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All we can ever hope to do, Sigmund Freud once wrote, is “to change neurotic misery into common unhappiness”. This pessimistic statement from arguably the most influential psychological theorist of modern times captured the mood that prevailed in psychology through most of the 20th century. That is, most psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts were essentially guided by a model of the patient that was based on what was wrong with people, and how to deal with these deficiencies.
It goes without saying that it’s important that therapists’ energies are devoted to addressing the issues that trouble their patients. However, it’s become increasingly apparent that this near-exclusive focus on deficits and disorders doesn’t do justice to the rich potential of human existence. What about the strengths and virtues that make some people so admirable and worth emulating? What about those beautiful aspects of life that give us reason to get up in the morning? What about cherished experiences of love and laughter, hope and happiness? Why isn’t psychology striving to understand and promote these positive aspects of human lives?
These topics weren’t entirely neglected. There were scholars exploring these issues, particularly those who might define themselves as human-centric or “humanistic” psychologists. Above all was Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), widely regarded as the founder of humanistic psychology and a passionate advocate for the need to go beyond the deficit model exemplified by Freud by adding a complementary focus on the brighter aspects of human life.
Writing in 1968 Maslow said: “It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.” Spurred on by his example, a minority of psychologists have striven to explore this more positive territory. But for the most part, this focus on the positive has not attracted much attention, or respect, among those in mainstream psychology.
The positive case
This suddenly changed at the end of the 1990s, when the hugely influential Professor Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association. Inspired by the work of people like Maslow, he used his inauguration to initiate the idea of positive psychology. Essentially this took on the mantle of humanistic psychology as an evolution, an adaptation, or even a re-branding of the earlier field, depending on your perspective. Seligman’s initiative quickly attracted considerable attention, and since then scientific research on the positive aspects of human functioning – from hope to meaning in life – has entered mainstream psychology.
To capture the essence of positive psychology, take Corey Keyes’ idea of a scale running from minus 10 representing illness, through zero, to plus 10 representing wellness. Prior to positive psychology’s emergence, clinical psychology would endeavour to move people in distress from the negative scale (experiencing mental health issues) to a notional zero (an absence of such issues). However, the absence of mental health issues is not the same as flourishing. Even if we are free of disorder and distress, this isn’t the same as living life to the full and developing to the peak of our capacity. This is how positive psychology has defined its role, in helping people to rise above zero, above a mere absence of pain and into positive territory…