I was pleased to learn about one interesting recent branch of Psychology, which does just he contrary to the common psychological studies and practices: Positive psychologists seek “to find and nurture genius and talent”, and “to make normal life more fulfilling”, not simply to treat mental illness. By scientifically studying what has gone right, rather than wrong in both individuals and societies, Positive Psychology hopes to achieve a renaissance of sorts.
The purpose of Positive psychology was summed up in 2000 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise that achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities.”. Yes, finally somebody got it!
As a born psychologist I of cause see the problems and illnesses of human beings and societies very well. But honestly, it’s getting so boring! Why can’t we all start learning how to enjoy the beauty of life and not to make our lives difficult for ourselves and for others?
According to positive psychologists, for most of its life mainstream psychology (sometimes also referred to as ‘psychology as usual’) has been concerned with the negative aspects of human life. There have been pockets of interest in topics such as creativity, optimism and wisdom, but these have not been united by any grand theory or a broad, overarching framework. This rather negative state of affairs was not the original intention of the first psychologists, but came about through a historical accident. Prior to the Second World War, psychology had three tasks, which were to: cure mental illness, improve normal lives and identify and nurture high talent. However, after the war the last two tasks somehow got lost, leaving the field to concentrate predominantly on the first one. How did that happen? Given that psychology as a science depends heavily on the funding of governmental bodies, it is not hard to guess what happened to the resources after World War II. Understandably, facing a human crisis on such an enormous scale, all available resources were poured into learning about and the treatment of psychological illness and psychopathology.
This is how psychology as a field learnt to operate within a disease model. This model has proven very useful. Martin Seligman highlights the victories of the disease model, which are, for example, that 14 previously incurable mental illnesses (such as depression, personality disorder, or anxiety attacks) can now be successfully treated. However, the costs of adopting this disease model included the negative view of psychologists as ‘victimologists’ and ‘pathologisers’, the failure to address the improvement of normal lives and the identification and nurturance of high talent. Just to illustrate, if you were to say to your friends that you were going to see a psychologist, what is the most likely response that you would get? ‘What’s wrong with you?’. How likely are you to hear something along the lines of: ‘Great! Are you planning to concentrate on self-improvement?’.
Many psychologists admit that we have little knowledge of what makes life worth living or of how normal people flourish under usual, rather than extreme, conditions. The Western world has long overgrown the rationale for an exclusively disease model of psychology.
Perhaps now is the time to readdress the balance by using psychology resources to learn about normal and flourishing lives, rather than lives that are in need of help. Perhaps now is the time to gather knowledge about strengths and talents, high achievement (in every sense of this word), the best ways and means of self-improvement, fulfilling work and relationships, and a great art of ordinary living carried out in every corner of the planet. This is the rationale behind the creation of positive psychology.
However, positive psychology is still nothing else but psychology, adopting the same scientific method. It simply studies different (and often far more interesting) topics and asks slightly different questions, such as ‘what works?’ rather than ‘what doesn’t?’ or ‘what is right with this person?’ rather than ‘what is wrong?’
The reason why I broke up with my psychology studies was exactly this one: I was fed up with learning what’s wrong with all of us. I prefered to know what’s right and I was obviously not alone!
What a truly positive development 🙂
(image by me)