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date: 06 April 2020

The Future of Positive Psychology: Pursuing Three Big Goals

Abstract and Keywords

Good positive psychological science is being disseminated to the general public. In turn, consumers are asking for solid, real-world applications of the science to make daily life better for individuals, families, and communities at large. Now, scientists, practitioners, and the consumers of our scholarly products potentially can collaborate to drive systemic changes in schools, families, and workplaces. In this chapter, I set three aspirational goals for positive psychology applications that could marshal the talent and resources of change agents throughout society.

Keywords: change, communities, education, families, positive psychology

“Positive Psychology, That's a Good Way to Spend Your Time”

The beginning of this final chapter picks up exactly where we left off in the “future of positive psychology” discussion in the first edition of this Handbook:

As the other passengers were slowly boarding the plane, a white-haired woman sat down next to me (CRS [C. R. Snyder]). As we came to cruising altitude, we began a lively conversation that was to continue across the skies from Philadelphia to Kansas City. I learned that, because of a mandatory age retirement rule, this woman had to quit her teaching position over 15 years ago. She fondly recounted how she had spent those postretirement years with her grandchildren. In fact, on this occasion, she was going to visit her brand-new great-grandson. “What do you do for a living?” she asked. I recounted the short version of my life as a professor and mentioned my work in positive psychology. Upon hearing about this, she became very animated, asking question after question about positive psychology. The time passed quickly, and we soon were off the plane, walking up the ramp to the terminal building. She turned and opined, “Positive psychology, that's a good way to spend your time.” With that, she waved and disappeared into the outstretched arms of smiling family members. Positive psychology, that's a good way to spend your time.

(Snyder & Lopez, 2002, p. 766)

Most scholars and practitioners of positive psychology would agree that the last 10 years have been well spent. New discoveries about strengths and positive emotions have augmented what we know about human functioning, talented professionals are committing themselves to studying and developing the best in people, promotion and intervention programs are being rigorously examined, and public policy makers are paying more attention to well-being. In short, we have moved from planning good bench science and survey research to attempting to improve people's lives through empirically examined treatments.

From Research to Practice to Big Goals

In 1999, a small group of social scientists gathered in Akumal, Mexico, to develop a scientific infrastructure and research agenda for examining the best in people. Their thoughts and some of (p. 690) their time quickly turned to developing the best in individuals and groups, as revealed in the proposed applications:

  • Improving child education by making greater use of intrinsic motivation, positive affect, and creativity within schools

  • Improving psychotherapy by developing approaches that emphasize hope, meaning, and self-healing

  • Improving family life by better understanding the dynamics of love, generativity, and commitment

  • Improving work satisfaction across the life span by helping people to find authentic involvement, experience states of flow, and make genuine contributions in their work

  • Improving organizations and societies by discovering conditions that enhance trust, communication, and altruism between persons

  • Improving the moral character of society by better understanding and promoting the spiritual impulse within humans

Clearly, these scientists and co-authors of the “Akumal Manifesto,” which included Ken Sheldon, Kevin Rathune, Barbara Fredrickson, Mike Csikszentmihalyi, and Jon Haidt, were concerned with the implications and applications of their work. Their concern and the vision shared with other positive psychologists guided some of the twenty-first-century developments in field as reflected in new additions to the second edition of this Handbook: positive psychology applications (Linley et al.), family-centered positive psychology (Sheridan et al.), positive schools (Huebner et al.) and positive psychology on campus (Schreiner et al.), positive workplace (Luthans et al.), and positive institutions (Huang et al.). Now, with good science in place, practitioners and community change agents can put positive psychology to the test. In this chapter, I consider how we might spend our time over the next 10 years. Based on the assumption that positive psychology applications can promote growth and success in three domains of our lives—school, family, and work—I set one big goal for change in each of the areas.

Psychological Reform of Schools

School systems have been reformed and re-reformed. A positive psychology initiative for doing more reform may not be met with much support unless it is driven by research and new data and it goes well beyond traditional efforts for making schools perform better. Psychological reform of schools would also need to create conditions for students, teachers, and leaders to more easily do what they know works and what they do best. Finally, such an initiative would need to start with what is on the hearts and minds of students and involve the adults who make a difference in a children's lives.

Recently, I was asked to think about the future of positive psychology and education. This is what my Futuristic and Maximizer talents (see Rath, 2007, for a list of Clifton StrengthsFinder Themes) conjured up (Lopez, 2008):

What Would Happen If We Study What Is Right with People?

This year I attended a graduation ceremony at a small school in Omaha, Nebraska. The students marched proudly into the auditorium to the applause of their friends and family. After acknowledging the teachers and giving a quick speech, the school's head honcho, Dr. Reckmeyer, invited each student to join her on stage—one by one. She then shared a bit about what each student did best; she recognized their talents, their skills, and their hard work.

Dr. Reckmeyer described Eva as a creative visionary: “You have great artistic talent. You have an incredible ability to see things in a new and unique way. I hope you continue to enjoy and nourish your love of art throughout your life.” Anna, an international student, was described as strong student with a warm personality. “You show great determination with each task you do. You work hard to complete each and every project to the best of your ability and love being praised for a job well done.” In parting, Dr. Reckmeyer said, “[Anna] I will miss … your kindness … and your … smile. You have had an incredible journey and I feel blessed to have shared it with you.” These students and the rest of their peers were truly known by those who taught them. And what was right with them was celebrated.

I learned from some of the parents that all of the kids in the graduating class were going to the Happiest Place on Earth. Now, you may be thinking, why would these students plan a group trip to Disneyland? Well, their destination was not Disney. They were going to a place where they could learn new things from smart people who cared about them, laugh with their friends, and dream about the future. These 17 preschoolers were headed to kindergarten, the Happiest Place on Earth.

Now, kindergarten has a big advantage over Disney. I know what you are thinking … much shorter lines. Yes, and, more importantly, good kindergarten (p. 691) programs and teachers encourage kids to do what they do best. Good teachers study what is right with each kid and propel each toward their future. Our students, clients, and the broader community we serve deserve nothing less … and they need our help. We all know that the world is a scary place and modern society undermines our health, but I am more concerned about subtleties of the current educational system that can rob us of our hope as we transition from one grade or school to another, the small behaviors that make us less engaged and less energetic year by year—from fifth grade to senior year—and the shabby practices that take a thriving college freshmen, full of vim and vigor, and turn her into a struggling young adult. Nothing short of psychological reform of the educational system and intentional development of strengths, hope, engagement, and well-being will make schools, colleges, and universities what they all should be—some of the happiest places on earth.

Studying what is right with people, and more specifically the strengths of people young and old, was the bread and butter of one my professional heroes, the Nebraska educational psychologist Don Clifton, whose family bought Gallup in 1988. Don would ask me questions like, “Wouldn't it be great if every student could do what they do best every day?” Or, “Why not list a student's strengths on the report card, right alongside his grades?” The online tools are now available to reliably measure talents and strengths in all of our students, 10 years and older. So why don't we buck the status quo and train teachers and counselors to be strengths spotters and developers? Well, we are doing that right now. Through partnerships with school districts, colleges, and universities, including numerous Historically Black College and Universities, we are working toward a goal of training 500 strengths-based educators and identifying the strengths of 1 million students by the end of 2010. We are about one-fourth of the way to realizing our goal … so we could use a little help.

As education becomes more strengths based, hope will rise. Ideas and energy for the future drive our academic success. Rick Snyder, my research mentor and close friend, found that hope trumped high school GPA, ACTs, and SATs when predicting college GPAs. Graduate student Matt Gallagher and I replicated these findings, and we have demonstrated that academic hope predicts academic retention (Gallagher & Lopez, 2008). So, then, why should we care about our old GPA and ACT/SAT scores when a score from an eight-item hope scale accounts for more variance in academic success? To some of us, these scores, along with our IQs and GREs, are like old friends that keep our self-esteem buoyant. For others, the passage of time has endowed old test scores with a certain mystique and power. Hope also has a mystique … and much more power. And, hope can be enhanced … without the need for a 4.0 semester or a 6-month stint with Kaplan Prep.

Let's recap here. Capitalizing on strengths creates hope. Hope fuels academic success. And all of this happens within the emotional climates in schools and homes. These climates are determined by how much students feel safe, respected, and cared for. The quality of this climate also reflects the level of student engagement. In a nationwide study of 100,000 school children, Gallup researcher Gary Gordon and I found that about 40% are engaged, or tuned in; 32% are tuned out, or not engaged; and 28% of American students are actively disengaged or acting out and disrupting the teaching and learning process (Gordon & Lopez, 2008). These levels of engagement peak in the fifth grade and then slowly and steadily deteriorate year by year. The Happiest Place on Earth banners may provide truth in advertising for primary schools but not for middle or high schools. As the emotional climate changes, what also declines is a student's ability to be her best and be excited about shaping her future. The emotional climate in our schools can be improved, and some believe that it can be done in 30 days … the first 30 days of the school year. Imagine faculty, staff, and administrators working together to welcome students and make them feel like they matter.

Now, while you have your imagination warmed up, imagine a ladder. The bottom rung—0—represents the worst possible version of your life. The top rung—10—is your best life. Bottom rung, worst life, is 0. Top rung, best life, is 10. On which rung of the life ladder do you stand today? And, on which rung will you stand 5 years from now? Your responses to these two questions provide a snapshot of your well-being. 100,000 students, we have found that about 50% are thriving and 50% are struggling and, worse yet, suffering. Through the Gallup Student Poll, we will measure the well-being of students, from fifth grade through their senior year in college. We are hypothesizing that some of the big findings about kids and youth will parallel our findings from the polling of adults and related positive psychology research. Specifically, friends matter and positive affect drives success in school and work. And landing a good job in a newly flat world—a goal that connects our kids to kids around the globe—drives well-being in a way that we are barely beginning to understand.

What would happen if we study what is right with people? For starters, with the data we have today, we could bring psychological reform to our schools. (p. 692) By capitalizing on strengths, making hope happen, fostering engagement, and transforming strugglers into thrivers, we could turn every school into a magic kingdom.

My hope is that we will lead, and that we can commit ourselves to a positive psychology mission—one that transforms education and the lives of our young people like my 3-year-old son, Parrish, who will be graduating from that little school in Omaha in 2010 and moving on to the Happiest Place on Earth. With a little help from us and lots of love from his mom, Alli, we can make sure that first grade through his first job will give him what he needs to reach the tenth rung of the life ladder.

Making schools strengths based, and tracking the hope, engagement, and well-being of kids, is a back-to-the-basics strategy that aligns with the thinking of educational philosophers such as John Dewey, Benjamin Franklin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer. Turning this philosophy into practice in America would take commitment from the 17,000 school superintendents and 3 million plus teachers to approach the 50 million school children as individuals with the need to matter and the desire for daily feedback. One index of student well-being presented alongside state achievement scores, grades, and the dropout percentage could be the gauge of success for our work with kids. So, the big 10-year goal for positive psychology and education is to collaborate and create a national well-being or promise index for students and to develop empirically supported techniques for helping students move up the ladder of life.

Strong, Happy Families

Dysfunction dominates the family literature, but thanks to the work of Susan Sheridan and colleagues (chap. 52), this is changing. By studying family success, and specifically strong and happy families, we are learning more about the hallmarks of families that work. Barbara Kerr (personal communication, February 2008) got to know 30 families that function, families that thrive. Her findings, summarized subsequently, have greatly influenced the way I think about my family, and of the positive psychology of families.

What Are the Hallmarks of a Happy Family?

It's not money: No economic or social class has cornered the market on family happiness. Happy families have a religious affiliation or professed a strong “philosophy of life.”

Storytelling and traditions: Storytelling is central in happy families, as are traditions and ceremonies. Making time to be together, often at mealtime, is a priority.

Rules: Happy families have only a few rules, stated broadly.

Kids and risks: Children are allowed to take some risks, especially in pursuits away from the family.

Individualization: The family's focus at times is directed toward one family member s goal, but that member knows the focus will shift.

Conflict resolution: Happy families have predictable ways to deal with conflict. Family members know that disputes will not threaten the family.

Private space: Family members have their own spaces, no matter how small, to be alone.

Gathering space: Some part of the house, often the kitchen, is the accepted gathering place. And, homes of happy families are gathering places for the neighborhood.

Modeling exemplar families and adopting a family-centered positive psychology approach to struggling families (chap. 52) will result in behavioral change that can lead a family in the right direction. Indeed, creating rituals, picking a few rules that work, rallying around individual family members goals, and providing space for privacy and fun potentially can transform a family s functioning over time.

Despite the good work being done on positive psychology and family functioning, much more is needed. We know little about family strengths and how they come together to define a happy family. By discovering and developing the strengths of each family member and of the collective, children and adults can learn to do more of what they do best in the household, potentially through strengths family camps (Jerlene Mosely, Fursey Gotuaco, & Jennifer Gotuaco, personal communication, September, 2008). We can measure strengths of individuals but we have not created tools to measure and promote family strengths. So, the big 10-year goal for family-centered positive psychology is to create a robust measure of family strengths and to develop empirically supported techniques for helping families become stronger and happier.

Meaningful Work

Work has a bad rap in today's society. The capacity to work (and love and play) defines us as normal human creatures. Without work in our lives, we might feel a little less whole. Michael Steger (in (p. 693) chap. 64 he discusses the broader topic of meaning in life) argues that work brings meaning to our lives and meaningful work has many benefits, to individuals and organizations.

What Is Meaningful Work and Where Does It Come From?

People work for many reasons—some are obvious (I am paid to work), some are not as obvious (work is where my friends are). Many sources of evidence indicate that understanding how people approach work and what they get from it is vital to learning how to achieve the best possible outcomes for individuals and organizations. Few other avenues offer as much promise for accomplishing valued outcomes—both in terms of daily work and in terms of long-term, sustainable performance—as creating meaning in work.

Work is meaningful when people are able to understand who they are as workers, what their organization is about, and how they uniquely fit within—and contribute to—their organization. This sense of comprehension about themselves as workers helps people generate a purpose for their work. As they work toward a purpose in their work—whether self-generated or fostered by clear leadership from their organization—they will feel a sense of transcendence that encourages their identification with their organization and its mission.

Some people are endowed with an internally generated sense of meaning and purpose about their work. Research suggests that organizations should energetically seek to identify and recruit these individuals. They work better in groups, express more faith in management, and devote more discretionary effort to their organizations. There are also indications that they express less intent to turnover and more organizational commitment, thereby showing more promise of contributing to their organizations for a longer time.

Many people do not automatically approach their work with such a sense of meaning and purpose. Some research has identified specific organizational factors that hold promise for providing workers in organizations with meaningful work. My work focuses on two such factors: organizational mission and leadership. In order for the typical worker to feel like his or her work matters, a compelling organizational mission should be clearly communicated. Organizations that wish to attract or cultivate workers driven by a sense of meaning and purpose may consider developing a mission that is consistent with organizational identity and with the niche it serves.

Effective leadership is important not only to communicating the mission and identity of an organization, but also to creating an organizational environment that provides workers with a clear understanding of their role and fosters in them an identification with their organization's purpose. (retrieved from!!!)

If meaningful work is good for the bottom line and good for the employee, is it possible that meaningful work could be good for the family of an employee? We know little about how engagement or meaning at work affects life at home, but it seems to follow that leaving work with a sense of enthusiasm and purpose would translate into more positive interaction with one's partner and children (if a stressful commute doesn't moderate the potential benefits). So, the big 10-year goal for the positive psychology of work is to create research and measurement models that help us determine how engagement and meaning at work affect an employee's family's functioning and, in turn, how a family's functioning affects an employee's success at work.

Loftier Goals over the Long Term

Positive psychology has not and will not provide a magic bullet, elixir, and wand to solve the world's problems. The promise of positive psychology is in its success in rounding out the story of human nature. People suffer and people thrive. Weaknesses and strengths coexist. Joy and sorrow can be brought about in one interaction with a friend. We have always known this, and now psychology can better describe the good and bad in all of us and the roller-coaster ride of our days and lives. It is the greater understanding of human behavior that will allow us to tackle the loftier goals associated with school, family, and work: reducing the loss of talent through school dropout and disengaging work and workplaces and supporting and strengthening the families that shelter us all. Working on these goals is a good way for anyone to spend their time.


Gallagher, M. W., & Lopez, S. J. (2008). Hope, self-efficacy, and academic success in college students. Poster presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston.Find this resource:

Gordon, G., & Lopez, S. J. (2008). Gallup Student Engagement. [Unpublished raw data].Find this resource:

(p. 694) Lopez, S.J. (2008). APA Division 17 Fellows Address: What would happen if we study what is right with people? Presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston.Find this resource:

Rath, T. (2007). Strengths Finder 2.0. Washington, DC: Gallup Press.Find this resource:

Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (2002). The future of positive psychology: A declaration of independence. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 751–767). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource: