What Is Positive Psychology, and What Is It Not?

Positive psychology studies what makes life most worth living.Published on May 16, 2008 by Christopher Peterson, Ph.D. in The Good Life

In less than a decade, positive psychology has caught the attention not only of the academic community but also the general public. I just did a google search for "positive psychology' and found 419,000+ hits. That is obviously impressive, although keeping all of us positive psychologists humble is that my searches for the "Olsen twins" and "Britney Spears" produced 6,390,000+ and 113,000,000+ hits, respectively.

It is still good that larger world is interested in positive psychology, and probably even better that this interest does not entail morbid curiosity and the wish to witness a train wreck.

Regardless, the downside of whatever popularity positive psychology enjoys is the temptation for those of us associated with this new field to run ahead of what we know in pursuit of further popularity. So let me slow down and explain what positive psychology actually is and what we actually know.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.


Nowhere does this definition say or imply that psychology should ignore or dismiss the very real problems that people experience. Nowhere does it say or imply that the rest of psychology needs to be discarded or replaced. The value of positive psychology is to complement and extend the problem-focused psychology that has been dominant for many decades.

Several truisms underpin positive psychology. First, what is good in life is as genuine as what is bad--not derivative, secondary, epiphenomenal, illusory, or otherwise suspect. Second, what is good in life is not simply the absence of what is problematic. We all know the difference between not being depressed and bounding out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm for the day ahead. And third, the good life requires its own explanation, not simply a theory of disorder stood sideways or flipped on its head.

Positive psychology is psychology--psychology is science--and science require checking theories against evidence. Accordingly, positive psychology is not to be confused with untested self-help, footless affirmation, or secular religion-no matter how good these may make us feel. Positive psychology is neither a recycled version of the power of positive thinking nor a sequel to the secret.

Positive psychology will rise or fall on the science on which it is based. So far, the science is impressive. Consider what has been learned in recent years about the psychological good life, none of which was mentioned in any of the psychology courses I took a few decades ago:

• Most people are happy.
• Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply along for the happy ride. People who are satisfied with life eventually have even more reason to be satisfied, because happiness leads to desirable outcomes at school and work, to fulfilling social relationships, and even to good health and long life.
• Most people are resilient.
• Happiness, strengths of character, and good social relationships are buffers against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks.
• Crisis reveals character.
• Other people matter mightily if we want to understand what makes like most worth living.
• Religion matters.
• And work matters as well if it engages the worker and provides meaning and purpose.
• Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people.
• As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia trumps hedonism.
• The "heart" matters more than the "head." Schools explicitly teach critical thinking; they should also teach unconditional caring.
• Good days have common features: feeling autonomous, competent, and connected to others.
• The good life can be taught.

This latter point is especially important because it means that happiness is not simply the result of a fortunate spin of the genetic roulette wheel. There are things that people can do to lead better lives, although I hasten to say that all require that we live (behave) differently ... permanently. The good life is hard work, and there are no shortcuts to sustained happiness.