seligman says this most transient element of happiness may be the least important.[26]
  2. Investigation of the beneficial effects of immersion, absorption, and flow, felt by individuals when optimally engaged with their primary activities, is the study of the Good Life, or the "life of engagement". Flow is experienced when there is a positive match between a person's strength and their current task, i.e. when one feels confident of accomplishing a chosen or assigned task. (See related concepts: Self-efficacy and play)
  3. Inquiry into the Meaningful Life, or "life of affiliation", questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g., nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems).

These categories appear neither widely disputed nor adopted by researchers across the 12 years that this academic area has been in existence. Although Seligman originally proposed these 3 categories, he has since suggested the last category, "meaningful life", be considered as 3 different categories. The resulting acronym is PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishments) and is a mnemonic for the five elements of Martin Seligman's well-being theory.[154]

Positive emotions include a wide range of feelings, not just happiness and joy.[155] Included are emotions like excitement, satisfaction, pride and awe, amongst others. These emotions are frequently seen as connected to positive outcomes, such as longer life and healthier social relationships.[156]

Engagement refers to involvement in activities that draws and builds upon one's interests. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains true engagement as flow, a feeling of intensity that leads to a sense of ecstasy and clarity.[157] The task being done needs to call upon higher skill and be a bit difficult and challenging yet still possible. Engagement involves passion for and concentration on the task at hand and is assessed subjectively as to whether the person engaged was completely absorbed, losing self-consciousness.[155]

Relationships are all important in fueling positive emotions, whether they are work-related, familial, romantic, or platonic. As Dr. Christopher Peterson puts it simply, "Other people matter."[158] Humans receive, share, and spread positivity to others through relationships. They are important in not only in bad times, but good times as well. In fact, relationships can be strengthened by reacting to one another positively. It is typical that most positive things take place in the presence of other people.[159]

Meaning is also known as purpose, and prompts the question of "Why?" Discovering and figuring out a clear "why" puts everything into context from work to relationships to other parts of life.[160][161] Finding meaning is learning that there is something greater than you. Despite potential challenges, working with meaning drives people to continue striving for a desirable goal.

Accomplishments are the pursuit of success and mastery.[155] Unlike the other parts of PERMA, they are sometimes pursued even when it does not result in positive emotions, meaning, or relationships. That being noted, accomplishment can activate the other elements of PERMA, such as pride under positive emotion.[162] Accomplishments can be individual or community based, fun or work based.

The five PERMA elements were selected according to three criteria:

  1. It contributes to well-being.
  2. It is pursued for its own sake.
  3. It is defined and measured independently of the other elements.

PERMA not only plays a role in our own personal lives but also can be used for public major news stories. With this model, journalists can instead focus on the positives of a story and ask questions about how conflicts or even tragedies have brought people together, how someone has experienced post traumatic growth, and more. News stories then shift the perspective from a victimizing one to an uplifting one. Positive psychology is slowly but steadily making its way through news reporting via constructive journalism. PERMA helps journalists ask the right questions to continue that progress by bringing the focus of a potentially negative story to the positives and solutions.[163]

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions suggests positive emotions (e.g. happiness, interest, anticipation)[164] broaden one's awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds skills and resources. For example, curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise and physical excellence. Positive emotions are contrasted with negative emotions, which prompt narrow survival-oriented behaviors. For example, the negative emotion of anxiety leads to the specific fight-or-flight response for immediate survival.[164]

A portrait commemorating a family's day together

Philip Zimbardo suggests we might also analyze happiness from a "Time Perspective". Zimbardo suggested the sorting of people's focus in life by valence (positive or negative) and also by their time perspective (past, present, or future orientation). Doing so may reveal some individual conflicts, not over whether an activity is enjoyed, but whether one prefers to risk delaying gratification further. Zimbardo also believes research reveals an optimal balance of perspectives for a happy life; commenting, our focus on reliving positive aspects of our past should be high, followed by time spent believing in a positive future, and finally spending a moderate (but not excessive) amount of time in enjoyment of the present.[165]

Although Seligman's categorizations are still fuzzy classifications, the research presented below is sorted according to which of Seligman's categories may be most (but not strictly) related (i.e. the "pleasant", "good", or "meaningful" life). Research mentioned in one section may be quite relevant in another.

The pleasant life

Simple exercise, such as running, is cited as key to feeling happy.[166]

Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs. Foremost, primitive needs must be met (basic physiological, and sense of safety) before social needs can be met (e.g., intimacy). Subsequently, one can pursue more conceptual needs (e.g. morality and self-actualization).

Evidence suggests negative emotions can be damaging. In an article titled "The undoing effect of positive emotions", Barbara Fredrickson et al. hypothesized positive emotions undo the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions. When people experience stress, they show increased heart rate, higher blood sugar, immune suppression, and other adaptations optimized for immediate action. If unregulated, the prolonged physiological activation can lead to illness, coronary heart disease, and heightened mortality. Both lab and survey research substantiate that positive emotions help people under stress to return to a preferable, healthier physiological baseline.[167] Other research shows that improved mood is one of the various benefits of physical exercise.[166]

The good life

Ideas of well-being as a good life stem from Aristotelian ideas of eudaimonia. Related emerging concepts include: self-efficacy, personal effectiveness, flow, and mindfulness.

Self-efficacy refers to a belief that one's ability to accomplish a task is a function of personal effort. Low self-efficacy, or a disconnect between ability and personal effort, is associated with depression; by comparison, high self-efficacy is associated with positive change, including overcoming abuse, overcoming eating disorders, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. High self-efficacy also has positive benefits for one's immune system, aids in stress management, and decreases pain.[168] A related concept, Personal effectiveness, is primarily concerned with planning and the implementation of methods of accomplishment.


Flow refers to a state of absorption where one's abilities are well-matched to the demands at-hand. Flow is characterized by intense concentration, loss of self-awareness, a feeling of being perfectly challenged (neither bored nor overwhelmed), and a sense "time is flying." Flow is intrinsically rewarding; it can also assist in the achievement of goals (e.g., winning a game) or improving skills (e.g., becoming a better chess player).[169] Anyone can experience flow, in different domains, such as play, creativity, and work. Flow is achieved when the challenge of the situation meets one's personal abilities. A mismatch of challenge for someone of low skills results in a state of anxiety; insufficient challenge for someone highly skilled results in boredom.[169] The effect of challenging situations means that flow is often temporarily exciting and variously stressful, but this is considered Eustress, which is also known as "good" stress. Eustress is arguably less harmful than chronic stress, although the pathways of stress-related systems are similar. Both can create a "wear and tear" effect, however, the differing physiological elements and added psychological benefits of eustress might well balance any wear and tear experienced.

Csikszentmihalyi identified nine indicator elements of flow: 1. Clear goals exist every step of the way, 2. Immediate feedback guides one's action, 3. There is a balance between challenges and abilities, 4. Action and awareness are merged, 5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness, 6. Failure is not worrisome, 7. Self-consciousness disappears, 8. Sense of time is distorted, and 9. The activity becomes "autotelic" (an end in itself, done for its own sake)[170] His studies also show that flow is greater during work while happiness is greater during leisure activities.[171]


Flourishing, in positive psychology, refers to optimal human functioning. It comprises four parts: goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience (Fredrickson, 2005).[172] According to Fredrickson (2005), goodness is made up of: happiness, contentment, and effective performance; generativity is about making life better for future generations, and is defined by “broadened thought-action repertoires and behavioral flexibility”; growth involves the use of personal and social assets; and resilience reflects survival and growth after enduring a hardship (p. 685).[172] A flourishing life stems from mastering all four of these parts. Two contrasting ideologies are languishing and psychopathology. On the mental health continuum, these are considered intermediate mental health disorders, reflecting someone living an unfulfilled and perhaps meaningless life. Those who languish experience more emotional pain, psychosocial deficiency, restrictions in regular activities, and missed workdays (Fredrickson, 2005).[172]

Fredrickson & Losada (2005)[172] conducted a study on university students, operationalizing positive and negative affect. Based on a mathematical model which has been strongly criticized,[173] and now been formally withdrawn by Fredrickson as invalid,[174] Fredrickson & Losada claimed to have discovered a critical positivity ratio, above which people would flourish and below which they would not. Although Fredrickson claims that her experimental results are still valid,[175] these experimental results have also been questioned due to poor statistical methodology, and Alan Sokal has pointed out that "given [Fredrickson and Losada's] experimental design and method of data analysis, no data whatsoever could possibly give any evidence of any nonlinearity in the relationship between "flourishing" and the positivity ratio — much less evidence for a sharp discontinuity."[176]

Another study surveyed a U.S. sample of 3,032 adults, aged 25–74. Results showed 17.2 percent of adults were flourishing, while 56.6 percent were moderately mentally healthy. Some common characteristics of a flourishing adult included: educated, older, married and wealthy. The study findings suggest there is room for adults to improve as less than 20 percent of Americans are living a flourishing life. (Keyes, 2002).[177]

Benefits from living a flourishing life emerge from research on the effects of experiencing a high ratio of positive to negative affect. The studied benefits of positive affect are increased responsiveness, "broadened behavioral repertoires", increased instinct, and increased perception and imagination (Fredrickson, 2005, p. 678).[172] In addition, the good feelings associated with flourishing result in improvements to immune system functioning, cardiovascular recovery, lessened effects of negative affect, and frontal brain asymmetry (Fredrickson, 2005).[172] Other benefits to those of moderate mental health or moderate levels of flourishing were: stronger psychological and social performance, high resiliency, greater cardiovascular health, and an overall healthier lifestyle (Keyes, 2007).[178] The encountered benefits of flourishing suggest a definition: "[flourishing] people experience high levels of emotional, psychological and social well being due to vigor and vitality, self-determination, continuous self- growth, close relationships and a meaningful and purposeful life" (Siang-Yang, 2006, p. 70).[179]


Researchers recommend attending to the past to find fond memories, and the future to find hope, but ultimately focussing mostly on the present.[165] Daydreaming usually precedes drops in happiness. Mindfulness and activities that bring focus to the present (like Roller Coasters) may bring happiness partly by shifting people's focus away from the slightly saddening question "Am I happy?".[180][181]

Mindfulness is an intentionally focused awareness of one's immediate experience. "Focused awareness" is a conscious moment-by-moment attention to situational elements of an experience: i.e., thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and surroundings. An aim of mindfulness is to become grounded in the present moment; one learns to observe the arising and passing of experience. One does not judge the experiences and thoughts, nor do they try to 'figure things out' and draw conclusions, or change anything – the challenge during mindfulness is to simply observe.[182][183] Benefits of mindfulness practice include reduction of stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.[184] See also Reverence (emotion).

Ellen J. Langer argued people slip into a state of "mindlessness" by engaging in rote behavior, performing familiar, scripted actions without much cognition, as if on autopilot (see also flow, discussed above).[185]

Advocates of focusing on present experiences also mention research by Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who suggested daydreaming, instead of a focus on the present, may impede happiness.[180][186] Fellow researcher, Matt Killingsworth, found evidence to support the harm of daydreaming. Fifteen thousand participants from around the world provided over 650 000 reports (using an online application on their phones that requested data at random times). Killingsworth found people who reported daydreaming soon reported less happiness; daydreaming is extremely common.[181] Zimbardo (see "Time Perspectives" above) bestowed the merits of a present-focus, and recommended occasional recall of past positive experiences. Reflecting on past positive experiences can influence current mood, and assist in building positive expectations for the future.

There is research that suggests a person's focus influences level of happiness, where thinking too much about happiness can be counter-productive. Rather than asking: "Am I happy?" – which when posed just 4 times a day, starts to decrease happiness, it might well be better to reflect on one's values (e.g., "Can I muster any hope?").[187] Asking different questions can assist in redirecting personal thoughts, and perhaps, lead to taking steps to better apply one's energies. The personal answer to any particular question can lead to positive actions, and hopefulness, which is a very powerful, and positive feeling. Hopefulness is more likely to foster happiness, while feelings of hopelessness tend to undermine happiness.

Todd Kashdan, researcher and author of "Designing Positive Psychology", explained early science's findings should not be overgeneralized or adopted too uncritically. Mindfulness to Kashdan is very resource-intensive processing; he warned it is not simply better at all times. To illustrate, when a task is best performed with very little conscious thought (e.g., a paramedic performing practiced, emergency maneuvers).[187] Nevertheless, development of the skill lends to its application at certain times, which can be useful for the reasons just described; Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry Richard J. Davidson highly recommends "mindfulness meditation" for use in the accurate identification and management of emotions.[188][189]

The meaningful life

After several years of researching disgust, Jonathan Haidt, and others, studied its opposite; the term "elevation" was coined. Elevation is a pleasant moral emotion, involving a desire to act morally and do "good". As an emotion it has a biological basis, and is sometimes characterized by a feeling of expansion in the chest or a tingling feeling on the skin.[190][191]

Optimism and helplessness

J.B. MacKinnon recommended taking full responsibility for one small, but clear improvement for the world (the way energy-saving activists did by promoting a new kind of lamp). Inspired by sociological research, MacKinnon said "vertical agitation" helps reduce feelings of helplessness.

Learned optimism refers to development of one's potential for a sanguine outlook. Optimism is learned as personal efforts and abilities are linked to personally desired outcomes. In short, it is the belief one can influence the future in tangible and meaningful ways. Learned optimism contrasts with learned helplessness, which consists of a belief, or beliefs, one has no control over what occurs, and that something external dictates outcomes, e.g., success. Optimism is learned by consciously challenging negative self talk. This includes self talk on any event viewed as a personal failure that permanently affects all areas of the person's life.

Intrapersonal, or internal, dialogues influence one's feelings. To illustrate, reports of happiness are correlated with the general ability to "rationalize or explain" social and economic inequalities.[192] Hope is a powerful positive feeling, linked to a learned style of goal-directed thinking. Hope is fostered when a person utilizes both pathways thinking (the perceived capacity to find routes to desired goals) and agency thinking (the requisite motivations to use those routes).[193]

Author and journalist J.B. MacKinnon suggested the cognitive tool of "Vertical Agitation" can assist in avoiding helplessness (e.g., paralysis in the face of earth's many problems). The concept stemmed from research on denial by sociologist Stanley Cohen. Cohen explained: in the face of massive problems people tend towards learned helplessness rather than confronting the dissonant facts of the matter. Vertical Agitation involves focusing on one part of a problem at a time, while holding oneself accountable for solving the problem – all the way to the highest level of government, business and society (such as advocating strongly for something: eco-friendly lightbulbs). This allows each individual in society to make vital "trivial" (read: small) changes, without being intimidated by the work needed to be done as a whole. Mackinnon added: a piecemeal approach also keeps individuals from becoming too 'holier than thou' (harassing friends and family about every possible improvement), where widespread practice of Vertical Agitation would lead to much improvement.[194]

Good work

Psychologist Howard Gardner has extensively researched the merit of undertaking good work at one's job. He suggested young generations (particularly in the United States) are taught to focus on the selfish pursuit of money for its own sake, although having money does not reliably engender happiness. Gardner's proposed alternatives loosely follow the pleasant/good/meaningful life classifications outlined above; he believes young people should be trained to pursue excellence in their field, as well as engagement (see flow, above) in accordance with their moral belief systems.[195]

According to a study reported in the NY Post Newspaper, 48% of parents reward their children's good grades with cash or something else of meaning. Among many families in the United States, this is controversial. Although psychology experts support the offer of reward for good behavior as a better alternative than the use of punishment for bad behavior, in some circumstances, families cannot afford to give their children an average of 16 dollars for every good grade earned. Alternatives for money include allowing a child extra time on a computer or staying up later than usual. Some psychology experts believe the best reward is praise and encouragement because material rewards can cause long-term negative effects for children.

A study, regarding rewards for children, conducted in 1971 by psychologist, Edward L. Deci, at the University of Rochester, is still referenced today. Featured in the New York Times, it focused on the short- and long-term effects of rewards for positive behavior. Deci suggested rewards for positive behavior is an effective incentive for only a short period. At the outset, rewards can support motivation to work hard and strive towards personal goals. However, once rewards cease, children showed less interest in the task relative to participants who never received rewards. Deci pointed out, at a young age, children's natural instinct is to resist people who try to control their behavior, which he cited as support for his conclusion rewards for good behavior have limited effectiveness.

In contrast, the New York Times featured research findings that supported the merits of offering rewards to children for good behavior. Expert economists argued children experiencing trouble with their behavior or schoolwork should have numerous helpful options, including rewards. Although children might well experience an initial attraction to financial or material, a love for learning could develop subsequently. Despite the controversy regarding the use of rewards, some experts believe the best way to motivate a child is to offer rewards at the beginning of the school year, but if unsuccessful they recommend teachers and parents stop using the reward system. Because of individual differences among children, no one method will work for everyone. Some children respond well to the use of rewards for positive behavior, while others evidence negative effects. The results seem to depend on the person.

Strengths and virtues

The development of the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook represented the first attempt on the part of the research community to identify and classify positive psychological traits of human beings. Much like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of general psychology, the CSV provided a theoretical framework to assist in understanding strengths and virtues and for developing practical applications for positive psychology. This manual identified 6 classes of virtues (i.e., "core virtues"), underlying 24 measurable character strengths.[196]

The CSV suggested these 6 virtues have a historical basis in the vast majority of cultures; in addition, these virtues and strengths can lead to increased happiness when built upon. Notwithstanding numerous cautions and caveats, this suggestion of universality hints threefold: 1. The study of positive human qualities broadens the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness, 2. the leaders of the positive psychology movement are challenging moral relativism, suggesting people are "evolutionarily predisposed" toward certain virtues, and 3. virtue has a biological basis.[196]:51

The organization of the 6 virtues and 24 strengths is as follows:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, zest
  3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

Recent research challenged the need for 6 virtues. Instead, researchers suggested the 24 strengths are more accurately grouped into just 3 or 4 categories: Intellectual Strengths, Interpersonal Strengths, and Temperance Strengths[197] or alternatively, Interpersonal Strengths, Fortitude, Vitality, and Cautiousness[198] These strengths, and their classifications, have emerged independently elsewhere in literature on values. Paul Thagard described examples; these included Jeff Shrager's workshops to discover the habits of highly creative people.[199] Some research indicates that well-being effects that appear to be due to spirituality are actually better described as due to virtue.[124]


5 steps to a happier life. Infographic based on Haidt, Jonathan (2005). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books

A practical application of positive psychology is to assist individuals and organizations in identifying strengths so as to increase and sustain well-being. Therapists, counselors, coaches, various psychological professionals, HR departments, business strategists, and others, are using new methods and techniques to broaden and build upon the strengths of a wide population of individuals. This includes those not suffering from mental illness or disorder.

Researcher Dianne Hales described an emotionally healthy person as someone who exhibits: flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances, a sense of meaning and affirmation in life, an "understanding that the self is not the center of the universe", compassion and the ability to be unselfish, an increased depth and satisfaction in intimate relationships, and a sense of control over the mind and body.[200]

Happiness measurement

Some policy analysts, citing positive psychology,[201] propose replacing the gross domestic product with gross national happiness as the predominant measure of a nation's success.

In the 1970s, pioneering "happiness researcher" Michael W. Fordyce statistically related personal attributes to subjective well-being. His results, published in Social Indicators Research, rank in the journal's top 2.4% most-cited articles.[202]

Early "positive psychology" techniques

The easiest and best possible way to increase one's happiness is by doing something that increases the ratio of positive to negative emotions. Contrary to some beliefs, in many scenarios, people are actually very good at determining what will increase their positive emotions.[203] There have been many techniques developed to help increase one's happiness.

One such technique, Fordyce's Happiness Training Program (14 episodes, 1979), presented the empirically validated "fourteen fundamentals of happiness" (1981) in the following categories: (1) change your activities, (2) change your thinking, (3) nurture relationships, (4) value personal growth, and (5) decrease negative emotions. Although slightly outdated, the material is archived online in a 21-page Happiness Booklet[204] and 2-volume Happiness Series.

A second technique is known as the "Sustainable Happiness Model (SHM)." This model proposes that long-term happiness is determined upon: (1) one's genetically determined set-point, (2) circumstantial factors, and (3) intentional activities. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade suggest to make these changes in the correct way in order to have long-term happiness.[205] One final suggestion of how to increase one's happiness is through a procedure called "Hope Training." Hope Training is primarily focused on hope due to the belief that hope drives the positive emotions of well-being.[206] This training is based on the hope theory, which states that well-being can increase once people have developed goals and believe themselves to achieve those goals.[207] One of the main purposes of hope training is to eliminate individuals from false hope syndrome. False hope syndrome particularly occurs when one believes that changing their behavior is easy and the outcomes of the change will be evidenced in a short period of time.[208]

Physical education

As a basic building block to a better existence, positive psychology aims to improve the quality of experiences. Within its framework, students could learn to become excited about physical activity. Playing comes natural to children; positive psychology seeks to preserve this zest (a sense of excitement and motivation for life)[209] for movement in growing and developing children. If offered in an interesting, challenging and pleasurable way physical activity would thus internalize an authentic feeling of happiness in students. Positive psychology's approach to physical activity could give students the means of acquiring an engaged, pleasant and meaningful life.[210]

In education

Positive psychology is beneficial to schools and students because it encourages individuals to strive to do their best; whereas, scolding has the opposite effect. Clifton and Rath[211] discussed research conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock in 1925, where fourth, fifth and sixth graders were either praised, criticized or ignored, based on their work on math problems. Praised students improved by 71%, those criticized improved by 19%, and students provided with no feedback improved a mere 5%. Praise seems an effective method of fostering improvement.

According to Clifton and Rath[211] ninety nine out of one hundred people prefer the influence of positive people. The benefits include: increased productivity, and contagious positive emotions, which assists one in working to the best of her, or his, abilities. Even a single negative person can ruin the entire positive vibe in an environment. Clifton and Rath[211] cited ‘positive emotions as an essential daily requirement for survival’.

In 2008, in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a whole-of-school implementation of Positive Psychology was undertaken by Geelong Grammar School (Victoria, Australia). This involved training of teaching staff in the principles and skills of positive psychology. Ongoing support was provided by The Positive Psychology Center staff, who remained in-residence for the entire year.[212]

Staats, Hupp and Hagley (2008) used positive psychology to explore academic honesty. They identified positive traits displayed by heroes, then determined if the presence of these traits in students predicted future intent to cheat. The results of their research: ‘an effective working model of heroism in the context of the academic environment’ (Staats, Hupp & Hagley, 2008).[213]

In youth development

The field of Positive Youth Development offers another practical use for positive psychology, as it focuses on the promotion of healthy development rather than viewing youth as prone to problems needing to be addressed. This is accomplished through programs and efforts by communities, schools, and government agencies.[214]

Clinical psychology

A strengths-based approach to personal positive change aims to have clinical psychology place an equal weight on both positive and negative functioning when attempting to understand and treat distress.[215] This rationale is based on empirical findings. Because positive characteristics interact with negative life events to predict disorder the exclusive study of negative life events could produce misleading results.[216] Interventions focusing on strengths and positive emotions can be as effective in treating disorder as other more commonly used approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy.[217][218]

Psychologists are looking to use positive psychology to treat patients. Amy Krentzman discussed positive intervention as a way to treat patients. She defined positive intervention as a therapy or activity primarily aimed at increasing positive feelings, positive behaviors, or positive cognitions, as opposed to focusing on negative thoughts or dysfunctional behaviors. A way of using positive intervention as a clinical treatment is to use positive activity interventions. Positive activity interventions, or PAIs, are brief self-administered exercises that promote positive feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Two widely used PAIs are “Three Good Things” and “Best Future Self.” “Three Good Things” requires a patient to daily document, for a week, three events that went well during the day, and the respective cause, or causes. “Best Future Self” has a patient “think about their life in the future, and imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. They have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of their life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of their life dreams.” The patient is then asked to write down what they imagined. These positive interventions have been shown to decrease depression.[219] Positive psychology seeks to inform clinical psychology of the potential to expand its approach, and of the merit of the possibilities. Given a fair opportunity, positive psychology might well change priorities to better address the breadth and depth of the human experience in clinical settings.

In the workplace

Positive psychology has been implemented in business management practice, but has faced challenges. Wong & Davey (2007)[220] noted managers can introduce positive psychology to a workplace, but they might struggle with positive ways to apply it to employees. Furthermore, for employees to welcome and commit to positive psychology, its application within an organization must be transparent.[221] Managers must also understand the implementation of positive psychology will not necessarily combat any commitment challenges that exist. However, with its implementation employees might become more optimistic and open to new concepts or management practices.[222]

In their article "The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?",[223] S. Lyubomirsky et al. report: "Study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving, including fulfilling and productive work".

Positive psychology, when applied correctly, can provide employees with a greater opportunity to use skills and vary work duties. However, changing work conditions and roles can lead to stress among employees if they are improperly supported by management. This is particularly true for employees who must meet the expectations of organizations with unrealistic goals and targets.[224] Thomas and Tasker (2010) showed less worker autonomy, fewer opportunities for development, less-enriched work roles, and lower levels of supervisor support reflected the effect of industry growth on job satisfaction.[225]

Can an organization implement positive change? Lewis et al. (2007) developed appreciative inquiry (AI), which is an integrated, organizational-level methodology for approaching organizational development. Appreciative inquiry is based on the generation of organizational resourcefulness, which is accomplished by accessing a variety of human psychological processes, such as: positive emotional states, imagination, social cohesion, and the social construction of reality.[226]

A relatively new practice in the workplace is recruiting and developing people based on their strengths (what they love to do, are naturally good at and energises them). Standard Chartered Bank pioneered this approach in the early 2000s. More and more organisations are realising the benefit of recruiting people who are in their element in the job as opposed to simply having the right competencies for the job. Aviva, Morrisons (a large UK supermarket) and Starbucks have all adopted this approach.[227]

In offender rehabilitation

Traditional work with offenders has focused on their deficits (e.g., with respect to socialization, and schooling) and other "criminogenic" risk-factors. Rehabilitation more often than not has taken the form of forced treatment or training, ostensibly for the good of the offender, and the community. Arguably, this approach has shortcomings, suggesting a need to make available additional positive options to treatment staff so they can best assist offenders, and so that offenders can better find their way forward. Positive psychology has made recent inroads with the advent of the "Good Lives Model", developed by Tony Ward, Shadd Maruna, and others. With respect to rehabilitation: "Individuals take part ... because they think that such activities might either improve the quality of their life (an intrinsic goal) or at least look good to judges, parole boards and family members (an extrinsic goal)."[228]

Positive criminology and positive victimology

Positive criminology and positive victimology are conceptual approaches, developed by the Israeli criminologist Natti Ronel and his research team, that follow principles of positive psychology and apply them into the fields of criminology and victimology, respectively. Positive criminology and victimology both place an emphasis on social inclusion and on unifying and integrating forces at individual, group, social and spiritual levels that are associated with the limiting of crime and recovery from victimization. In traditional approaches the study of crime, violence and related behaviors emphasizes the negative aspects in people's lives that are associated with deviance, criminality and victimization. A common understanding is that human relationships are affected more by destructive encounters than by constructive or positive ones. Positive criminology and victimology argue that a different approach is viable, based on three dimensions – social integration, emotional healing and spirituality – that constitute positive direction indicators.

Post-traumatic growth in constructive journalism

Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is a possible outcome after a traumatic event, besides posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following a traumatic event, for instance rape, incest, cancer, attack, or combat, "it is normal to experience debilitating symptoms of depression and anxiety."[229] A person who shows PTG however, will experience these negative outcomes for a time and then show an increase in well-being, higher than it was before the trauma occurred. Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology, emphasizes that "arriving at a higher level of psychological functioning than before" is a key point in PTG.[230] If instead an individual experiences a depressive period but recovers from an incident and returns to their normal level of psychological functioning, they are demonstrating resilience.[230] This suggests that in PTG, the trauma acts as a turning point for the person to achieve greater well-being. Seligman recognizes "the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth" and given the right tools, individuals can make the most of that opportunity."[230]

When reflecting on a traumatic growth, Seligman suggests using the following five elements to facilitate PTG: understand the response to trauma, reduce anxiety, utilize constructive disclosure, create a trauma narrative, and articulate life principles and stances that are more robust to challenge.[230] Someone experiencing PTG will achieve elements of Seligman’s "good life" theory, including a more meaningful and purposeful valuing of life, improved positive relationships, accomplishment, and a more optimistic and open mindset according to the broaden-and-build theory.[231]

The phenomenon of PTG is applicable to many disciplines. The construct is important not only for just soldiers, emergency responders, and survivors of traumatic events, but average, everyday citizens facing typical adversity. One way to expose citizens to stories of PTG is through constructive journalism. Constructive journalism, as defined by PhD student Karen McIntyre at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is "an emerging style of journalism in which positive psychology techniques are applied to news work with the aim of engaging readers by creating more productive news stories, all while maintaining core journalistic functions".[232] Cathrine Gyldensted, an experienced reporter with a Masters in applied positive psychology and coauthor of two books, demonstrated that typical news reporting, which is associated with negative valence, harms mood.[233] Using PTG to focus on victims' strengths and instances of overcoming adversity encourages readers to implement similar ideals in their own lives. "So the goal of positive psychology in well-being theory is to measure and to build human flourishing."[234] Combining positive psychology constructs like PTG, PERMA, and "broaden and build" with journalism could potentially improve affect and inspire individuals about the benefits of positive psychology.


Positive psychology coaching is the application of positive psychology in the practice of coaching, which is backed by scientific research, with availability of intervention tools and assessments that positive psychology trained coaches can utilized to support the coaching process. Positive psychology coaching uses scientific evidence and insights gained in these areas to work with clients in their goals.[235]

Other future research

Positive psychology research and practice is currently conducted and developed in various countries throughout the world. To illustrate, in Canada, Charles Hackney of Briercrest College applies positive psychology to the topic of personal growth through martial arts training; Paul Wong, president of the International Network on Personal Meaning,[236] is developing an existential approach to positive psychology.[237][238] This existential positive psychology approach has been developed into second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0).[239][240]

Cognitive and behavioral change, although sometimes slight and complex, can produce an 'intense affect'. The benefits argue for this focus becoming a legitimate area of study, specifically regarding links in cognition and motivational responses. Isen (2009) remarked, further progress requires suitable research methods, and appropriate theories on which to base contemporary research.[241] Chang (2008) suggested researchers have a number of paths to pursue regarding the enhancement of emotional intelligence, even though emotional intelligence does not guarantee the development of positive affect; in short, more study is required to track the gradient of positive affect in psychology.[242]


According to Kirk Schneider, positive psychology fails to explain past heinous behaviors such as those perpetrated by the Nazi party, Stalinist marches, Klan gatherings, to identify but a few. Furthermore, Schneider pointed to a body of research showing high positivity correlates with positive illusion, which effectively distorts reality.[243] The extent of the downfall of high positivity (also known as flourishing) is one could become incapable of psychological growth, unable to self-reflect, and tend to hold racial biases. By contrast, negativity, sometimes evidenced in mild to moderate depression, is correlated with less distortion of reality. Therefore, negativity might play an important role within the dynamics of human flourishing. To illustrate, conflict engagement and acknowledgement of appropriate negativity, including certain negative emotions like guilt, might better promote flourishing.[172] Overall, Schneider provided perspective: "perhaps genuine happiness is not something you aim at, but is a by-product of a life well lived, and a life well lived does not settle on the programmed or neatly calibrated".[244] Seligman has acknowledged in his work the point about positive illusion,[245] and is also a critic of merely feeling good about oneself apart from reality and recognises the importance of negativity / dysphoria.[246]

Ian Sample, writing for The Guardian, noted that, "Positive psychologists also stand accused of burying their heads in the sand and ignoring that depressed, even merely unhappy people, have real problems that need dealing with." Sample also quoted Steven Wolin, a clinical psychiatrist at George Washington University, as saying that the study of positive psychology is just a reiteration of older ways of thinking, and that there is not much scientific research to support the efficacy of this method.[247] Gable responds to criticism on their pollyanna view on the world by saying that they are just bringing a balance to a side of psychology that is glaringly understudied.[248]

Barbara Held argued that while positive psychology makes contributions to the field of psychology, it has its faults. She offered insight into topics including the negative side effects of positive psychology, negativity within the positive psychology movement, and the current division in the field of psychology caused by differing opinions of psychologists on positive psychology. In addition, she noted the movement's lack of consistency regarding the role of negativity. She also raised issues with the simplistic approach taken by some psychologists in the application of positive psychology. A "one size fits all" approach is not arguably beneficial to the advancement of the field of positive psychology; she suggested a need for individual differences to be incorporated into its application.[249]

See also



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