What is Positive Psychology and “Psychology as Usual”?

Positive psychology is a relatively recent concept that has taken the both the academic community and general public. Martin Seligman, is the founder of this approach describes the study as the “science of optimal human potential and the study of ways to promote the things that make people and their communities live happy well adjusted lives”

Psychology has had a negative tendency of pointing out the “flaws” within an individual and using this to clearly define their full potentials. The approach of positive psychology is focused on clearly defined potentials and capacities to improve. It is not the idea to fix problems but rather focused on ways to make life better, worth living.

It could be called the proverbial “glass-half full” approach and works to transform a +2 to the happiness and fulfillment of a +8 as opposed to making -2’s into -8’s.

The original orientation of this psychology was established about ten years ago and has enjoyed a great amount of popularity and progress. The primary goal is to bring about a consolidated empirical study to the subject of personal strengths, flow, wisdom, well-being, psychological health and the many things that bring about positivity in individuals, communities and organizations of all types.

What is Positive Psychology? Three Levels of Positive Psychology

The study and science of positive psychology is based on three separate levels — these are the subjective, individual and groups levels.

The subjective level focuses primarily on the positive experiences associated with well-being, happiness, satisfaction, optimism, flow and contentment. This level is less about being good and thinking good as much as feeling good.

The level above this is the individual level that focuses on the varied constitutions of a happy life as well as the qualities needed to be a “good” person. These are better understood after a study of human strengths, virtues, prudence, as well as the great capacity for perseverance, forgiveness, originality, wisdom, courage and love.

Finally, at the last level, which could be considered the largest concentric circle, the emphasis is on social responsibility, tolerance, work ethic, altruism and a nurturing and caring attitude towards others. These studies are essential for establishing communities and institutions where human potential can be maximized.

Why is Positive Psychology Important?

According to proponents of positive psychology, for the larger part of its existence mainstream psychology, also called “psychology as usual”, has been primarily focused on the negative aspects of the human condition. There have been pockets of interest surrounding the mysteries of inspiration, creativity, wisdom and optimism. But, for the most part these have been studied only as extensions of “psychology as usual”and not gathered and collected as part of a single grand theory or framework.

Of course. This focus and negativity was not the original intention of the founders of modern psychology. Instead, this advent is seen as a natural consequence of historical incidents.

Before WWII, the function of psychology was aligned to three tasks:

–cure mental maladies
–improve normal lives
–identify and nurture talent and potential

The advent of the war was effective at removing the last two tasks from this list so that efforts could be focused on the needs of the first task. The thing about scientific research is that it largely depends on the funding available from government. The government at this time had a few priorities that required more focus.

As you may imagine, the aftermath of the great war left humanity in a state of crisis and every scrap of resources was bing directed to addressing mental conditions and finding effective treatments. Great progress was made in exploring and outlining the treatment system and theories behind psychological illness and psychopathology

This is how the psychological community has become stuck within a “disease model”, which, to its credit, has proven very effective and useful in identifying and highlighting conditions and treatments.  Martin Seligman points out several previously untreatable mental conditions that can now be successfully treated.

By the same measure, the adoption of this disease model has had the effect of painting psychologists as “pathologizers” or “victimologists”. The focus applied on curing the mind has made the science appear more like a hospital rather than the center for mental improvement it had set out to be.

To illustrate this, if you were to tell your friends about your plans to seek psychological assistance, the response would likely be “dropping off baggage?” or “What’s wrong with you?”. How likely would it be to get a response like, “Excellent! What improvements will you be making to your formidable mental conditions?”

Many psychologists admit that they have little clue as to what makes a healthy life worth living, or how to help a healthy person flourish in their day to day life as opposed to times of great emotions. Actually, there is little to say that the throngs of self help gurus haven’t said already.

But, shouldn’t there be?

The study of psychology has gone far in their scope and treatment within the disease model of human psychology. Perhaps now it is time to bring a balance to the study and begin to research and understand normal flourishing lives as opposed to those that desperately need help.

So, what is Positive Psychology? This view is tantamount to the proverbial fence at the top of the cliff as opposed to a mental institution at the bottom. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that this study is still the study of psychology but simply asks questions with a different approach, for example “What works?” as opposed to “what is broken?”. “What is right?” as opposed to “what is wrong?”.