Did you know the term Positive Pscychology was born first in 1988?
Since the days of Freud and the beginning of psychological science, psychologists have placed their focus on all that ails the human mind. People see psychologists when they are in a state of disorder: suffering from anxiety, depression, neurosis, psychosis. And so psychology has become a study of the dark side of the mind.
Over the years, many theorists questioned this focus on disease. Why were we ignoring the positive aspects of human mental function?
'The science of psychology ... has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction.'
Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 1954
But it was Professor Martin Seligman who took real action to correct this bias. In 1998, Seligman became President of the American Psychological Association (APA). He began his term by going on holiday to Mexico. Seligman summoned two other leading psychologists for a week-long meeting in Akumal to share his vision of a new focus for American psychology, pursuing the key to healthy mental functioning.
Seligman had undertaken a great deal of research into depression and conditioned mental states, culminating in his 1990 publication Learned Optimism. Through experiment, he found that pessimistic thinking was a learned pattern; this suggested that optimism, too, could be learned. And if optimism can be learned and taught, then what else could we teach ourselves to improve our well-being and our chances of happiness with life?'Much of the best work [psychologists] do in the consulting room is to amplify strengths rather than repair the weaknesses of their clients… to help individuals be the authors of their own evolution.'Martin Seligman, American Psychologist, 2000So Positive Psychology was born: the study of happy and healthy minds.
The primary work of reference for psychologists is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is a vital resource for psychologists, but it is a powerful example of psychology's fixation on disease. It is a catalogue of all the ways the human mind can break down and go wrong. But what about the other side of the coin? What about the ways the mind can go right?
Seligman, together with Professor Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan, developed a new reference text entitled Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. This text, first published in 2004, identifies a set of twenty-four character strengths grouped into six broader categories of virtue - in essence, the attributes of a healthy, high-functioning mind.
Originally published in positivepsychologymelbourne.com.au