Meghana A. Rao
President, Work & Organizations Division, International Positive Psychology Association
Director, Human Resource Management Program, Claremont Graduate University
Associate Director & Co-founder, Western Positive Psychology Association
Positive psychology, in its broadest sense, is a field that has been driven by the scientific study and practice of that which makes life worth living (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Since its inception in 1998, this pursuit has witnessed tremendous growth and popularity. Recent reviews of the current state of the field (Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015; Rusk & Waters, 2013) have revealed that there has been a steep rise in conceptual and empirical literature in positive psychology over the past decade. Positive psychology has influenced research across most sub-areas of psychology, and impacted research in disciplines beyond the immediate domain of psychology including education, management, public health, social services, philosophy, and political science, among others (Donaldson, Csikszentmihalyi, & Nakamura, 2011). Although the positive psychology movement originated in the United States (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), there is now a vibrant community of researchers and practitioners across the world.
The early years. Positive psychology began in the late 1990s as a way to counter the dominant focus in psychological science at the time. The early scholars recognized that historically, psychology has focused more attention on pathology and that which is dysfunctional rather than elements that improve quality of life and are adaptive. Within this broader context of the social sciences, positive psychology was born as an attempt to balance this tendency. Although the early thinkers in positive psychology recognized the importance of attention to suffering (Peterson, 2006), they urged interested scholars developing new research to pay focused attention to the positive aspects of life, in an attempt to shift the dominant rhetoric in the scientific research community. Consequently, the founders put forth an agenda for systematic inquiry in positive states and subjective experiences, positive traits, and positive institutions. Inspired by this lens, the new science of positive psychology has drawn increased attention and research each year (Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015) in the study of topics such as subjective well-being (Diener, 2013), self-determination (Deci & Vansteenkiste, 2004), positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001) , character strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), and hope (Shorey, Snyder, Rand, Hockemeyer, & Feldman, 2002). The call for an exclusive focus on the positive aspects, however, also met with criticism and spurred vigorous intellectual debate. In particular, the critics problematized the inattention to the interaction between positive and negative aspects of reality, and the resulting neglect of issues related to social justice and cross-cultural sensitivity.
Current status. Recently, several reviews of the field of positive psychology have attempted to examine the research linked with positive psychology, and empirically assess the extent to which concerns about the field are accurate. The reviews of the current literature reveal a complex story.
A systematic review of the extant literature published in positive psychology since the inception of the movement to 2013 revealed certain interesting features of the literature (Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015). An in-depth review and thematic analysis revealed that positive psychology research, as it stands today, is characterized by two distinct approaches. One is focused on the development and testing of constructs that build positive qualities and improve the quality of life (Rao, Donaldson, & Doiron, 2015). This approach is tightly aligned with the way positive psychology has been defined by the founders of the field and the agenda they set for the research that would constitute positive psychology. The second approach involves the application of positive constructs to aid coping with adversity (Rao, Donaldson, & Doiron, 2015). Although this was not what the early scholars impressed upon, a sizeable portion of the research that identifies itself with positive psychology today, adopts this approach. In an examination of the international landscape of positive psychology research, it was found that while 46% use the first approach (that we refer to as the “positive” approach), 29% adopt the second approach (that we refer to as the “deficit” approach), and 25% use both within the same study (Kim, Doiron, Rao, & Donaldson, 2015). A similar story begins to unfold in the review of the measures used in empirical articles in positive psychology. Pathology-focused scales such as those measuring depression, anxiety and stress are cited and used almost as often as “positive” measures such as those measuring character strengths, gratitude, and resilience (Ackerman, Rao, & Donaldson, 2015). The complexity of how well-being and coping with adversity concern and inform each other among individuals, groups, communities, and organizations has been studied increasingly. Taken together, the reviews suggest that the field has been responsive to the critiques and research in positive psychology has become increasingly balanced in considering the positive as well as harsh realities of human life.
On the other hand, the attention in the field to social justice is lackluster. A review assessed the extent to which positive psychology research addressed issues relevant to disenfranchised populations, with a focus on gender, race and ethnicity (Rao & Donaldson, 2015). The findings of the self-reflective examination of positive psychology research published since 1998 to 2014 revealed that women are overrepresented as participants in empirical research, but underrepresented as first authors, and critical discussion of concerns related to gender are scarce. Empirical research studies conducted globally are based largely on White samples, and issues of race and ethnicity and those of individuals at the intersections of gender, race, and ethnicity are largely ignored.
Implications. Positive psychology, as a field, set out with the agenda of inspiring organized, systematic research and practice on creating, sustaining and enhancing a meaningful life. Over the years, its approach has been growing towards a more holistic perspective; contrasting and integrating the life-enhancing as well as life-depleting aspects of human existence to create deeper understanding and facilitate real flourishing. However, it still has a long way to go in contrasting and integrating diverse voices and needs, particularly of those who find themselves in the margins. It is hoped that the second wave of positive psychology is able to more fully engage this agenda.
Ackerman, C., Rao, M. A., & Donaldson, S. I. (2015). Scaling the heights of positive psychology: Trends and opportunities in measurements. Manuscript in preparation, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Claremont Graduate University, California.
Deci, E. L., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2004). Self-determination theory and basic need satisfaction: Understanding human development in positive psychology. Ricerche Di Psicologia, 27(1), 23-40.
Diener, E. (2013). The remarkable changes in the science of subjective well-being. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6), 663-666. doi:10.1177/1745691613507583
Donaldson, S. I., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (Eds.). (2011). Applied positive psychology: Improving everyday life, health, schools, work, and society. London: Routledge Academic.
Donaldson, S. I., Dollwet, M. & Rao, M. A. (2015). Happiness, excellence, and optimal functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10 (3), 185-195.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.218
Kim, H., Doiron, K. M., Rao, M. A., & Donaldson, S. I. (2015). The emerging science of positive psychology across the world: An overview of 17 years of research. Manuscript in preparation, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Claremont Graduate University, California.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rao, M. A., & Donaldson, S. I. (2015). Expanding opportunities for diversity in positive psychology: An examination of gender, race, and ethnicity. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 56(3), 271-282. doi:10.1037/cap0000036
Rao, M. A., Donaldson, S. I., & Doiron, K. M. (2015). Positive psychology research in the Middle East and North Africa. Middle East Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(1), 60-76.
Rusk, R.D., & Waters, L. E. (2013). Tracing the size, reach, impact, and breadth of positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 207-221.
Seligman, P., & Csikszentmihalyi. M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5
Shorey, H. S., Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., Hockemeyer, J. R., & Feldman, D. B. (2002). Somewhere over the rainbow: Hope theory weathers its first decade. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 322.