What is positive psychology?

Eve, Le Blog Best Practices, Personal development

All EVE participants have come across the idea of positive psychology, especially during presentations by internationally-renowned speaker Tal Ben-Shahar.

The EVE webmagazine takes a look at the history, ideas, and uses of this increasingly popular concept, and finishes up by casting a critical eye over its more negative implications.


1998: Official beginnings, which can be traced back to Aristotle

Bringing psychology into the “real world”

Washington, October 1998. At the 107th annual congress of the American Psychological Association, the President of the institution, Martin Seligman announced the arrival of a new field of psychic, mental and behavioral sciences: positive psychology.

The ideas go against other approaches to psychology that, in his view, had been too focused on suffering and mental illness, and neglected well-being and happiness. He also criticized “conventional” psychologists for being too bogged down in theory, too abstract, too intellectual, and advocated a more pragmatic approach that would provide people with tips for improving their everyday lives. He wanted to bring psychology into the “real world”.


Reinventing the wheel?

Eyes rolled and grumbles could be heard around the hall. The more cultured among those who found fault with Seligman’s suggestion made it very clear that he wasn’t bringing anything new to the table. Aristotle had already shared his recipe for happiness during Antiquity. Spinoza had already written about the incredible power of joy. Peale had put forward the concept of “Positive thinking” and Emile Coué had expressed his ideas on how autosuggestion can help people see the glass as half full. Japanese people had been practicing the art of ikigai for hundreds of years. And what of the behaviorists who had been working since the beginning of the 20th century using very concrete therapeutic methods, were they now to be known as psychologists too?


Framing the “positive” approach

In actual fact, precisely because there are so many different forms of positivity, Seligman wanted to give them a framework, methods, and a moral code.

First, he needed to define positive psychology: the science of what makes life worth living.

Secondly, he had to establish a research perimeter: from the role of emotions to the effects of empathy including the impetus for motivation and commitment, the engines of hope and optimism, the quest for meaning and self-learning through experience, and the means to improve efficiency and impact in communication, positive psychology covers everything that enables people to find inner harmony and enjoy a good quality relationship with their environment.

Thirdly, he had to set out a method. Positive psychology is usually based on feedback from clinical experience, in addition to findings from neuroscience (to illustrate what happens inside the brain when it experiences emotions, for instance) or economics (from a clear utilitarian perspective for example, to hold up empathy as a tool for understanding others that may be useful in discerning their interests, needs or weaknesses).


Clearing up confusion

“Positive thinking” scandals

While still unsure of its own definition, positive psychology has had to face controversy over its supposed associations with the notion of “positive thinking”. The concept, coined in 1952 by reformist pastor Norman Peale, whose reputation was tainted by reports of angry statements against American Catholics (including President Kennedy), suffered some bad press in the social sciences and humanities fields.

The idea of “positive thinking” came under fire for how it denies suffering, and endangers the psychological welfare of individuals who have suffered trauma. There is also concern about depoliticization when analyzing groups, making it the responsibility of each individual to see things in a positive light (with the harmful effects of the “magical thoughts” that go with it). There is also a risk that the idea of autosuggestion might be used to slide into sectarianism. Or simply, one might have a disliking for the impenetrable waffle spouted by Pastor Peale that has no basis in science.


Positive psychology distances itself from “positive thinking” and lays out its methodological framework

The positive psychology movement needed to stand out from the crowd if it was to find credibility. The FAQ page belonging to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the “official” body for Seligman and his followers, presents the idea in three points:

1/ Positive psychology is grounded in scientific study.

2/ Positive psychology recognizes that in spite of the advantages of positive thinking, there are times when negative or realistic thinking is appropriate. Positive psychology prefers to refer to optimism as the ability to transform yourself, rather than use Coue’s method of convincing yourself of anything and everything at any cost.

3/ Positive psychology is not a replacement for traditional psychology but merely a supplement to the hard-won gains of traditional psychology to enhance individual and collective well-being..


The three pillars of the positive psychology method

Once peace had been made with opponents who wanted to disqualify the new trend right from the beginning, theories and methods could be developed.


The 3 paths to authentic happiness

In 2002, Seligman built a Venn diagram placing authentic happiness at the crossroads where the three paths to self-knowledge converge:

  • “The Pleasant Life”, which covers everything that brings pleasure, joy and a feeling of well-being to an individual.
  • “The Good Life” which encompasses social satisfaction and participation in a community, or even in making the world a better place.
  • “The Meaningful Life” is what gives genuine meaning to your life, what happens when you focus on your priorities.

If you can identify these three points within your personality and bring them into alignment, then pure happiness is within reach.


The PERMA Model

In 2011, Seligman went further with this concept by proposing the PERMA model, which is an acronym for:

  • Positive Emotion: as well as feelings of well-being and joy, there is also excitement, pride, gratitude and other emotions that warm the cockles of your heart, body and mind.
  • Engagement: originally “The Good Life”, now with the need to take action to help others, contribute to progress.
  • Relationships: communicating and spending time with others to get to know yourself better, convivial experiences generate new positive emotions.
  • Meaning: to look into the why of everything and consequently to begin by challenging the question before looking for the answer.
  • Accomplishment: the successes, however small, that each day brings must build up a stock of continually renewed self-confidence.



Seligman teamed up with Christopher Peterson to write Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV), which they intended to be a parallel to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the psychiatrist’s bible. The CSV concept is based on 6 classes of virtues that are made up of 24 character strengths.

These 6 virtues are:

  • Wisdom and knowledge: the art of taking a step back to give way to the diversity within yourself and differences with others, to unleash your creativity, take the time to be inspired, etc.
  • Courage: the ability to doubt, but also to act in ways that are coherent with your values.
  • Humanity: the quality of your interactions with others and your emotional and social intelligence.
  • Justice: the spirit of citizenship, the desire to contribute to something that goes beyond basic individual interests.
  • Temperance: self-control, a form of relational ecology, when you are concerned about the impact of your actions in addition to the good intentions that dictate them.
  • Transcendence: the ambition to achieve excellence, even when it comes to living your best life.


Each person must identify the strengths and traits that they need to focus on within these six classes of virtues, and rely on their strengths to improve their weaknesses.


The outstanding success of positive psychology, the cornerstone of “personal development”

The intellectual accessibility of positive psychology, as well as its optimistic foundation is a welcome contrast to the gloominess of current economic and social crises, which has brought the idea tremendous success with the general public. The works of Seligman and his many disciples fly off the shelves; coaches develop ideas at top speed; speakers tackle the issue in front of packed conference theaters…

And this triumph leads to a win for personal development which has now grown from a “women’s thing” and is set to become the key to a successful future in management and leadership, areas of business which now require soft skills in a world that is changing fast, and constantly calling for more agility.


Criticism of positive psychology: individualism, denial of social systems and the veneration of performance

Questions about positive psychology and personal development therefore address the same issues: by measuring progress based on an individual’s ability to develop, aren’t we brushing structural dysfunction under the carpet? Doesn’t that raise suspicions about connections between positive psychology and the liberal and utilitarian doctrines that measure the value of everything by how well it performs?


Positive psychology, a veiled invitation to elitist individualism?

Eva Iliouz and Edgar Cabanas summarize the risks presented by individualism in the positive psychology craze in their book Happycratie, which came out in 2018. Criticizing the double standards in the right to happiness when senior executives and directors benefit from advanced training in leadership, but less privileged social classes have to make do with an ideology based on standard ideas of happiness, the authors express concern about encouraging individuals to feel excessively good about themselves, especially in a context where the challenges presented by the world we live in and the world we are facing suggest that collective issues actually require more urgent attention.

In response, defenders of positive psychology reasonably suggest that if we are to meet the array of difficult challenges that lie ahead, isn’t it best to have strong people at the helm who know where they are going and how to lead the way?


Does positive psychology conceal structural defects?

Fair enough, other critics may say, it’s actually smarter to nurture balanced leadership than to have unstable pessimists in control who don’t know which direction they should be going. Provided, however, that these positive leaders don’t become so distracted by their own satisfaction just about being themselves, and keeping in mind that not all the world’s problems can be resolved using happiness alone.

The therapist Kirk Schneider, from the school of existential-humanistic psychology, first underlined the importance of vigilance on this issue, calling the attention of Seligman and his followers to the Nazi regime and the Ku Klux Klan. We can’t change the course of history, but what would a positive psychologist have said to alleged racists who had plans to build a supremacist world? By extension, what can positive psychology do about the rise of populism? Perhaps the Resistance, or the political protestors and whistleblowers in our past would have been called spoilsports?

Trapped in its own rule to “challenge the question before trying to find the answer”, positive psychology must admit that we do need history, sociology, philosophy, political science and other approaches to psychology if we are to look at the world sensibly and provide answers to our main problems.


Is our performance culture the downside of positive psychology?

The third major criticism of positive psychology is when it is used to optimize performance. Positioned as a way of continually improving personal effectiveness at work, positive psychology suggests that quality of life, well-being, respect for yourself and others, the spirit of fairness and inclusion, happiness and the inner quest for meaning are all levers for productivity.

The most pragmatic thinkers don’t care: it doesn’t matter how we deal with humans, provided that progress is made in the end. The most politicized are less confident: drawing on the works of Bourdieu on the one hand, they suggest that developing soft skills involves an increased risk of social fracture (valuable social skills are gained more often within an informal social environment than organized structures such as schools or businesses), while on the other they warn about the power the economic world would gain by getting into the business of personal happiness for the people… with managers and shareholders being first in line to benefit.

This rather gloomy criticism is purposefully boiled down to an outmoded binary analysis of class relations and power in the workplace that new forms of social relations, collective commitment (networks, spontaneous movements, etc.) and employee expectations (autonomy, work-life balance, valuing initiative and entrepreneurship /intrapreneurship…) easily debunk.


In summary: yes to positive psychology, but not in isolation…

What the criticism in fact challenges is not so much positive psychology in itself, but heralding it as a belief system for acquiring social skills and its dominance in speeches and policies on how to transform working conditions.

Once the risk of any unambiguous approach has been taken into account, we need to combine the undeniable contributions of positive psychology, starting with its pragmatism, with other ways of understanding the challenges posed by economic and social transformations at work: anthropology, (psycho)sociology, law, political science, economics in all its forms, and all other human and social sciences disciplines, which have their own individual uses and can contribute to building the business world of tomorrow.


Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.