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Positive Psychology: A Brief Introduction

Updated: Jan 7, 2022



Mental health wellbeing is about more than the absence of pathology or disorder. Positive psychologists seek to raise the baseline of both the individual’s and society’s wellbeing; as Peterson (2008) said, it is the “scientific study of what makes a life most worth living”, looking at one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours but focusing on the individual’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.


Martin Seligman elected positive psychology as his theme during his term as president of the American Psychological Association. It is a humanistic approach to psychology and counselling, building on theories propounded by Maslow (think hierarchy of needs) and Rogers (think client-centered counselling) whose intent was to enhance the individual’s happiness and discover ways of self-actualising. In a nutshell, positive psychology looks at what improves wellbeing and what we can do to provide this for our selves.

In 2002, Seligman suggested that there are 3 paths to happiness; the pleasant life, the good life or the meaningful life. The pleasant life considers how one experiences and predicts the positive feelings that occur during day-to-day life. The good life attends to flow state, when one is utterly engrossed in the task at hand. Flow occurs at the complimentary meeting point between one’s strengths and the current task. Flow is in itself extremely rewarding but it can also contribute to the achievement of goals and skill attainment. The meaningful life considers how one achieves a sense of purpose from contributing to the wider community and being part of something larger than themselves.


Not surprisingly, there is no magic bullet. There is usually a large combination of factors which determine one’s happiness. Areas of consideration include life-partner, social circle, family of origin, occupation, community, hobbies and spirituality to name a few.

Interestingly, many people believe that wealth will improve their happiness, chasing the fallacy that when I earn XX amount, I’ll finally be happy. Certainly, a generous income ensures financial security and a few home comforts and rewards for all that effort. However, this is only true to a point before improvements in happiness levels plateau. Scientists in a 2021 study estimated this occurs at earning just $75,000 per annum. Clearly there’s some truth to that adage “money can’t buy you happiness”.



One basic premise of this movement is that people are generally more motivated by envisioning the future rather than being propelled by their past experiences. It also presupposes that positive framing of past, present and future events will have significant impact on our wellbeing, therefore time may be well spent re-framing incidents into an optimistic light.


Another suggestion, to be actioned on the personal and public or societal level, is to strive for goals which have a higher purpose. In other words, seek to serve the greater good. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its members to ‘be of service to others’ because essentially, this makes the alcoholic feel good about themselves, giving them a much-needed self-esteem boost. There is no such thing as a wholly altruistic deed; the giver always receives so much good energy in return.

In 2004, Seligman and colleagues tried to categorise positive psychological traits in Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV), which consisted of 6 virtues which are thought to be underlying 24 measurable character strengths. These were the virtues and corresponding strengths which were identified:


· Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning,perspective,

innovation, prudence

· Courage: bravery, persistence, vitality, zest

· Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

· Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership, integrity, excellence

· Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, self-control

· Transcendence: appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality


Many studies have been conducted to prove what we inherently sense is true; that a focus on positive psychological traits will enhance our state of wellbeing. For example, findings have shown positive psychology interventions, which included writing gratitude letters and recalling positive life experiences, have reduced symptoms of depression. Such interventions have been effective 3-6 months after the initial treatment! Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, interventions seem to be most effective when the client plays an active role in the formulation and commitment to change plans, much in alignment with cognitive behavioural practices. Indeed, the individual ‘opts in’. Other positive psychology tools include setting individual goals, counting blessings, acts of kindness and reflection on personal strengths.



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