Is It Time for Negative Psychology?

Positive psychology complements problem-focused psychology. And vice versa.

Posted Nov 30, 2011

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief;  it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us; we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to heaven; we were all going direct the other way.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The trigger for positive psychology as an explicit perspective was the argument that for fifty years psychology had devoted almost all of its attention to human problems (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). What goes right in life deserves attention as well.

Many social scientists have heeded this call for attention to the positive side of life, so much so that a recent conference announcement that showed up in my e-mail box was perhaps inevitable but still interesting. The International Sociological Association is having a meeting next August, 2012, in Buenos Aires, and one of the planned sessions is on world suffering. According to the announcement:

Quality of life researchers have focused almost all of their attention on well-being rather than ill-being and happiness rather than unhappiness. Consequently, they have overlooked the wealth of data they have on indicators of suffering. This session solicits re-analysis of social indicator data focusing upon the low end of measures of well-being, quality of life, social progress, and happiness. Also of interest are studies that explicitly measure pain, despair, suffering, or social traumas from either a social or an individual framework.

I could quarrel with the implication here, that the social sciences have been taken over by "positive" researchers and thus are overlooking the very real problems that people experience and the suffering that they produce.

But instead I emphasize a point that many positive psychologists have been saying from the beginning: Positive psychology extends and complements problem-focused psychology (Peterson & Park, 2003). And circa 2011 vice versa. The topics of each are real and deserve study. Alleviating distress is important, as is promoting flourishing. Both are needed to understand and better the human condition.


Peterson, C., & Park, N. (2003). Positive psychology as the evenhanded positive psychologist views it. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 141-146.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.