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Why Positive Psychology is for Everyone

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

I love psychology, and human behaviour fascinates me, but I found the focus on maladaptive and dysfunctional behaviours and the emphasis on ‘fixing’ problematic. In the 90s, I was frustrated by the lack of focus on what makes adults and children resilient in the face of adversity. So imagine my delight when I discovered a new branch of psychology focusing on the positive!

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of the good and fulfilled life. Positive psychologists scientifically study positive emotions, positive personality traits and positive institutions. Basically, they study what makes life worth living. Articles and books in this field cover topics such as happiness, optimism, wisdom, courage, humanity and humour.

What makes that so special, I hear you ask? Historically, these positive aspects of life were all but overlooked by traditional psychology which largely focused on how people survive and endure adversity, mental illness and bad childhoods. There has been relatively little research on how people can flourish to their full potential.

It’s true that bookshop shelves are covered with ‘self-help’ books promising that you’ll be able to lose weight, win friends, influence people, make huge amounts of money, and find the love of your life simply by wishing it. However, the great majority of these books don’t have robust, scientific studies to back up their claims. Positive psychology does.

A Brief History

To really understand the origins of positive psychology, I went investigating. A very useful source was the millennial issue of the American Psychologist devoted to positive psychology. In the introduction, Martin Seligman, who is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers and the leading spokesman of positive psychology, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined the history and background of modern psychology, explaining how its focus on pathology evolved.

Before the Second World War, the emerging science of psychology had three distinct missions, namely to:

  1. cure mental illness;
  2. make people’s lives more productive and fulfilling;
  3. identify and nurture talent.

Things changed after the war: as you’d expect, the emphasis shifted to where the money was. The post-war establishment of the Veteran’s Administration and its funding of mental illness treatment saw psychologists exclusively focus on curing mental illness to the exclusion of the other two missions.

This focus was further aided by the founding of the National Institute of Mental Health in 1947. The Institute was based on the disease model of pathology – in other words, looking at what was wrong with people and how to fix it. As a consequence, according to Seligman, academics found that they could get grants if their research was about pathology.

So if you ever thought that psychology was overly preoccupied with what ails people, with pathological weakness and with damage, you were right!

What is Revolutionary about Positive Psychology?

That people want to make their lives better and be happier isn’t new. Yet it is a well-documented phenomenon that as countries and individuals in the West have grown wealthier, they have also become unhappier. In the US, there is talk of a ‘depression epidemic’. In New Zealand, according to a global study, one in six have thought of suicide, and depression is identified as the strongest risk factor.

This phenomenon has no doubt fuelled the growth of the self-help industry and its self-proclaimed happiness gurus. What is revolutionary about positive psychology is that it is a science. In positive psychology, the same long term quantitative and qualitative research methodologies used in medicine and psychiatry are applied to the study of what makes life better and how we as individuals can make ourselves happier and more fulfilled. Positive psychologists investigate and compare various approaches to identify what really works and what doesn’t.

Signature Strengths vs Talents

Classification of mental disorders in a way that is respected and upheld all over the world is the backbone of psychology and psychiatry and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the handbook for mental health professionals.

Martin Seligman figured out that without a similar, agreed way to classify the ‘sanities’, positive psychology would run the risk of using subjective, culturally specific and unreliable measures. So, Seligman and Co enlisted Christopher Peterson, the director of the clinical psychology programme at the University of Michigan, to oversee the creation of an authoritative classification and measurement system of human strengths.

Strengths are different from talents. Talents are highly heritable and are ‘fixed’ in the sense that you are either talented in something – like music – or you’re not. Even with the best teachers, if you have little or no musical talent you’d be at best average. You can, however, choose to nurture your talent; employing the best teachers and working very hard will increase the chances that your talent will be greatly enhanced. But you can’t choose to possess musical talent.

Strengths are different. Possessing strengths involves choices; you choose whether you want to develop them and keep building and using them. Strengths, as Seligman, Peterson et al. define them, are things that we can proactively enhance throughout our lives. And much of our happiness and fulfilment depends on our doing so, but more on this later.

To undertake this mammoth task of classifying and measuring strengths, Peterson’s group began by searching for virtues that are ubiquitous across the most globally representative cultures. Drawing on the writings of Aristotle, Plato, the Old Testament, the Talmud, Buddha and Confucius and others, they found that almost every one endorsed six core virtues:

  1. Wisdom and knowledge
  2. Courage
  3. Love and humanity
  4. Justice
  5. Temperance
  6. Spirituality and transcendence

Being psychologists, however, this was not enough. Their task developed into translating these six virtues into something that could be clearly defined, measured, evaluated and studied.

Enter: Signature Strengths

Seligman, Peterson et al. developed 24 signature strengths that can be measured. These strengths underpin the six character virtues. The way to acquire each virtue is through developing the signature strengths behind it.

To find your signature strengths, visit

Much has been written about positive psychology but what has stuck with me is finding ways to use my signature strengths every day and in everything I do.

Many professional women are consumed with what they are not good at and how they should work on their ‘weaknesses’ or, in management speak, their ‘areas for development’. Give yourself a break for a week, identify your signature strengths and try to consciously use one of your strengths in an area you wouldn’t normally use it. Long term studies have found this simple little intervention sustainably increases happiness and decreases depressive symptoms.

The Work-Fulfilment Nexus: Values Alignment, Signature Strengths, and being Appreciated

Being able to use your signature strengths at work is obviously a ‘must have’ for personal fulfilment and job satisfaction. If you can’t use your signature strengths at work, chances are you will feel that you aren’t able to perform at your best. Thus, reflecting on whether your job allows you to use your signature strengths will provide you with great insight into your career and personal well-being.

However, I don’t think this is enough. Looking back on my own career, and those of my family and friends as well as people I have coached and mentored, it dawned on me that we also need to feel valued and respected for possessing and using these strengths.

Imagine the following scenario. Three of your top five signature strengths are social intelligence, integrity and humour. You are in a professional services industry, you work with clients and you can use your strengths every day in your interaction with them. However, the firm you work with doesn’t value those strengths. Your clients might, but your bosses don’t. How satisfied do you think you’ll be?

To be valued by your employers, you need to pick the organisation with the right culture for you. This will be a workplace where the corporate values align with your own values. If your core values are meaningful relationships based on integrity and honesty and you work for an organisation that values ‘making a quick buck’, the chances are that they are not going to appreciate your signature strengths.

I firmly believe that our values are closely tied to our signature strengths. We are likely to value the things we choose to develop and enhance in ourselves. People who are satisfied and who prosper at work and in their private lives are likely to have these three things in full alignment:

  • They work in organisations with similar values to those they personally hold (and I mean the REAL values, not those on nice posters on the wall).
  • They get to use their signature strengths at work and they do this frequently.
  • They are valued at work for those strengths.

Words of Caution

Although the claims made by positive psychology are based on scientific research and large scale studies rather than on emotionally compelling, individual anecdotes, being a science also means that there is some valid criticism of the field.

The first and most obvious criticism is that none of this is actually new and a lot of it is just ‘common sense’. Indeed, this may be the case at first glance. However, if focusing on one’s strengths is simply ‘common sense’, then why is it that most performance discussions are focused on ‘areas for further development’? As is often the case, it turns out ‘common sense’ is not so common after all.

One major criticism of the field is that positive psychology has a prescriptive nature. Some have gone as far as to call it a ‘religion’. Another criticism is that many of the claims are made without long term evidence about their usefulness and lack of causing harm. Finally, it is also acknowledged by some positive psychologists that increasing happiness levels will potentially diminish creative outputs.

So, How Happy Should We Be?

I believe the answer depends on what’s important for you. If you value success and achievement, chances are some unhappiness is quite a powerful driver.

The World Values Survey, carried out with nearly 120,000 people from 96 countries by Dr Ed Weiner from the University of Illinois, found that those who were moderately happy (rating their life satisfaction as eight or nine out of ten) made more money than those who scored ten. But those who scored nine and ten were more likely to have stable, intimate relationships (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2008).

Dr Weiner hypothesised that extremely happy people might be more satisfied with their lives and thus less likely to strive for higher rewards. Everyone agrees that being happy is vastly preferable to being unhappy. The question remains: how much happiness is enough?

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