Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose—to move beyond surviving to flourishing. Theorists and researchers in the field have sought to identify the elements of a good life. They have also proposed and tested practices for improving life satisfaction and well-being.
Positive psychology emphasizes meaning and deep satisfaction, not just on fleeting happiness. Martin Seligman, often regarded as the father of positive psychology, has described multiple visions of what it means to live happily, including the Pleasant Life (Hollywood’s view of happiness), the Good Life (focused on personal strengths and engagement), and the Meaningful Life. Positive psychologists have explored a range of experiences and behaviors involved in different versions of positive living, including specific positive emotions, "flow" states, and sense of meaning or purpose.
Proponents of positive psychology have also sought to catalog character strengths and virtues. The 2004 book Character Strengths and Virtues proposed the categories of Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence (including strengths such as gratitude, hope, and humor).
While there is plenty of overlap, positive psychology has been described as different from other areas of psychology due to its primary interest in identifying and building mental assets, as opposed to addressing weaknesses and problems.
Major proponents of positive psychology include psychologists Martin Seligman (who promoted the concept as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998), Christopher Peterson, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. But many others have developed the subfield, and it echoes earlier work by humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, who used the term “positive psychology” in the 1950s.
Though there are many elements of well-being and fulfillment studied by positive psychologists, five are among Martin Seligman’s proposed building blocks of well-being, called the PERMA model: positive emotions, engagement (with a project, for instance), positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment/achievement. (PERMA is not the first or only model of well-being.)
Identifying one’s character strengths (such as courage, humanity, or justice) is considered an important step on the road to the good and meaningful life envisioned by positive psychologists. There are also positive psychology practices one can try at home to promote well-being. For example, gratitude exercises have been studied by psychologists as a way to increase happiness over time. Just what the name sounds like, these involve such simple actions as writing down each day three things for which one is grateful.
Although the focus of positive psychology is on happiness and fulfillment, it is important to understand that this does not mean people are advised to push away their negative emotions altogether. People who are flourishing make room in their lives for such inevitable states of mind.
Practices associated with positive psychology such as gratitude interventions can boost social and emotional well-being, studies suggest. Positive psychology has also led to explorations of how developing certain character strengths, positive emotions like awe, and other qualities, such as a sense of meaning and purpose in life, might contribute to positive life outcomes.
Measures of meaning in life have been found to relate to other positive life outcomes. For example, research suggests that older adults who consider their lives worthwhile tend to have better physical and mental health. Other studies suggest potential well-being benefits of having a sense of purpose in life.
“Flow” is the term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a rewarding state of immersion in an activity, such as when people create art or play a sport they are passionate about. It has been proposed by proponents of positive psychology as one factor that contributes to a happy life.
Among the critiques of positive psychology are that it has focused on positive experiences at the expense of essential “negative” ones and that certain concepts (such as character strengths) may insufficiently well-defined or re-describe existing scientific concepts.