The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

The Future of Positive Psychology: Science and Practice

What comes next for the field of positive psychology?

As the year comes to an end, thoughts turn to the future. What comes next for the field of positive psychology (cf. Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006)? It is of course impossible for me to make predictions about the future say with any certainty — if I could, I’d move to Las Vegas or Wall Street and set up shop — but here are some of my ideas. If your diet allows, take them with several grains of salt.

First, positive psychologists will expand the so-called natural homes of the field: settings where doing well is recognized, celebrated, and encouraged. Contrary to our original thinking about natural homes, they should include the psychological clinic in addition to those initially suggested, like schools and businesses. One way to help people with problems is to base solutions on what they do well.

And I for one never thought that the military would be a natural home for positive psychology, but at present, there is there considerable interest, especially in the United States Army. I predict that this interest will grow in the years ahead (Novotney, 2009).

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My previous blog entry on third places suggests yet another natural home — or more exactly, a community of natural homes — for positive psychology: cafes, taverns, recreation centers, and maybe even Internet chat rooms as one reader of that blog entry suggested.

Second, positive psychology will continue to be criticized — up to a point, a good sign that the field is taken seriously — and I hope that the criticisms will be heeded when apt and politely countered when not.

Along these lines, I hope — but do not necessarily predict — that positive psychologists will challenge some of the emerging myths about the field, especially those concerning positive psychology interventions. As I see these interventions, they are neither light-handed nor foolproof. Change is always difficult, even if it is change for the better, and positive psychologists should not expect one-size-fits-all interventions to be the final and best-practice contribution, a point to which I return shortly when I mention culture.

Third, positive psychology will follow the directions of psychology per se, inward to neuroscience and outward to culture.

What is the neurobiological basis of the good life? More generally, what is the role of the body? To date, positive psychology has been very much a neck-up endeavor, but dance and music and sport and sex make life worth living, and we need to know more about these topics from the perspective of positive psychology.

Martin Seligman (2008) and others, including me, are starting to grapple with what  can be called positive health, trying to do for the domain of physical well-being what positive psychology has productively done for the domain of psychological well-being. If “good” emotional health entails more than the absence of distress and unhappiness, does “good” physical health entail more than the absence of symptoms and disease? I predict greater attention to what I dub super health, living not only long but well, with vigor and engagement, bouncing back quickly from illness.

Culture is not a veneer on human nature. It is human nature, and cultures differ in important ways. As positive psychology research and especially applications spread throughout the world, this growth cannot be simply an export business from the United States. Interventions that “work” in highly individualistic cultures may or may not be suitable in collectivist cultures. Indeed, positive psychology interventions to date are usually one-on-one, following the model of psychotherapy or executive coaching. When “group” interventions are undertaken, the rationale is often one of mere efficiency. But we all live, love, work, and play in groups, so why not make the group an explicit focus in our attempts to build the good life? I predict that this will happen (Peterson, Park, & Sweeney, 2008),

And as important as the individualistic-versus-collectivist distinction may be, it is not the only cultural difference that deserves attention (Cohen, 2009). Cultures differ in how hierarchical they are, in terms of how much norms for male or female behavior differ, in terms of their orientation to the future, in terms of their tolerance for uncertainty, and so on. I predict that these sorts of distinctions will be found valuable as positive psychology grows.

Positive psychologists should also remember the venerable distinction by Ruth Benedict between Apollonian versus Dionysian cultures, which respectively emphasize moderation and restraint versus emotion and exuberance. Many self-identified positive psychology practitioners seem rather Dionysian, which of course is fine. But at some point, they will encounter Apollonian groups and cultures, and they should adjust their interventions and styles accordingly. As I always mutter to myself when I go off to talk with members of the US Army: “Don’t hug the Colonels!”

Happy New Year.

 

References

Cohen, A. B. (2009). Many forms of culture. American Psychologist, 64, 194–204.

Linley, A. C., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., & Wood, A. M. (2006). Positive psychology: Past, present, and (possible) future. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3-16.

Novotney, A. (2009, December). Strong in mind and body. Monitor on Psychology, 40(11), 40-43.

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Sweeney, P. J. (2008). Group well-being: Morale from a positive psychology perspective. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57, 19–36.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2008).  Positive health. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57, 3–18.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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