Positive psychology: What is “the good life”?
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/17/2023
Positive psychology is a psychological approach to human flourishing. Rather than attempting to “fix” our failings or shortcomings, it focuses on building our potential and creating a life worth living. A large part of positive psychology revolves around how to define “the good life,” or the certain experiences and attributes that, when pursued, can result in high levels of human satisfaction.
Dr. Martin Seligman founded the concept of positive psychology in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. Seligman encouraged psychologists to study not just mental illness, but also mental wellness.
Instead of focusing on the disease model of psychology—which looks at what’s “wrong” or abnormal about human functioning—Dr. Seligman wanted to focus on psychological flourishing, moving beyond simply surviving into thriving. Thus, the field of positive psychology was born.
The concept of “the good life,” or eudaimonia, goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Whereas hedonism focuses on happiness and pleasure, eudaimonia focuses on a deeper form of wellness, contentedness, joy, and satisfaction.
Many religions, scientific theories, schools of thought, and social movements have, in some way or another, attempted to define eudaimonia for their adherents or believers. Positive psychologists attempt to use the science of psychological research to create a new definition. Just as the DSM-5 is a diagnostic and statistical tool for defining and diagnosing mental health disorders, positive psychologists believe there should be an evidence-based definition or even manual of sorts for mental flourishing.
Positive psychology suggests that survival or functioning should not be opposite of struggle, but should instead be the midpoint of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum should be flourishing: the ability not just to survive, but to thrive. Flourishing is characterized by six core virtues:
- Wisdom and knowledge: Learning, discerning, creating, and questioning
- Courage: Persevering, demonstrating bravery, and telling the truth
- Humanity: Loving and caring for others
- Justice: Working together and leading fairly
- Temperance: Forgiving, self-regulating, and demonstrating humility and restraint
- Transcendance: Experiencing and appreciating hope, beauty, humor, and gratitude
Flow refers to the state of immersive, rewarding focus often associated with creative pursuits. Originally studied by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the late twentieth century, flow has been identified by positive psychologists as a part of human flourishing.
When you experience flow, you often lose track of time and become fully immersed in whatever task you are engaged in. The task you’re working on utilizes your strengths while also presenting at least somewhat of a challenge. You may experience flow in a number of scenarios, such as:
- Writing prose or poetry
- Editing a video
- Coding a website
- Painting a portrait
- Designing a blueprint
- Working in a garden
- Creating a playlist or mixtape
- Organizing your files
- Spring-cleaning your home
A sense of strength or personal agency is key to experiencing flow. Rarely will you experience flow when trying something for the first time or practicing something at a beginner’s level. A young music student, for example, isn’t likely to enter a state of flow while learning a new piece of music. But for an experienced musician, encountering a challenging new song may create the perfect opportunity to get lost in the flow.
In addition to positive psychology, Dr. Seligman also laid the foundation for the theory of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is the concept that individuals can be conditioned to expect and accept pain and suffering in life if they believe they cannot escape it. Their helplessness may be an objective reality, or it may be a perception. Regardless, if the person believes they are helpless, they will resist attempts to change or escape their condition.
Resilience training, on the other hand, enables people to change, challenge, and overcome negative situations when possible. Instead of feeling helpless, resilient people understand and rely on their strengths while also acknowledging their own limitations. This gives them greater agency to change what is within their control and accept what is not.
Making the jump from learned helplessness to resilience takes practice. Certain therapies can help you learn the power and limits of your own agency, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Self-compassion can help you respond to situations over which you have little or no control in healthy, positive ways.
The tenets of positive psychology are applicable on three different levels:
- Subjective level: Your personal happiness and well-being are based on your feelings and daily life.
- Individual level: Your personal happiness and well-being are informed by your feelings and daily life but are rooted in specific virtues and values.
- Group level: Your personal happiness and well-being are tied to and strengthened by the happiness and well-being of your community.
PERMA is an acronym created by Dr. Seligman to illustrate five basic attributes of well-being:
- P – Positive emotions: Happiness is a key component to human flourishing. However, it’s not the only one. It is important to build other positive emotions as well, including pleasure, inspiration, hope, compassion, and gratitude.
- E – Engagement: Being fully engaged in your life is important to your well-being. Engagement also includes the concept of flow.
- R – Relationships: As a social species, humans crave connection. It’s important to strive for interdependence, not isolation disguised as independence.
- M – Meaning: Living for oneself alone rarely results in true happiness. Positive psychology suggests that connecting to something larger than ourselves actually makes us happier than a more selfish mindset.
- A – Accomplishment/achievement: Everyone has their own strengths. Achievement and improvement give us a sense of agency and fuel our happiness.
Positive psychology has exploded in popularity over the past two decades, and as a relatively new focus in the field of psychology, it has both fans and critics. Criticisms of positive psychology include:
- Lack of evidence: Much of the research regarding positive psychology is based on individuals reporting on their own happiness and experiences. Although self-reporting is a valid form of evidence in research, it is not the most reliable.
- Ignorance of societal barriers: There are real, true barriers to “the good life” in society that cannot be improved by a simple change in mindset. Poverty, illness, systemic injustice, and other forms of discrimination complicate the idea that eudaimonia is equally available to everyone who wants it.
- Commercialization: The field of positive psychology has seen a boom in certified trainers, self-help books, and a number of other commodities promising to set people on the path toward “the good life.” Although some of this information is helpful, some positive psychologists overstep the bounds of science for their own professional and financial gain.
- Philosophical/religious undertones: The term “positive philosophy” may be more accurate than “positive psychology.” Instead of offering psychological research and analysis, positive psychology prescribes certain values and virtues as morally superior to others. The quest to define “the good life” enters territory once exclusive to moral philosophers, religious leaders, and historic thinkers.
- Toxic positivity: Critics of positive psychology argue that the movement overemphasizes the importance of maintaining an overly optimistic mindset, even in the face of genuine difficulties and setbacks, which encourages people to deny or suppress uncomfortable or negative feelings. This invalidates the reality of people’s authentic emotional experiences.
These critiques don’t mean that positive psychology is a scam or a cure-all—rather, it means that more research is needed. In addition, proponents of positive psychology would argue that some of this criticism is misplaced or misguided.
In the meantime, those who want to explore positive psychology should feel free to do so while also keeping in mind the potential shortcomings of this movement.
One of the great advantages of positive psychology is that it offers practical tips for how to apply its methodology to your daily life. If you’re interested in incorporating a more positive mindset in your life, consider:
- Identifying your strengths: Everyone has strengths. Identifying yours can help you fully engage in life, improve your skills, get lost in flow, and experience the joy of achievement.
- Practicing gratitude: Gratitude connects us to something greater than ourselves and strengthens our bonds with friends and family.
- Offering forgiveness: Forgiveness is key to strengthening relational bonds and resisting isolation.
- Meditating: Mindfulness and meditation are great tools for helping people engage fully in their lives and experience the joy of positive emotions as they occur.
- Seeking professional treatment: A professional positive psychologist can help address any problems you may be having with mental health through the lens of positive psychology. Click here to find a positive Therapist near you.
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The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.