A basic primer on Positive Psychology for beginners

By Sandeep Kulshrestha


Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the factors which make life worth living, be it a normal life or the life of people receiving healthcare or people who are into any kind of therapy. Positive Psychologists study the characteristics, conditions and processes which lead to flourishing of people. Positive Psychology has its roots in humanistic psychology. Humanistic Psychology typically held that people are inherently good. It adopted a holistic approach to human existence and paid special attention to such phenomena as creativity, free will, and human potential. It encouraged viewing ourselves as a "whole person" greater than the sum of our parts and encourages self exploration rather than the study of behavior in other people.

However, Positive Psychology has drifted away from the humanistic approach and instead focuses on discovering empirical evidence for thriving and flourishing. It is not merely focused on evidence but on applications which can help people thrive and be happy. In fact, Positive Psychology is being referred to as,”Science of happiness”

Brief History

Positive Psychology has its origins credited to the University of Pennsylvania in the US, where there exists a Positive Psychology Center. Professor Martin Seligman, professor of Psychology in the University effectively started the first debate on this new philosophy when he stated this in his inaugural address as a President of the American Psychological Association. Henceforth, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced mee-hy cheek-sent-mÉ™-hy-ee) also joined the movement and both Martin and Mihaly collaborated in a lot of studies.


Interestingly, the starting of Positive Psychology has an anecdote related to the life of Seligman. In 1995, an important conversation with his daughter, Nikki, helped change the direction of his research. While weeding in the garden, Seligman became perturbed and yelled at his daughter. In a keynote address to the North Carolina Psychological Association, Seligman described how his daughter sternly reminded him that she had not whined once since she had vowed to give up whining on her fifth birthday. If she was capable of giving up whining, she reasoned, her father should be able to “stop being such a grouch.". His daughter, in effect had imbibed a positive emotion of deciding not to whine and this instigated Martin’s thoughts which finally culminated in the start of the positive psychology movement.


Basic concepts in Positive Psychology


Understanding Happiness and how it can help people live a normal life is the main thrust area of Positive Psychology. Martin Seligman, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, describes happiness as having three parts: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness. Engagement refers to living a “good life” of work, family, friends, and hobbies. Meaning refers to using our strengths to contribute to a larger purpose. Seligman says that all three are important, but that of the three, engagement and meaning make the most difference to living a happy life.

Positive Psychology is known as the science of happiness and I would define happiness in the context of positive psychology as “The state of wellbeing derived out of flow of events and happenings which are of our liking”. This may not result in happiness as reflected in a genuine smile per say but it would surely lead us to contentment and continuous engagement. There is always an accusation that Positive Psychology is a new entrant in the self-help space but there is a vast difference between any kind of self-help prophecies and what Positive Psychology is espousing. The major difference is the research part of it. While there is a lot of research happening in the area of happiness, flourishing and wellbeing, most of the self-help stuff is just related to an authors’ vision and imagination. Some of the books like “How to win friends and influence people” do have some material which can be used in everyday life but any book on Positive psychology may not give you a quick formula to be successful or happy

Positive Psychologists have taken a lot of inspiration from Aristotle and eudemonic well being. According to Aristotle, merely pursuing pleasure is vulgar. He advocated eudemonism because he believed that true happiness is found in doing what is worth doing, not in merely having a good time. Eudemonic well being is a broad term used by positive psychologists to refer to the happiness we gain from having meaning and purpose in our lives, fulfilling our potential and feeling that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

So, positive psychology assist people in the understanding what it needs to be happy. Martin Seligman, perhaps the founder of Positive Psychology has worked on the model called PERMA (an acronym for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment). According to this model, if a normal human being is able to identify his/her PERMA and is able to relate to it in a sustained fashion, he/she can create lasting happiness.