what is positive psychology?

What is Positive Psychology and Wellbeing?

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing. At APPLI we’re interested in how this scientific inquiry can be usefully applied across different and diverse contexts.

Positive Psychology is grounded in the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within them and others, and to enhance their work, school and life experiences.  Positive Psychology is not a self-help movement or a re-packaging of “the power of positive thinking”. It is not “happy-ology”, nor is it a passing fad. Positive Psychology is a science that utilises the many virtues of science – replication, controlled causal studies, rigorous peer review, representative sampling, just to name a few1.

The field is intended to complement, not to replace traditional psychology. It does not seek to deny the importance of studying how things go wrong, but rather to emphasise the importance of using the scientific method to determine how things might go right as well.  The four major aims of Positive Psychology research are to assist people at all stages of their life to learn to2:

  1. Rise to life’s challenges, steer through setbacks and adversity;
  2. Engage with and relate to other people;
  3. Find fulfilment in creativity and productivity;
  4. Look beyond oneself and help others to find lasting meaning, satisfaction, and wisdom.

 

While well-known scientists, Martin Seligman, Chris Peterson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi all played a crucial role in launching Positive Psychology as a worthy subfield of traditional Psychology.  However, the scientific study of the positive side of the mental health spectrum began long before, with the work of a number of eminent psychologists, including for example, Albert Bandura, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Erik Erikson, Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, Carol Ryff and Jerome Singer.

Since its inception, the field of Positive Psychology has gone through a number of stages of growth and evolution, summarised below.

Phase One: Positive Psychology 1.0

Martin Seligman championed and marketed Positive Psychology 1.0 during his presidency of the American Psychological Association3.  Leading the APA through the Millennium era, Seligman reflected on how far the field of psychology had come over the past half a century, but also how far it still had to go. “We are now able to identify and treat….” he famously wrote in the Millennium issue of the Association’s official journal. Seligman invited many respected scientific experts to join him in boosting the scientific exploration of the ‘good life’, drawing upon highly respected psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, Robert Emmons, and Barbara Fredrickson to add to the growing body of knowledge around wellbeing. There is no doubt that the USA has been prolific with both the scientific study of wellbeing and indeed its application, with many universities such as Harvard, Yale, Claremont and the University of California, Berkeley embedding Positive Psychology into their subjects, courses and/or degree programs.

Phase Two: Positive Psychology 2.0

The study of wellbeing science and practice continued to grow through the next decade and beyond, taking its place in Europe, Canada, China, Africa, Russia and many other parts of the world. As the science started to reveal the real benefits of higher levels of wellbeing, Positive Psychology was beginning to be noticed for its economic value. As a consequence, several national, or multi-national, wellbeing surveys were devised to measure population wellbeing for the first time, including for example the European Social Survey4, the Sovereign NZ Wellbeing Index5, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index6  and Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey7.  Early adopting organizations and schools were also intrigued by the positive outcomes associated with wellbeing and starting to articulate the importance of wellbeing for leaders, employees and young people.

As should be the case with all burgeoning scientific endeavours, there were critiques of Positive Psychology and the cautionary message that the pressure to be ‘happy’ may actually cause people harm8.  Dr Paul Wong has articulated with insight and clarity the benefits and pitfalls of simplifying the complex nature of wellbeing.  For example, he has pointed out the importance of (a) developing culturally appropriate research, (b) emphasising a sense of personal and social responsibility, and (c) to ensure that PP is given a voice for the suffering masses9. Wong has suggested that research and funding must be placed where it is needed the most and not just in wealthy countries and populations.

Phase Three: Positive Psychology 3.0

As wellbeing science and practice move towards the third decade of the 21st century, it has become increasingly difficult for the layperson to distinguish between valid scientific research, self-help and commercialisation (see Figure 1). This risks the complex nature of wellbeing science and application being ‘dumbed down’ and diluting the valuable body of evidence-based work accumulated so far.

What does the research show?

Wellbeing science and practice has shown to be associated with many work and life outcomes not often articulated. For example, low levels of wellbeing has huge implications for individuals, teams, communities and even nations. Mental illness accounts for between 3% and 16% of total health expenditure across many countries10 due to loss of labour supply, high rates of unemployment, high incidence of illness, absence from work and study, and decreased productivity.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 300 million people globally suffer from depression. Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and, at its worst, can lead to suicide11.  Globally, 800 thousand lives are lost to suicide each year12. In a report to the World Economic Forum, Gerald Bloom (physician and health economist at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex) predicted the global cost of mental illness would be more than $6 trillion by 203013.  Unfortunately, depression and anxiety alone currently cost the global economy $925 billion each year14.

It is crucial to treat mental illness when it occurs and prevent it wherever possible. But it’s equally important to focus on helping people build their quality of social, professional and personal lives through learning about their unique strengths, values, meaning and purpose in their lives and how to be resilient in times of challenge and change.

Beyond Happiness: Why wellbeing?

Research suggests improved levels of wellbeing are associated with:

  • Faster recovery from surgery15,16,17,18,19
  • Lower incidence of cancer20,21,22
  • Improved immunity to colds and flu viruses21,22
  • Reduced incidence of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease21,22,23,24,25
  • Increased ability to cope with stress21,22,26,27
  • Higher levels of worker satisfaction and productivity21,22,28,29,30
  • Reduced disability and dementia later in life31,32,33
  • Increased life expectancy21,22,34,35,36,37
  • Stronger verbal communication skills38
  • Improved memory38
  • More openness in social relationships38,39
  • Fewer illnesses40,41,42,43,44
  • Reduced inflammation45,46
  • Fewer marriage breakups40
  • More creative and flexible thinking40,42
  • Increased creativity40,47
  • Higher levels of mental acuity40,48
  • Better performance at work40,49
  • Improved ability to make decisions40
  • Greater resilience following trauma40,50
  • Greater tolerance towards others38,51
  • Higher academic results46,52,53
  • Improved academic engagement54,55
  • Improved social and emotional skills36,56

Can wellbeing be learned?

There is growing evidence that specific and targeted wellbeing activities and practices have a beneficial effect on wellbeing outcomes across the lifespan. Just as the physical fitness literature indicates, our mental fitness also requires our constant attention and the cultivation of good practices58,59,60. Positive Psychology and neural plasticity research have demonstrated useful insights regarding positive mental health activities across multiple contexts. Evidence suggests that individuals are able to learn the skills of wellbeing and achieve measurable improvements in their daily functioning and personal and professional performance. However, how we sustain these practices to achieve lasting change remains a challenge and an opportunity.

There are thousands of examples of how the findings of wellbeing science are being applied today.  Around the world, people, organisations and governments are talking about, reading about, and trying to learn more about, how to improve personal, relational, group and national wellbeing.  However, while wellbeing is a hot topic everywhere, now, more than ever, we need to ensure best practice is adhered to, and that wellbeing is explored and applied through the lens of scientific research methods, not pseudoscience. At APPLI we care about making wellbeing change possible for everyone. But we are determined to ensure wellbeing promotion is backed by rigorous science and implemented in ways more likely to lead to sustained, meaningful change. We’re bigger on science than short-term promises!

This then is the mission of APPLI: to teach, practice and promote the science of wellbeing for individuals, families, communities, governments, private sector organisations, not for profit groups, and educational institutions. The team at APPLI want to help ensure those who ‘buy-in’ to the practice of Positive Psychology and wellbeing understand the importance of the qualifications, knowledge and experience of their trainers, lecturers, advisors, coaches and consultants. We not only offer courses and consultancy services designed and delivered by our highly qualified team, but are also investing in research and development to help safeguard the integrity, rigour and sustainability of one of the most important topics studied and applied in the 21st Century, the wellbeing of our global citizens.

Science vs Pseudoscience

Figure 1: The Differences between Science and Pseudoscience57

SCIENCEPSEUDOSCIENCE
Uses careful observation and experimentation to confirm or reject a hypothesis. Evidence against theories and laws are searched for and studied closely.Starts with a hypothesis, looks only for evidence to support it. Little or no experimentation. Conflicting evidence is ignored, excused, or hidden. The original idea is never abandoned, whatever the evidence.
Based on well-established, repeating patterns and regularities in nature.Focuses, without skepticism, on alleged exceptions, errors, anomalies, and strange events.
Reproducible results are required of experiments. In case of failure, no excuses are acceptable.Results cannot be reproduced or verified. Excuses are freely invented to explain the failure of any scientific test.
Individual stories or testimonials are not accepted as evidence.Individual stories or testimonials are relied upon for evidence.
Consistent and interconnected; one part cannot be changed without affecting the whole.Inconsistent and not interconnected; any part can be arbitrarily changed in any way without affecting other parts.
Argues from scientific knowledge and from the results of experiments.Argues from ignorance. The lack of a scientific explanation is used to support ideas.
Uses vocabulary that is well defined and is in wide usage by experts and industry professionals.Uses specially invented terms that are vague and applied only to one specific area.
Convinces by appeal to evidence, by arguments based on logical and/or mathematical reasoning.Attempts to persuade by appeal to emotions, faith, sentiment, or distrust of established fact.
Peer review. Literature written for fellow scientists who are specialists and experts.No peer review. Literature written for the general public without checks or verification.
Progresses; as time goes on, more and more is learned.No progress; nothing new is learned as time passes. There is only a succession of fads.
  References