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Translational Research in Positive Psychology

Translational research applies basic science to practical problems.

Translational research is the application of basic science to practical problems. Long a mainstay in medicine, where it has been described as a bench to bedside approach, translational research is an increasingly strong emphasis of modern medicine.

Within medicine today, it is now agreed that translational research is more than a one-way street; bench to bedside is important, but so too is bedside to bench. The former is sometimes called T1 research, and the latter is dubbed T2 research. Doctors who treat actual patients have all sorts of insights that can and should inform basic research. In medicine today, science and practice have become coequal.

Psychology in contrast has had at best an ambivalent attitude toward translation, honoring basic research much more than applied research and in any event often segregating these endeavors. Exceptions of course exist, including in particular action research championed decades ago by Kurt Lewin (1946).

Well, the times they are a'changing, and psychology is now taking translational research very seriously, in part because federal research grants now demand that studies have a demonstrable practical payoff and in part - I hope - because it is the right and smart thing to do.

That said, a lot of psychological research translates poorly, despite the protests of the psychologists who do the studies. For every great example of basic research that speaks to the real world - like Milgram's laboratory studies of obedience or Zimbardo's prison study - there are many more examples that travel poorly out of the journals where they are published.

Consider a finding from the person perception genre showing that a person (actually a picture of a person) is seen as more intelligent if he or she is wearing glasses. Well, sure. If that's all we know about someone, we will rely on a syllogistic stereotype: he wears glasses ... he needs them to read ... he must be smart if he reads enough to need glasses. But in real life, with all of its depth and breadth, it is thoroughly implausible that "wearing glasses" carries the burden in our judgments of how smart people might be. We judge how intelligent people are by talking to them, heeding their counsel, and taking stock of the consequences.

Here is my thesis: Positive psychology, at least when done well, can teach the rest of psychology how to do translational research.

For starters, positive psychology reprises Lewin and makes no rigid distinction between theory and practice, regarding both as necessary if we are to understand and cultivate the good life.

Second, positive psychology research does not rely as much as does business-as-usual psychology research on "subject pools" - collections of callow youth enrolled in psychology courses who are coerced into participating in studies under threat of academic penalty. Appreciate that research participants are called "subjects" because they are "subject to" whatever the psychologist does to them in the laboratory. But the good life is not imposed on anyone, and it is best studied by identifying people who have created good lives for themselves and others: teachers, business leaders, philanthropists, caretakers, and so on. If we want to generalize to such groups of people, it is best to study them and not surrogates or analogues, as is so often done in business-as-usual research.

As researchers, we should talk to these people and take seriously what they say. We must go beyond the collection of reports and stories from successful people - otherwise the research is simply about attributions - but their ideas are critically important to understanding the good life and planning systematic research.

Third, positive psychology research studies outcomes that matter, not just in theories but in the actual lives of people: health and longevity, success and achievement, happiness and well-being. Psychological researchers often use proxy measures (with proxy research participants), and it is little wonder that the application of research results often leads the skeptic to ask "Is that all there is?"

Finally, because the good life unfolds over time, positive psychologists have undertaken ambitious longitudinal studies. Indeed, some of the modern classics of positive psychology, like Harker and Keltner's (2001) yearbook study, Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen's (2001) nun study, and Peterson, Seligman, and Vaillant's (1988) study of optimism and health, spanned many decades.

There is of course an important role to be played by laboratory experiments, but positive psychology research cannot limit itself to snapshots, no matter how high their resolution.

In sum, when positive psychologists study the people to whom they wish to generalize, measure things that matter, and do so over time, the result is much better science that reduces translation problems.

Here is a historical factoid I recently heard: Few if any of the formal wars in the 20th century were fought between nations whose citizens spoke the same language. Whether or not this is accurate I do not know, but appreciate the larger and more metaphorical point. When groups - like basic scientists and applied practitioners - speak the same language, the good life is encouraged.


Danner, D.D., Snowdon, D.A., & Friesen, W.V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813.

Harker, L.A., & Keltner, D. (2001). Expressions of positive emotion in women's college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 112-124.

Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), 34-46.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 23-27.