Positive psychology examines what gives our lives meaning and purpose—how we can move beyond surviving to flourishing. Traditionally, psychology has focused on dysfunction—people with mental illness or other issues—and how to treat it. Positive psychology, in contrast, is a field that explores how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. But positive psychology works in tandem with abnormal psychology, not as a replacement for it. According to the late Christopher Peterson, a pioneering researcher in the field, the positive psychology movement is founded on three maxims: “What is good in life is as genuine as what is bad.… What is good in life is not simply the absence of what is problematic.… And third, the good life requires its own explanation, not simply a theory of disorder stood sideways or flipped on its head.”
In positive psychology, there is an emphasis on meaning, not just on fleeting happiness and warm fuzzy feelings. Martin Seligman, often regarded as the godfather of positive psychology, has described three paths to happiness: the Pleasant Life (Hollywood’s view of happiness), the Good Life (focused on personal strengths and states of flow), and the Meaningful Life (aimed toward a higher purpose). Being a happy-go-lucky individual is largely a matter of genetics, explains Seligman. What we should strive for is eudaimonia—Aristotle’s concept of flourishing—rather than hedonia (pleasure). Studies suggest that pursuing a good and meaningful life predicts greater life satisfaction overall.