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Since the introduction of positive psychology by Professor Martin Seligman at the turn of the century there has been an explosion of research published, interventions designed and case studies celebrated on how people can improve their wellbeing and flourish.  As workplaces, governments and schools increasingly invest their resources in applying positive psychology approaches, it seems timely to ask: Is the theory of positive psychology strong enough to support its growing practice? 

“If positive psychology were a tree, we could point to a trunk that has reached impressive heights and supports healthy and growing branches of research that are bearing fruitful practices,” explained James Pawelski, Director of Education at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania when I interviewed him recently.  “To support its continued growth however, positive psychology must have deep conceptual roots that can provide the nourishment and stability that are required for any tree to sustainably thrive.” 

So where did positive psychology’s roots begin?  And where might they be taking us?

Positive psychology began with the aim of broadening the focus of psychology from repairing the worst in peoples’ lives, to deepening our understanding and practices to help people build good lives that enabled them to flourish.  For example, instead of exploring how to fix anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, positive psychology looks for ways to build joy, optimism and courage.

One of the criticisms often raised however, is that the field’s orientation towards the ‘positive’ had led it to disregard the importance of the ‘negative’.  As the body of positive psychology research has grown however, it has become clear that: positively orientated practices can also help to repair negative parts of our lives; negative emotions and experiences can help to facilitate positive growth; and that too much positive affect can lead to risky and negative behavior.

“The good life requires the optimal overall balance between the positive and negative,” explained James.  “So as the field’s roots continue to deepen we need to keep asking: ‘What does positive psychology mean by positive?’”

One of the other concerns for the field is the lack of clarity for the optimal investment of resources when positives collide.  For example, when should we focus our energy on practicing kindness or keeping a gratitude journal, should we spend our time developing our strengths or practicing growth mindsets, and should we prioritize creating better relationships at home or committing ourselves to doing more meaningful work?

“It’s important we distinguish between different positive emotional states, positive processes for improving our lives and positive outcomes and the conflicts that can arise between and with-in these categories,” explained James. “As our roots continue to form we need to keep asking: ‘What is the relation among various positives?’”

Finally one of the other criticisms raised, is that by following the general trend of psychological research the field places too much focus on singular variables in isolation from each other.  To cultivate the good life it’s not enough to simply study a growing list of positive topics. After all, not all the things that seem good when studied individually will add up to a good life, which requires balance.

“Scientists have made remarkable progress in identifying healthy vitamins and nutrients, but a healthy diet consists of more than simply eating all the vitamins and nutrients you can.  It also includes balance among these things and moderation in finding just the right amount of each to eat based on your personal health needs,” explained James.  “The same is true when it comes to cultivating the good life. Flourishing requires a comprehensive approach. As our roots develop we need to keep asking: ‘Is positive psychology fundamentally about the best life or is it fundamentally about living the best life we can?’”

So what does this mean for positive psychology’s future?

“Positive psychology narrowly conceived is not sufficient to achieve the field’s broad goals of human flourishing,” explained James.  “The rapid growth of positive psychology in the last decades requires a commensurate deepening of its roots, and much more attention needs to be paid to the basic concepts and theoretical grounding.  Careful discussion of these matters is critical for advancing the science and the practice of positive psychology.  This would clearly be a positive for the field.”

For a more in-depth examination of the questions James’ believes we should be asking visit: jamespawelski.com/2015/12/10/defining-the-positive-in-positive-psychology.

How do you explain what positive psychology is to others?

This interview was produced in partnership with the European Positive Psychology Conference and The Positive Psychology Program.

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