Positive Psychology… as opposed to Negative Psychology?
When I mention my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology, the general reaction is one of bafflement followed by a variant of the above statement. However, researchers of pos. psych. do not refer to ‘negative psychology’, rather, ‘psychology as usual’. That said, it is true that traditional psychological study and application tends to focus on a fix: on bettering a patient suffering from a pathological disorder or mental illness such as depression.
“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 illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his psychological height.” – Abraham Maslow
What Positive Psychology does, as opposed to this, is study human potential; ways of ‘flourishing’, building resilience and improving wellbeing. Seeing as statistics reveal that approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem (World Health Organisation, 2001), with anxiety and depression being the most common mental disorders in Britain, Pos. Psych. seems to be a necessary science not only of cure, but prevention; a practice to bolster us against inevitable life challenges.
Is Positive Psychology new?
Not exactly. What we now term positive psychology can actually be traced as far back as the ancient Greeks and the concept of ‘eudaimonia’. In more recent history, humanistic psychology draws on many of the same principles as positive psychology, epitomised in Abraham Maslow’s theorising on self-actualisation.
An Art to Being Human?
My belief is that rarely do you find happy, contented individuals participating in thriving, fulfilled communities simply by accident. It is the principles that underpin positive psychology that bring this about, principles such as: promotion of gratitude, of hope, of goal-setting, optimism etc.
And if you really want to know my personal feelings on the ‘point’ of a study of the positive potential of human nature – in a world riddled with corruption, war, hate, natural disaster and pollution – I think it is pretty nicely summed up in this quote:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.” ― Howard Zinn