Positive psychology is “the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions” (Linley, Joseph, Harrington & Wood, 2006). It focuses on positive individual traits such as the capacity for love, courage, interpersonal skills, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, spirituality, and wisdom (Linley et al., 2006).
Before the late 1930s, psychological studies were mainly concerned with mental health, as well as ensuring that people led productive lives. Later on, however, there was a shift towards improving peoples’ lives and nurturing talent. Curing illnesses became a well-researched and strong branch of psychology but psychology as a whole became less appreciated by other health professions (Snyder & Lopez, 2002). Psychology was exclusively committed to healing pathology without paying any attention to improving the general fulfillment of the society. The introduction of positive psychology meant that there was a focus not only on correcting what had gone wrong in an individual’s life but also on building the best qualities in life (Snyder & Lopez, 2002). Some feel that positive psychology has its unique characteristics and should not be tied with humanistic psychology. Others feel that positive psychology relies on wishful thinking and deceiving oneself. This paper will critically evaluate the positive psychology movement and its future as a separate discipline.
Even though the term positive psychology was coined in 1964 by Abraham Maslow, Martin Seligman is credited with popularizing it. The use of positive psychology by the public was also not accidental. Positive psychology’s quick move from research to application happened due to a highly publicized push by its founders (Azar, 2011). They used the press and any available media to popularize this movement. To enable faster progress in this movement and to promote cross-fertilization of ideas, advocates for positive psychology have made moves to create academic interest and funding. They are now able to hold annual conferences, they have created a summer institute for professors, and have various websites set up (Duckworth, Steen & Seligman 2005).
The positive psychology movement has higher chances of becoming a separate discipline. A movement acquires its uniqueness by having appropriate sets of beliefs as its exclusive domain (Held, 2004). In the positive psychology movement, those who seek independence from psychology have defended the “positive psychology territory” rather than searching for similarities with psychology (Held, 2004). They have gone to great lengths to make this happen. Positive psychology may succeed in separating itself as it has strong spokesmen. Seligman created a model of weakness/pathology and stressed the negative aspects of negative psychology in an act of social construction (Held, 2004). He did not mind using the press to broadcast his message. His methods are viewed as excessive but they may be what positive psychology needs to separate itself.
Positive psychology may separate itself as it is supported by strong theories. The need and goal satisfaction theories and the process or activity theories support positive psychology. To support the need theory, a study done by Snyder and Lopez (2002) found a positive association between the degree to which individual needs were met and the level of life satisfaction. In this theory, happiness occurs when the individual’s desires are met. The result of this theory is similar to that of process theory were taking part in a certain activity results in happiness. The highest level of happiness is achieved when the person takes part in an interesting activity that matches one’s level of skill (Snyder & Lopez, 2002).
The use of theory may also be the reason why the positive psychology movement may be unable to separate itself from humanistic psychology. The set-point theory argues that people maintain a base level of happiness throughout their life (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). This theory argues that trying to improve one’s level of happiness is an exercise in futility as one always returns to the same level. Some argue that levels of well-being are inherited and therefore cannot be changed. The cognitive evaluation theory posits that social and environmental factors result in differences in motivation between individuals (Compton, 2005). In this theory, they argued that one is motivated by the feedback obtained from other people. This theory also argued that the individual had to be free from negative feedback to thrive. Their final point was that the individual had an internal locus of control (Compton, 2005). These two theories do not just question the interventions used in improving happiness but strike at the very heart of positive psychology. If these theories bear substantial evidence, they will discredit positive psychology’s standing as a separate discipline.
Positive psychology is likely to become a separate discipline as there is a need for it in the modern world. The modern world faces difficulties such as global warming, natural disasters, recessions, homelessness, terrorism, and endless wars. Studies show that only 18% of adults are flourishing, 65% enjoy average mental health and 17% are languishing. This study showed a correlation between flourishing and academic achievement, setting goals, heightened self-control, and perseverance (Compton, 2005). These aspects of life are what many aspire to achieve. Other studies show that the modern world has more need for positive psychology than humanistic psychology. Most aspects of life are better now as compared to fifty years ago. Purchasing power is three times what it used to be, living areas are much bigger and more comfortable, transportation is improved and so is clothing (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich & Linkins, 2009). All that has declined in the modern world is human morale as there is increased depression and anxiety while happiness remains average. The average Briton or German is less satisfied with life (Seligman, et al., 2009). Positive psychology advocates are aiming to fulfill the need for happiness that seems to be the quality that is most lacking in this society.
Although positive psychology has grown popular very fast, its effects are not easily measurable. This will make it difficult for it to become a separate discipline. Psychology is focused on the negative motivations while positive psychology is focused on the positive. Negative motivations are authentic while positive emotions are derivative (Snyder & Lopez, 2002). Negative emotions are therefore quite evident and measurable while positive emotions depend on the individual’s report. Those who are pro positive psychology argue that positive emotions are not as urgent as negative ones hence they get to be overlooked (Snyder & Lopez, 2002). Some of the measures of well-being include physical health, income, marital status, self-esteem, job morale, optimism, and intelligence. All these are difficult to measure as most are subjective and depend on the report of the participant. Physical health, for example, is one of the more reliable measures but its credibility has been questioned as participants’ perceptions of good health rise as a result of subjective well-being (Snyder & Lopez, 2002). This affects the objectivity of the data obtained.
Positive psychology advocates distance themselves from psychology based on differences in the application of methods. Psychology is skeptical about the use of empirical methods and that in the eyes of the positive psychologist means it is not founded on a scientific base (Boniwell, 2006). Positive psychology uses the same methods that gave clinical research credibility and earned it respect. It uses classification systems, stable, reliable methods of assessment, prospective longitudinal studies, and experimental methods (Duckworth et al., 2005). Positive psychology is progressively following the footsteps of clinical research with the development of new assessment tools and interventions. This will be well received in academic circles and may give positive psychology the backing it needs to establish itself as a separate discipline.
Positive psychology faces the danger of fading away in the next generation. Two factors could lead to its demise. One is that psychology is now integrating the methods of positive psychology into its practice (Linley et al., 2006). This will take psychology back to pre Second World War when psychology was wholesome and covered all aspects of mental health and illnesses. This occurrence is what some supporters of positive psychology aimed for and to them, there would be no more need to separate. The second factor is that the young psychologists emerging today have been brought up in a positive psychology environment (Linley et al., 2006). They will not recognize the difference between psychology and positive psychology. In the future, they will assume that positive psychology is a part of psychology and practice it as such.
The pace at which positive psychology has grown is indicative of its potential success as a separate discipline. In less than twenty years, positive psychology has managed to accomplish what took psychology a hundred years. It is being used in therapy, in schools, businesses, and even in some military institutions (Azar, 2011). Businesses are now known to hire happiness coaches for their employees. It is important to note that in such countries as the UK, among others, the education policy allows the children to promote and enhance the character and moral development (Seligman et al., 2009). These moves to introduce positive psychology in the young ones will firmly embed the discipline in the next generation and contribute to its split from psychology. The fast pace at which positive psychology is moving is however a shortcoming as some argue that this fast pace is outpacing science. They argue that its involvement in public opinion has tainted its credibility. Snyder and Lopez et al (2002) do point out that for positive psychology to become viable and for it to endure, it will have to design good hypotheses that can be tested and analyzed using the current statistical procedures.
Positive psychology may become a separate discipline due to its unique nature. A movement such as this appears to be immune to public interference as the results of its effectiveness are best obtained from the public response. It is a science that involves people in their natural habitat and that is where the research should take place. It cannot be expected to take place in a controlled environment such as that of clinical research. A controlled environment would not yield genuine data and would be difficult to apply in real-life situations. Researching in the real world brings many variables and developing tools to function in this environment is a challenge.
There is a lot of evidence that supports positive psychology becoming a separate discipline as presented in this paper. The positive evidence presented here far outweighs that of those who believe that it will not split from humanistic psychology. The overwhelming support from its advocates and their willingness to go to any lengths to establish positive psychology as a separate discipline will go a long way. Its uniqueness is evident in its different sets of beliefs. The need and goal satisfaction theories and the process or activity theories discussed here give a lot of support to this movement even though other theories such as set point theory may challenge this movement.
This paper has shown that there is a need for this kind of movement in the modern world. More and more people have improved most aspects of their lives and all that remains is improving their happiness. Positive psychology is given credibility due to its use of scientific methods. This factor is what sets this movement apart from psychology. This factor may be what will keep it from integrating with psychology. It has progressed very fast and managed to accomplish a lot in a decade. Its popularity with the masses is also a big boost and although critics feel that the public involvement may interfere with its research, positive psychology is a science of the public and its well-being and should therefore largely involve the public.
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