Positive Psychology

What Is "Third Wave" Positive Psychology?

Going beyond the individual to embrace life's systemic complexities.

Posted Aug 11, 2020

somavarapu madhavi/Shutterstock
Source: somavarapu madhavi/Shutterstock

As positive psychology (PP) moves into its third decade — having been inaugurated in 1998 — the time is opportune to consider its evolution thus far. In that respect, one can identify three emergent "waves," as we have outlined in a new paper.1

The wave metaphor is a useful way of tracing patterns of development in academia. Rather than denoting punctuated stages and stepwise change, waves represent dynamic fluidity and continuity, with blurry and overlapping boundaries between them. Moreover, newer waves do not devalue or replace earlier ones; rather, preceding waves create the very conditions and energies for the next to emerge.

Taking the metaphor further, we can situate people in the picture. Physically, ocean waves do not represent the horizontal movement of water per se, but energy pulses passing through, moving it vertically. Imagine culture as the water in which we mentally swim. These pulses constitute ideas, animating the water and coalescing into rolling movement. People do not belong to a particular wave, but rather may actively "surf" the crest of a passing wave, or alternatively may prefer to simply be moved by the shifting waters. Furthermore, as we play in the water of culture, we can contribute to and even help create these waves (as, for instance, Martin Seligman did when he initiated PP).

To add a final layer to the metaphor, beneath the surface phenomenon of waves, oceans exhibit deeper and longer-lasting forms of movement, such as the ebb-and-flow of tides. In considering the deep context in which PP emerged, one might point to the post-Enlightenment age, for example, characterised by the emergence and eventual dominance of scientific methods and discourses with respect to our understanding of well-being. With that in mind, let’s dive into the waves of PP themselves.

The First Wave

One way to consider the causal relationship between different waves is through Hegel’s analysis of dialectical change, which posits that development occurs through a process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.2 In the context of PP, the thesis was the state of psychology before PP emerged. The founders of PP regarded "psychology as usual" as focused mainly on disorder and dysfunction. In response, they advanced its antithesis: an area of psychology specifically focused on the positive.

This energy pulse mobilised scholars and practitioners worldwide, and does to this day (even if they have also been stimulated by more recent waves). In essence, this initial wave is characterised by a focus on phenomena deemed "positive" in some way, from positively-valenced emotions (e.g., happiness) to positively-valued behavioural patterns (e.g., prosociality).   

The Second Wave

The impressive progress made in this first wave then provided the impetus and foundation for people to think more critically vis-à-vis its foundational notion of the positive. For example, by accentuating the positive, this risked implying a polarising discourse, in which apparently positive qualities are deemed necessarily beneficial and to be pursued, while negative phenomena are undesirable and to be avoided. However, the picture is more complicated.

For instance, one can differentiate between positive and negative valence (whether something is experienced as pleasant or unpleasant) versus positive and negative outcome (whether something facilitates or hinders well-being). In doing so, one realises that positively-valenced qualities can sometimes have negative outcomes, such as "unrealistic" optimism being linked to risky health-related behaviours.3 Conversely, negatively-valenced qualities can potentially have some positive outcomes, such as boredom facilitating introspective insight and creative imagination.4

Through such arguments, the initial premise of PP – defined by its focus on the positive – expanded to incorporate an increased appreciation of the subtle dynamic interplay between positive and negative. So, if "psychology as usual" was the thesis (focusing on fixing dysfunction), and first wave PP its antithesis (emphasising the positive), this newer second wave of scholarship constituted a synthesis.5 It still focuses on the same meta-concepts that underpinned the first wave, such as flourishing and well-being. However, it is characterised by a more nuanced contextual approach to notions of positive and negative, highlighting the importance of the “dynamic harmonization” of dichotomous states, and “balancing opposite elements into a whole.”6

The Third Wave

Now, even as the energies of the first and second waves are still pulsing, new forces are gathering. In the Hegelian schema, any emergent synthesis then becomes the thesis for a new dialectical movement. The second wave may be a synthesis of "psychology as usual" and first wave PP, but as it establishes itself, it becomes a new thesis awaiting still newer antitheses. In that respect, one can discern new movements on the horizon.

For us, the dominating feature of this new wave is various forms of epistemological broadening that involve going beyond the individual as the primary focus and locus of enquiry. Take the label "positive psychology." While the second wave queried its first half (the positive), this third wave challenges its second part (psychology). Thus, we find emergent scholarship that goes beyond the boundaries of psychology to incorporate knowledge and methodologies from diverse fields, and in doing so looks deeply at the groups, organisations, cultures, and systems in which people and their well-being are embedded.

Of course, even in the first and second waves, scholarship could be found taking an interest in super-individual phenomenon like organisations. However, the foci of research and practice did remain primarily on the individual — perhaps reflecting the broader tradition of individualism in the Western cultures where PP initially developed.

But now we see a more active and comprehensive exploration of the systemic and socio-cultural complexities of people’s lived realities. This means broadening our scope and processes in various ways, including in terms of:

  • The focus of enquiry: becoming more interested in super-individual processes and phenomena, for instance through emergent paradigms like "systems-informed positive psychology."7
  • Disciplines: becoming more multi- and interdisciplinary, as reflected in hybrid formulations like "positive education."
  • Cultural contexts: becoming more multicultural and global, as reflected in my own research exploring "untranslatable" words in non-English languages relating to well-being8.
  • Methodologies: embracing other paradigms and ways of knowing, such as qualitative and mixed methods approaches.9

Of course, this analysis is something of a conjecture. It is possible that these ripples will not amount to a significant enough shift in the field to merit the label of a wave. Alternatively, they may continue to gather strength and swell, where their status as a new wave becomes harder to dispute. Either way, given the energies that PP has unleashed in academia and in the culture more broadly, it is likely that new dynamics will continue to be generated, progressing our understanding of well-being in ways we cannot yet even foresee, and making their mark on the shoreline of human civilisation.


[1] Lomas, T., Waters, L., Williams, P., Oades, L.G., & Kern, M. L. (2020). Third wave positive psychology: Moving towards complexity. The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1805501

[2] Hegel, G. W. F. (1812). Science of Logic (A. V. Miller, Trans.). London: George Allen & Unwin.

[3] Weinstein, N. D., Marcus, S. E., & Moser, R. P. (2005). Smokers’ unrealistic optimism about their risk. Tobacco Control, 14(1), 55-59.

[4] Lomas, T. (2017). A meditation on boredom: Re-appraising its value through introspective phenomenology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 14(1), 1-22.

[5] Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 52(2), 69-81. doi: 10.1037/a0022511

[6] Delle Fave, A., Brdar, I., Freire, T., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Wissing, M. (2011). The eudaimonic and hedonic components of happiness: Qualitative and quantitative findings. Social Indicators Research, 100(2), 185-207. P.199

[7] Kern, M. L., Williams, P., Spong, C., Colla, R., Sharma, K., Downie, A., … & Oades, L. G. (2020). Systems informed positive psychology. Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1639799

[8] Lomas, T. (2020). Towards a cross-cultural lexical map of wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, doi: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1791944

[9] Hefferon, K., Ashfield, A., Waters, L., & Synard, J. (2017). Understanding optimal human functioning – The ‘call for qual’ in exploring human flourishing and well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(3), 211-219. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1225120