What is Positive Psychology?

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Since it first began gaining traction in the early 2000s, many have stumbled over the term positive psychology. “Isn’t it just positive thinking?” many first ask. Nope. However, “the two positives” are both related to happiness, and optimism issomething studied in positive psychology. Upon hearing the word happiness, many then go, “Oh! That’s what all of the books in the self-help section are then, right?” Not exactly.


Simply put, positive psychology is the study of human well-being and flourishing. Positive psychologists investigate what it is that makes human life happy, satisfying, and meaningful. And while it is true that many of the books in the self-help section owe a debt of gratitude to positive psychology, NOT ALL books on how to be happy can be considered a part of this field. Positive psychologists pride themselves on conducting empirical studies, the kind that get published in peer-reviewed journals. This means that the conclusions they reach are valid, substantiated, and replicable. Furthermore, their findings are amenable to being refined over time. Many of the books in the self-help section, however, feature personal theories that haven’t been put through the rigors of scientific investigation.


Positive psychology is also far more than just about feeling good. In addition to positive emotions, it also investigates anger, and other unpleasant feelings to draw conclusions about the roles these emotions play in helping us live better lives. Therefore, Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of the modern positive psychology movement, has said that the field “isn’t happiology.” It explores not just the pleasant life, but also what Seligman labels “the good life” and “the meaningful life”. The good life is when we are thoroughly immersed in what we do on a daily basis. Think of it as someone who is truly engaged in their work. The meaningful life is also a life of active engagement, but focused on benefitting others. Seligman has argued that living the good life or the meaningful life are more crucial than the pleasant life in helping us achieve satisfaction. It is possible for us to live aspects of all three of these lives at once.


Additionally, both the good life and the meaningful life require us to use our own character strengths. These strengths are 24 universal human traits that positive psychologists have found in people from diverse cultural backgrounds all over the world. They include traits such as honesty, perseverance, curiosity, creativity, spirituality, leadership, and love. Each of us possesses these qualities to a greater or lesser degree in unique ways. The beauty of knowing our character strengths is that by applying them in our work, studies, and personal relationships, we create more engagement with the people and activities in our life, resulting in more meaningful interactions and life satisfaction. (If you’re interested to discover your very

The Historical Tree of Positive Psychology

own character strengths, you can visit https://www.viacharacter.org to take their free, 15-minute survey.)


Character strengths are an important, but only one, contribution from positive psychology. Other findings from this field pertain to the topics of gratitude, awe, engagement, growth mindset, human relationships, and meaning. Money has even been studied by positive psychologists! The list goes on and on…


The aim of positive psychology is not just to understand what makes a happy, more meaningful life possible, but to also design exercises, called interventions, that help us improve our lives. These interventions are used in a variety of fields to improve both individual and group well-being. Big business has used these ideas to boost worker satisfaction and productivity, leading to the growth of positive leadership. Schools have incorporated aspects of positive psychology into their curricula to enhance child development and increase student morale, contributing to the field known as positive education. Coaches use interventions and understanding from positive psychology to help their clients make more informed decisions. These are but a few of the areas in which positive psychology is used today.


Positive psychology helps us thrive. It is a powerful, developing, and evermore insightful tool to help us become our better selves. As such, its popularity in just a few short years has soared so much so that universities have created programs to further this field. The future of positive psychology is bright. It is something we could all stand to use a little more of in our lives.