By Dr Dianne A Vella-Brodrick MAPS, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University, and Treasurer, International Positive Psychology Association

Introduction

Positive psychology

The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. It has revealed to us much about man's shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that, the darker, meaner half.
(Maslow, 1954, p. 354)
 

Positive psychology is a new branch of psychology that has emerged over the last decade or so and is receiving growing attention. Positive psychology involves the scientific investigation of factors and processes that facilitate a worthwhile life - one that is pleasurable, engaging and purposeful. It originated in its contemporary form in the late 1990s when Martin Seligman, in his role as the President of the American Psychological Association, promoted the importance of including a strengths-based approach to psychology.

Positive psychology is an umbrella term which incorporates a number of themes focused on subjective experiences, mental health and flourishing, flow (being immersed in life's activities) and positive virtues and strengths. Instead of asking "what is wrong?", positive psychology asks "what is right?" Hence, the focus is on identifying and mobilising assets to:

  • Help mitigate dysfunctional emotions, cognitions and behaviours
  • Equip individuals with the skills and confidence to address life's challenges
  • Foster and maintain an optimal state of wellbeing whereby an ideal ratio of positive and negative states and experiences is present most of the time.

Broad aims of positive psychology

The scientific mission of positive psychology is to study the antecedents, correlates, outcomes and contributors of a life well lived. Moreover, proponents of positive psychology have pursued a number of critical goals which include: (1) increasing the number of published research studies on positive constructs; (2) identifying the factors that lead to fulfilling and meaningful lives for individuals, groups and institutions; (3) developing practical and effective positive interventions for enhancing wellbeing; and (4) adopting a scientific, evidence-based framework.

A common criticism of positive psychology is that it adopts a ‘Pollyanna' mentality where everything in life is seen through rose coloured glasses and the aim is to achieve constant happiness. The intent of positive psychology is not to create a positive and negative dichotomy or a hierarchy where positive phenomena are always viewed as being superior to negative ones, but rather to recognise and appreciate the complementary roles of both negative and positive experiences and to pursue the ideal ratio of positive to negative experiences for optimal health.

Significant contributions of positive psychology

In evaluating how useful positive psychology has been thus far, it is important to note that it is still a very young field, at least in its contemporary form, being just over a decade old. While some of the fundamental concepts underpinning positive psychology are not new, positive psychology has provided the impetus to rejuvenate some of the previous work on subjective wellbeing, life purpose and virtues. It is timely to explore the contributions and achievements of positive psychology over the past decade and to generate a revised and expanded set of goals for the next decade, keeping in mind the historical context.

Martin Seligman instigated various meetings among eminent thought leaders in the broad area of wellbeing and this led to several rapid and significant developments, including funding schemes for research projects with a positive focus (e.g., John Templeton Foundation awards), university postgraduate courses in positive psychology, a journal dedicated to research in positive psychology (Journal of Positive Psychology), the formation of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) and the hosting of positive psychology meetings/conferences around the globe.

Within a decade the presence of positive psychology is quite pronounced. Not only are there now specific centres, conferences and journals in the area of positive psychology but mainstream psychology is also starting to dedicate space and funding for work on positive constructs. For example, the APS Melbourne Branch recently funded a three-day positive psychology retreat to nurture and inspire early career researchers and practitioners to develop and engage with positive psychology initiatives. Members of the general public have also shown a keen interest in positive psychology with seminars and television programs such as ‘Making Australia Happy' (broadcast on the ABC - see article in this edition for further information on this program) being well received.

Character strengths and virtues framework

One of the most significant contributions made by leaders in positive psychology is the development of the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The CSV presents six types of core virtues comprised of 24 measurable character strengths (see boxed information). Similarly, but converse to diagnostic manuals for mental disorders, this strengths classification system was developed to heighten an awareness of positive qualities and facilitate a common language and assessment of strengths which would complement the diagnosis and treatment of disorders.

CORE VIRTUES OF THE CHARACTER STRENGTHS AND VIRTUES FRAMEWORK
(Peterson & Seligman, 2004) 

  • Wisdom and knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective
  • Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality
  • Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  • Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
  • Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility and modesty, prudence, self-regulation
  • Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality 

 

This increased attention to the potential role of strengths and virtues for sound mental health and wellbeing has contributed to a spate of research on the role and impact of positive experiences and resources. Most of the research on subjective wellbeing and positive psychology has focused primarily on understanding the correlates and outcomes of wellbeing (e.g., Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). While this was a necessary and fruitful phase, positive psychology scholars have contributed towards shifting the attention away from correlational studies towards the development and evaluation of positive interventions for enhancing wellbeing via randomised controlled studies.

Positive psychology interventions to enhance wellbeing

A number of meta-analyses have emerged reporting on the effect sizes of positive interventions for enhancing wellbeing and decreasing depression. In their meta-analysis of 225 studies, Lyubomirsky, King and Diener (2005) found that individuals with higher levels of positive affect also reported better quality health, work and relationships. Findings from experimental studies which induced positive states (often through showing film clips) also indicated that participants who were in positive states were more sociable and were better able to resolve conflicts than their less positive counterparts.

The Lyubomirsky and colleagues study also included a review of a limited number of longitudinal studies undertaken in naturalistic settings and found that happiness does lead to numerous successful work and relationship outcomes, including an increased likelihood of marriage and stronger social support, greater income, creativity, productivity and quality of work. A further finding was that happy individuals were more likely to self regulate and cope with adversities, have healthier immune function, and live longer than less happy individuals (e.g., Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001). Moreover, happier people have been shown to be more cooperative, charitable, pro-social and other-centred compared to control participants (e.g., Williams & Shiaw, 1999). Clearly the benefits to be derived from being in a positive state are significant and numerous. Therefore, enhancing individual happiness, in conjunction with alleviating mental illness, should be an important scientific endeavour and one that is at the forefront of current positive psychology initiatives.

EXAMPLES OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY INTERVENTIONS
TO ENHANCE WELLBEING 

  • Three good things
    Before going to bed write about three good things that happened that day and explain why you think these good things occurred.

  • Identifying and using character strengths
    Identify your signature strengths by completing the Values in Action survey at www.authentichappiness.org and then use one of your strengths in a new way, every day for a week.

  • Savouring through capitalising
    Share a positive experience of yours with someone else. In doing so, provide specific detail about the event and how you felt with the aim of generating and re-living that positive experience.

  • Best possible self
    Visualise and write down what it would be like in the future, once all your dreams and goals were fulfilled.

  • Counting acts of kindness
    Note how many times you have observed others being kind either to you or others.

 

Empirical studies examining the effects of positive interventions (such as those outlined in the boxed information) provide preliminary evidence that not only can strengths-based interventions increase wellbeing, but they also have the potential to decrease depression. For example, Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson's (2005) randomised controlled trial with 577 adult participants examined five happiness interventions: the gratitude visit; three good things in life; you at your best; using signature strengths in a new way; and identifying signature strengths. Compared with a placebo control group who were instructed to write about early memories, participants completing ‘the gratitude visit' showed gains up to one month post-intervention, and participants from the ‘three good things in life' and the ‘using signature strengths in a new way' interventions showed increases for up to six months post-intervention. Interestingly however, some studies have found that placebo conditions such as writing about one's day or early childhood memories are also effective in enhancing wellbeing but usually not to the same extent as the actual positive intervention (Giannopoulos & Vella-Brodrick, in press; Seligman et al., 2005). These findings encourage the development of more rigorous and controlled research studies seeking to understand the underlying mechanisms of positive interventions.

Sin and Lyubomirksy's (2009) meta-analysis (N= 4,266) provides a good overview of the efficacy of 51 different positive psychology interventions (PPIs) including forgiveness, positive writing, strengths, savouring, mindfulness and kindness. Essentially this meta-analysis found that PPIs are effective in increasing wellbeing and decreasing depression, with effect sizes of .29 and .31 respectively. Although these effect sizes are modest, these results are promising given that such positive psychology interventions are essentially the first wave and with further refinement, effects are likely to be more pronounced. Consequently, gaining insight into methods for improving the efficacy of PPIs is an important next step which warrants further examination.

 

Applications of positive psychology

It is fortunate that evidence is steadily mounting in support of positive psychology interventions as the demand for such interventions is high. One area that has received considerable attention over the past few years in Australia is positive education. The aim of positive education is to transform schools into places where assets such as empathy, optimism, creativity, self-efficacy and resilience are identified, appreciated and cultivated. Geelong Grammar School (GGS) is a noteworthy case in point, being the first school in Australia to directly introduce positive psychology into its core curricula. Although the program outcomes are yet to be fully evaluated, the Penn Resiliency Program, on which the GGS positive education program was based, has been found to decrease depression and anxiety compared with control conditions (Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox & Seligman, 1995; Gillham et al., 2006; Gillham & Reivich, 1999). Subsequently, more schools around Australia are now adding positive psychology to their curricula (see article in this edition for further information on positive psychology in schools).

Another applied setting for positive psychology is within clinical psychology. ‘Positive psychotherapy' (Seligman, Rashid & Parks, 2006) integrates strengths-based approaches into traditional clinical practice and has been found to be effective in treating depression. For example, Seligman et al. found that psychotherapy which incorporated positive elements such as active-constructive responding, savouring, the expression of gratitude, positive future visions and strengths use, was more effective in treating depression than was a treatment as usual group and a treatment as usual plus antidepressant medication group. While more work is needed to confirm these results, other asset-based approaches to therapy, such as Fava et al.'s (2005) ‘wellbeing therapy' have also demonstrated favourable outcomes.

Positive psychology interventions have also been applied to a number of other contexts, such as workplaces, parenting and relationships, the military, communities and health rehabilitation programs. While there is preliminary evidence supporting the efficacy of positive psychology interventions in varied contexts, in some instances the application of positive psychology appears to have progressed faster than the science. More rigorous and independent evaluations of positive interventions in these specific contexts are needed. While some of the existing positive psychology research does adopt scientific rigour (e.g., RCTs), the quality, as with most other fields, is diverse. Nevertheless, research studies are steadily progressing towards ideal standards.

Enhancing the scientific profile of positive psychology

In examining how well positive psychologists have met their initial goals, it is evident that with the development of dedicated journals and publication space within mainstream psychology and other journals, the scientific profile of positive psychology has increased. As noted earlier, more is known about the correlates of wellbeing, including antecedents such as hope, engagement and meaning, and outcomes such as quality relationships and improved physical health. Meta-analyses and RCTs involving group therapy and individual work have demonstrated favourable outcomes of positive interventions. However, more work is needed on delivering and evaluating positive psychology interventions at community and institutional levels and in shaping health policy. Nevertheless, there are clear signs that positive psychology is establishing itself as a science. In order to do so more conclusively a few recommendations for the future are made.

1. A code of ethics and/or practice standards need to be developed

As positive psychology does not belong exclusively to the domain of psychology, but can involve a range of professions including business, law, politics and economics, some regulation of practice is warranted if its status as a science-based profession is to be upheld. Although IPPA oversees the field to some extent, a code of conduct needs to be developed and articulated more clearly to scholars, practitioners and students of positive psychology so that a consistent, evidence-based standard of practice is delivered to consumers.

2. Training opportunities and standards need to be improved

Formal training is one of the major challenges facing those residing in Australia who wish to pursue university training in positive psychology. While many short courses or university subjects are emerging in the area of positive psychology, presently there is no formal university postgraduate degree in Australia dedicated exclusively to positive psychology. The primary pathway available for specialising in positive psychology is to undertake a PhD after having successfully completed professional psychology training (e.g., with an Honours or a Masters degree). While this may change in the near future, with the prospect of a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) course being offered in Australia in the next couple of years, the other alternative is to study abroad in places such as the US or UK where MAPP programs are available. The lack of study opportunities may have serious implications whereby practice may precede science and result in inferior standards of delivery and the threat of a ‘pop psychology' label.

3. Develop measurement approaches which are contemporary, sensitive to change and consider real world contexts

Measurement tools and approaches need to reflect contemporary understandings of wellbeing which are multi-faceted (e.g., pleasure, engagement and meaning). Most studies have adopted a limited perspective of wellbeing, largely focusing on life satisfaction, positive emotion and high activation positive states (e.g., excited, alert). Subsequently, by measuring only a limited account of wellbeing, the full effects of positive interventions may be missed. Moreover, real life and ‘in the moment' measurement approaches such as experience sampling methodology are also needed to gain a fuller understanding of how positive interventions transfer into meaningful practice while minimising the effects of poor recall. This methodology has been used quite extensively in research on flow but should be used more widely in positive psychology research. In addition, an examination of the long-term effects of positive interventions is needed, particularly for outcome measures involving deeper aspects of wellbeing, such as growth and life meaning, which can take some time to take effect.

4. Work more collaboratively with experts from a range of disciplines to understand the mechanisms underlying the efficacy of positive interventions

In some respects, positive psychologists have worked as an insular group. While this may have been necessary in the formative years, it is now time to integrate the knowledge gained from other fields of research and practice. For example, much can be learned about the wellbeing process from the perspective of neuroscience, emotion regulation and physiology. Moreover, in relation to the measurement of wellbeing, physiological and neurological measures may also help confirm the accuracy of subjective emotional reports. With increased insight, such collaborations will increase the likelihood of refining the effects of the interventions on specific groups for different purposes and on influencing macro-level changes in for example, public health and education policies, where more impact is needed.

5. Assimilate with mainstream psychology to create a more comprehensive psychology.

According to some positive psychologists (e.g., Linley, Joseph, Harrington & Wood, 2006) one feasible option for positive psychology is for it to assimilate with mainstream psychology to create a more balanced psychology which places importance on both alleviating mental illness and fostering wellbeing. The aim would be to unite core threads of psychology rather than to divide them. Integration would minimise the false implication generated by the term positive psychology that psychological experiences fall categorically into either positive or negative. Instead a more continuous and complete system of mental health practice and research would be developed and encouraged.

While more recent research within the domain of positive psychology is already starting to incorporate some of these suggestions, such research needs to become more the norm, rather than the exception. Given the accomplishments of positive psychology thus far, and the number of eminent and emerging scholars within the field, the future trajectory of positive psychology continues to be promising.

There are many advantages to positive psychology which point to it being here to stay rather than a passing fad, such as:

  • Positive psychology can provide another (complementary) framework for addressing psychological issues.
  • People can generally relate to and often enjoy positive psychology interventions.
  • No significant contraindications have been reported regarding positive psychology interventions.
  • Positive interventions can be self-administered particularly with the aid of online interventions. This is an important point given that some subgroups are reluctant to seek professional help (e.g., younger males).
  • The fundamentals of positive psychology can be taught to large numbers (high impact with minimal expense).

Future directions

Positive psychology has come a long way in a short time and it has met many of the goals set forth in the first decade, albeit some more fully than others. Positive psychologists should now focus on some additional goals, such as identifying interaction effects, individual difference factors and the underlying mechanisms of effective positive interventions so as to maximise the favourable outcomes of positive interventions with a range of benefactors in mind. Another suggested goal is to draw on the expertise of professionals from a wide range of disciplines with the view to optimising knowledge transfer into meaningful practice at a range of different levels, including social policy. Consequently, a challenge for positive psychology is to invite scholarly and practical contributions from individuals and groups with diverse backgrounds while maintaining scientific rigour and clarifying training and practice standards. Therefore, health professionals are urged to be open to what positive psychology can offer and to consider forming alliances to develop an improved mental health service.

The author can be contacted at dianne.vella-brodrick@monash.edu.

References

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Fava, G.A., Rafanelli, C., Cazzaro, M., Conti, S., & Grandi, S. (1998). Well-being therapy: A novel psychotherapeutic model for residual symptoms of affective disorders. Psychological Medicine, 28, 475-480.

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InPsych April 2011