What is positive psychology ?

par Catherine Cimon-Paquet
This article was first published on the Medium account of the Canadian Association of Positive Psychology Student Ambassadors in its “Positive Psychology Concepts” series (Cimon-Paquet, 2020). This blog post was reviewed by Macilia Abou and Cecilia Marie Chaymâa Ezzahraoui, edited by Rémi Thériault.

In the series called “Concepts of Positive Psychology”, we will introduce you to different aspects of positive psychology and present different science-based practices that will help you increase your well-being.

Positive psychology is a scientific field of study that focuses on the strengths of individuals and communities and their optimal functioning. Over the past twenty years, this discipline has grown in importance. In particular, several studies from positive psychology indicate that practices based on mindfulness, gratitude, and individual strengths can increase our levels of well-being and decrease our levels of depression, anxiety, and stress1,2.

The recent rise of positive psychology has led to a certain revolution in the field of psychology. In 2000, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, two American researchers, highlighted the need to study the aspects of life that make it worth living. Since the publication of their scientific article in the American Psychologist journal3, many scientists have undertaken studies in positive psychology to better understand what makes people happy. Indeed, health is not merely the absence of disease but a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being4

In order to better understand what makes people happy, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman wanted to identify the strengths and virtues common to all human beings. In order to create this inventory of character strengths and virtues, Peterson drew on religious, political, and cultural texts5. The manual reports 24 forces and virtues6, including bravery, honesty, spirituality, and humor. These forces and virtues are categorized into six broad areas: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Interestingly, international studies have shown that these strenghts appear to be universal7,8. Each person has a diversity of strengths and virtues within them. Several character strenghts have been associated with happiness, such as hope, love, and gratitude.

While character strengths serve primarily to increase self-knowledge, positive psychology also offers concrete ways to increase one’s level of happiness. In particular, Seligman has suggested several elements that could increase our psychological well-being; positive emotions, commitment, interpersonal relationships, the search for meaning, and fulfillment5,9

Many interventions based on positive psychology have been shown to be effective. In particular, some interventions have been shown to decrease depression, anxiety and stress and increase well-being in healthy and clinical populations, such as individuals suffering from cancer, depression or cardiovascular disease1,2. 

Interventions based on positive psychology have many individual benefits, but also benefits for society. For example, individuals who experience more gratitude and those who practice mindfulness meditation, either in general or during interventions, are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviours10,11, aimed at helping others. Mindfulness meditation is about cultivating an attentive presence, free of judgment. This type of meditation allows one to be aware of the emotions, thoughts and feelings one is experiencing in the present moment. 

Although positive psychology focuses primarily on increasing so-called positive qualities, such as optimism and happiness, some researchers have highlighted the presence of suffering and sadness in human existence12. Suffering can give way to love and post-traumatic growth, which is characterized by positive change following a very difficult situation. Paradoxically, the more you love another person, the more the potential suffering that could result from an end to this relationship also increases12. Thus, love and sadness must coexist in order to exist. It would therefore be wrong to believe that positive psychology only values so-called positive emotions.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers are studying the human response to this unprecedented crisis. This is a golden opportunity to further study human resilience – the ability of human beings to overcome difficult challenges13. During this extraordinary time, knowledge from positive psychology can inspire us to take actions that will allow us to grow individually and collectively. For example, we can take advantage of this time to question our strengths and values, both individual and societal. Then, we can reflect on the best ways to use our strengths to get through this collective ordeal that is the current pandemic.

In upcoming blog posts from the Canadian Association for Positive Psychology’s Student Ambassador Program, we will discuss in more details some of the concepts, such as gratitude, altruism, perseverance and resilience, that increase our level of happiness and put into practice the knowledge gained from positive psychology research.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you have any questions or would like suggestions for further reading on positive psychology, you can reach me at cimon_paquet.catherine@courrier.uqam.ca. Finally, if you are not yet a member of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, I warmly invite you to join our wonderful community!

References cited in the text

  1. Chakhssi, F., Kraiss, J. T., Sommers-Spijkerman, M., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2018). The effect of positive psychology interventions on well-being and distress in clinical samples with psychiatric or somatic disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 18(1), 211.
  2. Hendriks, T., Schotanus-Dijkstra, M., Hassankhan, A., de Jong, J., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2019). The efficacy of multi-component positive psychology interventions: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1–34.
  3. Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.
  4. Preamble to the Constitution of WHO as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June – 22 July 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of WHO, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. The definition has not been amended since 1948.
  5. Seligman, M. E. (2019). Positive psychology: A personal history. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 15, 1–23.
  6. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. American Psychological Association; Oxford University Press. 
  7. Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In Well-being and cultures (pp. 11-29). Springer.
  8. Nansook Park , Christopher Peterson & Martin E. P. Seligman (2006) Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118–129.           
  9. Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(4), 333–335.
  10. Donald, J. N., Sahdra, B. K., Van Zanden, B., Duineveld, J. J., Atkins, P. W., Marshall, S. L., & Ciarrochi, J. (2019). Does your mindfulness benefit others? A systematic review and meta‐analysis of the link between mindfulness and prosocial behaviour. British Journal of Psychology, 110(1), 101–125.
  11. Ma, L. K., Tunney, R. J., & Ferguson, E. (2017). Does gratitude enhance prosociality?: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 143(6), 601–635.
  12. Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive–negative dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1753–1768.
  13. Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American psychologist, 56(3), 227–238.

Référence du texte. Cimon-Paquet, C. (2020). Série concepts de psychologie positive : La psychologie positive, une révolution nécessaire. [Billet de blog]. https://cppastudents.medium.com/s%C3%A9rie-concepts-de-psychologie-positive-la-psychologie-positive-une-r%C3%A9volution-n%C3%A9cessaire-89de26524f19

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