What Is Positive Psychology?

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What Is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is one of the newest branches of psychology to emerge. This particular area of psychology focuses on how to help human beings prosper and lead healthy, happy lives. While many other branches of psychology tend to focus on dysfunction and abnormal behavior , positive psychology is centered on helping people become happier.

Positive psychology is designed to "complement and extend the problem-focused psychology that has been dominant for decades," explained the late Christopher Peterson, author of "A Primer in Positive Psychology" and professor at the University of Michigan, in a 2008 article published in Psychology Today .

"Positive psychology 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," Peterson wrote.

According to leading authorities in the field, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi , positive psychology will help achieve "scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities."

In order to understand the field of positive psychology, it is essential to start by learning more about its major theories, applications, and history.


Positive psychology is often referred to as having three different levels:

  • Subjective level: focuses on feelings of happiness, well-being, and optimism, and how these feelings transform your daily experience
  • Individual level: a combination of the feelings in the subjective level and virtues such as forgiveness, love, and courage
  • Group level: positive interaction with your community, including virtues like altruism and social responsibility that strengthen social bonds

Positive Psychology and the PERMA Model

In order to better explain and define well-being, which is a primary focus in positive psychology, Seligman created the PERMA model. PERMA is an acronym for the following five elements of well-being:

  • P ositive emotions , or experiencing optimism as well as gratitude about your past, contentment in the present, and hope for the future
  • E ngagement, or achieving " flow " with enjoyable activities and hobbies
  • R elationship , or forming social connections with family and friends
  • M eaning , or finding a purpose in life larger than you
  • A ccomplishments, or goals and successes


Positive psychology can have a range of real-world applications in areas including education , therapy, self-help, stress management , and workplace issues.

Using strategies from positive psychology, teachers, coaches, therapists, and employers can motivate others and help individuals understand and develop their personal strengths.

Some of the major topics of interest in positive psychology include:

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Impact of Positive Psychology

Some of the major findings of positive psychology include:

  • Money doesn't necessarily buy well-being, but spending money on other people can make individuals happier.
  • People are generally happy.
  • Some of the best ways to combat disappointments and setbacks include strong social relationships and character strengths.
  • While happiness is influenced by genetics, people can learn to be happier by developing optimism, gratitude, and altruism .
  • Work can be important to well-being, especially when people are able to engage in work that is purposeful and meaningful.

Potential Pitfalls

Positive psychology is often confused with positive thinking, and misconstrued as self-help tactics rather than research-backed theories. Positive thinking is a way of thinking ourselves into better behavior and greater resilience, rather than behaving our way into a different frame of mind.

Positive psychology, on the other hand, is the scientific study of what makes people thrive. It focuses on behaviors that can lead to a more optimized frame of mind as well as on thought patterns that lead to more functional behaviors.

History of Positive Psychology

"Before World War II, psychology had three distinct missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent," wrote Seligman and Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi in 2000.

Shortly after WWII, the primary focus of psychology shifted to the first priority: treating abnormal behavior and mental illness. In the 1950s, humanist thinkers like Carl Rogers , Erich Fromm , and Abraham Maslow helped renew interest in the other two areas by developing theories that focused on happiness and the positive aspects of human nature.

Here are a few more significant dates in the history of positive psychology:

  • 1998 : Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association and positive psychology became the theme of his term. Today, Seligman is widely viewed as the father of contemporary positive psychology.
  • 2002 : The first International Conference on Positive Psychology was held.
  • 2006 : Harvard's course on positive psychology became the university's most popular class.
  • 2009 : The first World Congress on Positive Psychology took place in Philadelphia and featured talks by Seligman and Philip Zimbardo .

Other important figures in positive psychology have included:

  • Albert Bandura
  • C.R. Snyder
  • Carol Dweck
  • Christopher Peterson
  • Daniel Gilbert
  • Kennon Sheldon

General interest in positive psychology has grown tremendously since the concept was introduced. Today, more and more people are searching for information on how they can become more fulfilled and achieve their full potential.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Psychology Today. What is positive psychology, and what is it not ?

  2. Seligman ME, Csikszentmihalyi M. Positive psychology. An introduction . Am Psychol . 2000;55(1):5‐14. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.55.1.5

  3. Joseph S. Positive Psychology in Practice: Promoting Human Flourishing in Work, Health, Education, and Everyday Life . Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2015.

  4. Ciarrochi J, Atkins PW, Hayes LL, Sahdra BK, Parker P. Contextual positive psychology: Policy recommendations for implementing positive psychology into schools . Front Psychol . 2016;7:1561.  doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01561

  5. Dunn EW, Aknin LB, Norton MI. Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays off . Current Directions in Social Science . 2014;(23)1: 41-47. doi:10.1177/0963721413512503

  6. Harzer C, Ruch W. The relationships of character strengths with coping, work-related stress, and job satisfaction . Front Psychol . 2015;6:165. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00165

  7. Martela F, Pessi AB. Significant work is about self-realization and broader purpose: Defining the key dimensions of meaningful work . Front Psychol . 2018;9:363. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00363

  8. Boston Globe. Harvard's crowded course to happiness .

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.