Positive Psychology: The Basics

Positive Psychology Definition

From a field focused on identifying, classifying and solving problems, positive psychology has emerged as a science devoted not to studying the bad, but encouraging the good.

What is the definition of positive psychology?

Positive psychology was founded by Marty Seligman in 1998. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive:

Positive psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance (Seligman, 2002).

Who is researching this?

In addition to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, a number of research centers and universities are focusing on positive psychology, including:


  • The university has featured positive psychology classes taught by Tal Ben-Shahar (please see video above).


Cornell, Emory, Vanderbilt and Yale

  • Each of these universities offers, or has offered, courses in positive psychology.

Studying happiness – is this real science?

Yes! Although the term wasn’t introduced until 1998, positive psychology has actually been around for a long time – just under different names. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, founders of humanistic psychology, popularized the notion of “self-actualization” in the 1960’s and 1970’s – proposing that individuals strive to make the most out of their potential (and that these goals, and the individual’s choices in achieving them, bare significant psychological consequences). In other words, we want to be the best we can be – and how we go about attaining that marker of happiness (and if we’re successful) has a great impact on how we see ourselves and experience the world. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center  explains, positive psychology owes a huge debt to humanistic psychology – as well as philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato who began studying the “good life” centuries ago.

Looking towards the future

Although the field is young, the future of positive psychology looks promising. Featured in an increasing number of news articles, text books and reviews, positive psychology researchers are popularizing the science of happiness. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center notes:

Human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, life entails more than the undoing of problems.

To learn more, see Chris Peterson‘s book, A Primer in Positive Psychology. Also: check out this earlier Prayers and Apples post, Positive Psychology: Happiness and Flow States. To complete free positive psychology questionnaires, click here!

In memory of Chris Peterson (Feb. 18, 1950 – Oct. 9, 2012)


Big Think. Tal Ben-Shahar. Retrieved: 10 October 2012.

Harvard Health Publications. “Special Health Reports: Positive Psychology.” Retrieved: 10 October 2012.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press/Simon and Schuster.

Stanford Hospital & Clinics. “Positive Psychology: The Pursuit of Happiness.” Retrieved: 10 October 2012.

University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Retrieved: 10 October 2012.



  1. says

    creativity, originality, etc, with a stonrg humor as #2. That’s about right. I like that they don’t list all 24 characteristics, so you can’t go and mope about what were your Lowest Strengths.I think it’s a JCAHO requirement that we have to address strengths in a patient. Especially with a chronic problem, that’s important. If you have an infection, you don’t really need strengths so much as you need an antibiotic. But if you have a chronic physical illness, your strengths are going to be of enormous importance.The studies on resiliency in traumatised or neglected children are shoing much the same pattern. Protective factors — like having someone who cares about you, or a stable living arrangement — may be more important predictors than extent of trauma. My two Romanians would certainly be good examples of that.

  2. says

    This is such a great look into Positive Psychology and completely makes me want to get back into studying it! I especially love this line, “Human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, life entails more than the undoing of problems.” So true!

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