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date: 09 April 2020

A Case for Positive Psychology

Abstract and Keywords

Pickup a magazine or a scholarly psychology journal and, chances are, you will read about the good work of a positive psychologist. Through the use of sound methods, positive psychologists answer hard questions about the best in people. This book serves as repository of answers to those tough questions. In this chapter, we argue that the work of positive psychology scholars is good for psychology, as a discipline, and for society. We also discuss what needs to be done to shore up the science and practice of positive psychology.

Keywords: positive psychology, social science, strengths

Positive psychology, the term, was first used in 1954 by Abraham Maslow in a book chapter where he noted that the “science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. It has revealed to us much about man's shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, the darker, meaner half” (p. 354). More than 40 years later, Martin Seligman reintroduced the term and proclaimed that psychology was “half-baked” and more attention needed to be paid to the good in people and in the world. Quickly, research meetings sprang up in the United States in locales such as Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Lincoln, Lawrence, and Columbia and in far away retreats, including Grand Cayman and Akumal. The promise of this new brand of positive psychology was clear. By using the same techniques and tools that help us explain weakness and prevent or treat illness, we could enhance our understanding of strengths and promote well-being.

Some scholars of human behavior saw great potential in answering hard questions about the positive in people. Many of these scholars have contributed to this volume and it is this group of scholars and their collective works that make the best case for positive psychology. Nevertheless, handing someone the Handbook of Positive Psychology is not always the best way to inform them of the added value of the work addressing strengths, positive emotions, and strong institutions. Here, we try to make a more succinct case for positive psychology s value to the discipline and to society. We also discuss the need to enhance science and the science-practice integration over the next decade of positive psychology work.

Making the Case for Positive Psychology

On occasion, we are asked to make a case for positive psychology. For example, most of the professors who have created positive psychology courses for their departments were challenged with the question “Why do we need a positive psychology course?” Other questions we have faced include, “Is there enough research to fill a handbook/textbook?”, “Isn't this too esoteric for the general public?”, and “Isnʼt this intellectual field just a playground for a select few?” We will answer each of these questions, as we did in actual discussions with deans, colleagues, publishers and editors, and friends in our attempt to demonstrate that positive psychology has a place in psychology and in the efforts of people to lead better lives.

(p. 4) Rounding Out Psychology

Maslow and Seligman's call for more serious attention to the positive side of life has been echoed by many, including visionaries in psychiatry such as Karl Menninger, and business gurus, notably Peter Drucker. Taking these calls one at a time and in historical sequence, Maslow (1954) argued for a augmentation of what was known about psychology to tell a complete story about human nature and to help people realize their full potential … not just to aid them in their work toward the absence of ills. Menninger (Menninger, Mayman, & Pruyser, 1963) reinvented psychiatry by demonstrating that mental illness was treatable, mental health was achievable, and both states could be studied. With a message for managers who wanted to boost their bottom line, Drucker (1993) simply stated that executives should build on strengths not weaknesses. In 1998, Seligman picked up the mantle of those who came before him, Maslow, Menninger, Drucker, and many others such as Marie Jahoda, Beatrice Wright, Albert Bandura, and Don Clifton, and paired scientific zeal with good timing to make positive psychology come alive and round out psychology.

We occasionally cite these historical events when trying to explain why we need positive psychology courses on campuses, but often it is more effective to note that wherever there is fear, there is hope. And, since abnormal psychology courses, which are required for most psychology majors, are about fear, related negative emotions, and illness, a positive psychology course serves to round out a student's knowledge base with the study of hope, positive emotions, and health. We can also detail how some of the best thinkers and researchers in psychiatry, sociology, economics, and business are contributing to this body of knowledge; so it exposes our students to research from other disciplines. That helps with the sell. What undermines the case that positive psychology rounds out psychology is the hyperfocus on what some critics refer to as hap-pyology. Indeed, the lion's share of public storytelling about positive psychology work focuses on happiness and the shortcuts to it. While this coverage has made positive psychology courses and research more popular, this soft-hitting media possibly has made launching courses and getting grants more difficult.

Unifying Psychology

Psychology is carved up into specialties and divisions and filled with factions. Occasionally, one issue is intriguing enough to attract attention across the discipline, but the norm is that this issue is a divisive one. For example, the repressed memory debate grabbed the attention of developmentalists, memory researchers, forensic psychologists, and counseling, clinical, and school psychologists in the mid- to late 1990s. The debate over the veracity of repressed memories was standard fare in journals across the discipline and was the topic of cross-cutting panels at conferences. The debate brought us together—and then it divided us into camps arguing about what is real.

Positive psychology research, especially the operationalization of meaningful, yet fuzzy constructs such as hope, courage, and wisdom, has historically unified psychologists. Each of these constructs and many others were often defined and researched by collectives, with members from developmental psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, and clinical and counseling psychology. Researchers rallied around questions, shared new methods and approaches perfected in their specialty and in their own labs, and put old agendas aside for the sake of engaging in serious inquiry about topics that matter to all people. Positive psychology has provided reasons for talented scholars with overlapping interests to come together to ask and answer hard questions; all told, even when accounting for psychologists that have made cases against positive psychology, it has had unifying effect on the field.

Giving Psychology Away

Influential psychologists such as George Miller, George Albee, Raymond Fowler, and others have encouraged us to “give psychology away” over the decades. For the most part, we have been fairly successful at giving psychology away in the schools; high school courses have become commonplace and psychology majors outnumber most others on college campuses. We have also made a dent in educating the general public about mental illness and its prevention and treatment.

“Giving positive psychology away” seems to be an easy task. People not suffering from a mental disorder, more than 80% of the population on a given day, are trying to make sense of the world and use available information to make a good life. Positive psychology science and practice is accessible and this “new” information meets the daily needs of “normal” people.

Mass media grounded in principles of strengths development helps with the mission of giving positive psychology away. For example, Bandura spreads self-efficacy through carefully crafted soap operas (see that air on radio and/or television around the world. Companies such as Pepperidge Farm, maker of the Goldfish snack (p. 5) cracker, share optimism via an interactive website (see and packaging with mothers of children who love their product while viewers of “Paz the Penguin” of Discovery Kids learn how to be hopeful, resilient learners. More than a million people are touched by one of these purveyors of positive psychology everyday.

Attracting More Talent to Psychology

Psychology, like any other science, explains the natural world through observation and experiment. Our findings are the products of those observations and experiments that are conducted by talented men and women across the world. The vibrancy of our science is dependent upon the commitment of these talented people to a lifelong pursuit of demystifying psychological phenomena. Positive psychology appears to attract those talented people.

Summer institutes, dissertation prizes, The Templeton Prize, and the Clifton Strengths Prize have encouraged the development of new scholars and have rewarded those who have made significant early career and lifelong contributions. None of these incentives explain the knocks on the office door or emails from bright, hardworking college students or retreads from the world of work who want to immerse themselves in the study of the positive. Knowing more about the good in people has a gravitational pull of some sort that is hard for some to resist. With the large numbers of people attracted to working on positive psychology research and programming, we are sure to connect with highly talented individuals who can make significant contributions.

Strengthening the Case for Positive Psychology

The case for positive psychology is easy to make, but it is also easy to undermine given the nature of the media attention received and varying quality of the research and practice that falls under the positive psychology umbrella. Here we contend that good science makes its own best case and we attempt to guide interested researchers toward sound, sophisticated methods that could tell a more complex story about positive human development. We also recommend testing theories and constructs in unison to determine, for example, the overlap or incremental value of optimism and hope when predicting changes in well-being over time. Finally, we encourage scientists and practitioners to work together toward solutions regarding how best to promote mental health.

Understanding of the Positive Psychology of Change

As the chapters in this revised edition make clear, the dramatic increase in positive psychology research has led to an improved understanding of the nature of positive mental health, the benefits of traits such as curiosity and hope, and the methods by which the findings of positive psychology can be used to improve the lives of individuals. Given that much of our science has real world applications that affect the lives of children and adults, we must continue to conduct rigorous science. Here we provide three recommendations that we believe could help advance the scientific basis of positive psychology: examining change, examining theories in unison, and integrating science and practice.

One of the underlying questions behind a portion of positive psychology research is whether it is possible to improve individual levels of well-being. This issue has significant relevance for individuals, public policy, and the health-care system. Given the weighty implications of this work, we must move beyond cross-sectional research designs and move toward models that account for dynamic change processes within individuals. Cross-sectional research can provide a wealth of information about how positive traits and various indices of mental health are associated with one another, but cross-sectional studies can never provide true tests of the causal models that are often put forth in our theories. Although it can be difficult and expensive to conduct longitudinal studies that can accurately demystify change, the methods and data analysis necessary to model change are becoming increasingly more accessible. The recent positive psychology research volume by Ong and Van Dulmen (2006) provides concrete examples of how longitudinal data analyzed using hierarchical linear modeling or growth curve modeling can be applied specifically to positive psychology research in order to provide a more sophisticated understanding of the latent trajectories of well-being. Of course, researchers should not use these advanced statistical analyses when they are not necessary or appropriate, but for positive psychology to continue to develop as a science, we believe that researchers will increasingly need to design studies that permit the appropriate modeling of individual trajectories and change.

Determining Overlap or Incremental Value of Theories and Constructs

As is clear from the number of new chapters in this edition of the handbook, the past few years have seen a remarkable growth in the development of new (p. 6) theories and measures of positive psychological constructs. In some ways this is great news, but there are also reasons to be cautious about this proliferation of constructs. In many instances, there is too little attention given to examining the incremental validity of these new constructs. It is important to demonstrate that multiple positive traits (e.g., hope and optimism) are associated with positive outcomes, but it is just as important, if not more so, to demonstrate the unique effects of these traits on positive outcomes and to demonstrate the contexts in which one trait might be more valuable than another. By examining our theories and constructs in unison, we can develop a more nuanced science of positive psychology that could articulate when, how, and why various constructs relate to one another.

Moving toward a Science-Practice Integration

We believe that as positive psychology continues to expand, it will be critical that the scientists and practitioners of positive psychology remain closely linked. Within the field of clinical psychology, there is an increasing disconnect between the theoretical orientations and methods endorsed by clinical researchers and practitioners. We believe this disconnect is unfortunate and hinders the work of both scientists and practitioners. Fortunately, because positive psychology training programs are just now being developed, as a field we have the opportunity to prevent the artificial and unfortunate separation between scientists and practitioners. By emphasizing research methods training and scholarly consumerism within positive psychology training programs, we could create a discipline in which practitioners are always either implementing empirically supported protocols, or helping to generate the empirical basis for new programs. In this way, we could ensure that positive psychology interventions remain firmly in the realm of science rather than pseudoscience, and can therefore more effectively apply the lessons learned from our research.

Beyond Making a Case for Positive Psychology

The fact that we were compelled to make the case for positive psychology in the lead chapter suggests that this subfield needs more intellectual backbone and more rigor, or that we have professional esteem issues. Well, this incarnation of positive psychology is only 10 years old, so strength and esteem are concerns, but we believe that the following 64 chapters can move us beyond the need for making a case for inclusion of positive psychology in mainstream psychology departments and toward discussions about how to meet the basic needs of children and adults and society at large.


  1. 1. What are some future applications of positive psychology that might meet societal needs?

  2. 2. What are the primary critiques of positive psychology and what evidence supports/refutes those critiques?

  3. 3. How could more talented graduate students and scholars be attracted to studying strengths, positive emotions, and strong institutions?


Drucker, P. F. (1993). The effective executive. New York: Harper Collins.Find this resource:

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Brandeis University.Find this resource:

Menninger, K., Mayman, M., & Pruyser, P. W. (1963). The vital balance. New York: Viking Press.Find this resource:

Ong, A. D., & Van Dulmen, M. H. M. (2006). Oxford handbook of methods in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource: