This essay is about the emergence of positive psychology into the world of psychology and its rejection during its beginnings. Before World War II psychology was not considered a profession and once had research focused purely on negative valences such as pathologies and mental illnesses. By the end of the 20th century psychology established a role in society, which fueled a need for positive psychology that went on to shape the near paths of psychology and the positive valences in its future.
The Shaky Beginnings of Positive Psychology
Psychology has come a long way in 100 years and the next 100 years are being shaped by new psychological branches. Until the 1950s psychology was barely considered a profession and it wasn’t until World War II that psychology gain increased support. During this time psychology largely focused on repairing diseases and malfunctions of the mind and the war showed many psychologists that their field was needed. It was a shaky beginning that took time to establish roots, though once those roots were established psychological movements such as positive psychology were not freely welcomed to participate.
Until the end of the 20th century some psychologists would argue that positive psychology had never existed. Though, conflicting opinions had formed due to the absence of clearly defined boundaries of positive psychology and due to this it took some psychologist ample convincing before positive psychology could earn merit. Even when clarity in the definition took form the interpretation of the movement was still dependent on the psychologist who was speaking (Lazarus, 2003).
With the emergence of positive psychology, its practitioners promised an improved quality of life by focusing on optimism, hope, happiness, wisdom and how talent and creativity affect living along with other positive emotions. Positive psychologists claimed to fill the gaps of the psychological models that had developed during the century before. The solely positive approach of positive psychology differed from previous psychological approaches as previously psychology dealt primarily with negative emotions (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Concerns arose for a number of reasons, including the fact that previous approaches had been making progress in psychology and had not seen the rise to fame that occurred in positive psychology, yet the previous psychological models definitely deserved credit; they developed fine detailed discoveries such as the kinds of families that could result in children who become successful, or the different types of work environments that support employee satisfaction (Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006).
Before the 1950s psychology had little recognition as a profession, then two significant events, both economical, took place that were to shape the future of psychology. The first was the establishment of the Veterans Administration in 1946 – now known as Veteran Affairs. When this happened psychologists discovered that they could earn a living by treating mental illnesses. Then in 1947 the National Institute of Mental Health was founded – now named the National Institute of Mental Illness. According to Martin E. P. Seligman this resulted in academics’ realization that they could get grants for studying psychology. It was also around this time that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi transferred from Europe to the United States to observe that psychology courses had developed similar to a strand of statistical mechanics, which was not the case in Europe where courses had not yet developed beyond minor studies within different degrees. Although, psychology had developed into courses within the United States, Csikszentmihalyi’s vision for psychology was for it to be viewed as a field of science (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). A decade later a humanistic perspective on psychology was given by the likes of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers which assisted with the positive psychology branch out on its own. Although, the humanistic approach had a great influence on culture, its promises were lacking due to limited empirical evidence (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
In the year 2000, Csikszentmihalyi declared that the time had arrived for positive psychology, as a time not to limit study to pathology, weakness or damage, and to begin psychological studies to bring out the best in humans rather than to treat what was negative within their minds (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
In the early stages of positive psychology, psychologists had referred to positive psychology as a “fad” and given doubts concerning the movement’s prospects (Lazarus, 2003). An issue with the acceptance of positive psychology was that some psychologist and psychiatrists saw the movements as positive emotions versus negative emotions and many believed, in psychology, that the positive could not exist without the negative the same way that the good could not exist without the evil (Lazarus, 2003). Other views of positive psychology were directed towards the personality characteristics of people that helped them strive. Both of the views had the hope to improve a person’s well-being. After positive psychology’s initial arrival, a sudden spurt of attention had occurred and one which renowned psychologists saw as unusual to due to the movement’s lack of solid theory and empirical evidence due to the difficulties associated with research concerning emotions and the establishment of causality (Lazarus, 2003). According to Richard S. Lazarus there are four main problems associated with research concerning emotions and they are: 1.) due to limitation of cross-sectional research; 2.) emotion valence problem; 3.) the individual difference problem; and 4.) the emotion measurement problem (Lazarus, 2003). By the time 2005 had arrived positive psychology had begun to take shape and the word “flourish” frequently appeared in sentences beside positive psychology. Various textbooks and journals had been created and Seligman et. al. (2005) had classified six virtues and 24 character strengths to help shape positive psychology. The first master’s degree also commenced in 2005, offered by the University of Pennsylvania that within one month of it being offered had 200 applications from perspective students. Positive psychology had now stamped its ground in psychology with many psychologists began to hope that the movement would soon disappear due to positive psychology becoming part of the foundation of psychology.
After a shaky beginning for positive psychology, the movement managed to find its way into the psychological field with ample support and models to support its worth. Although, it has been pointed out that studies concerning emotions and the separation of those that have a positive or negative valence, it could also be argued that this is the case when researching emotions during other psychological movements (Lazarus, 2003). Whether the grounding of positive psychology with psychological sciences was a bureaucratic grounding or not, one thing that is certain is that both positive psychology and psychology are here to stay.
Lazarus, R. S. (2003). Does the Positive Psychology Movement Have Legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14, 93-109.
Linley, P. A., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., & Wood, A. M. (2006). Positive psychology: Past, present, and (possible) future. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3-16.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
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