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A Brief History of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Positive Psychology is a relatively new form of study that looks at human beings as drivers of their own success through passions, strengths, and virtues rather than focusing on the way in which we can change our flaws and weaknesses.

According to the Positive Psychology Center, “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivae what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”

But, where did this realm of study come from and how has it impacted the way in which researchers have looked at human development?

The Existential Approach

Prior to positive psychology, the field was dominated, and for the most part remains the same today, by the “disease model” of psychological research which aimed to pinpoint and correct various flaws in human beings’ mental health. This focuses solely on negative aspects of individuals and makes very little note to what is currently acceptable or within the realm of normal mental and psychological behaviors.What is Positive Psychology

Positive psychology aimed to change the disease model by finding ways in which human beings were succeeding and ways to allows individuals to go above and beyond while creating experiences bigger than themselves. This desire to better oneself is a very existential approach to psychology, and it is where positive psychology succeeds in bettering yourself rather than focusing solely what needs to change.

In a piece titled The History of Positive Psychology: Truth Be Told, author Jeffrey J. Froh discusses the power of human potential and the way in which positive psychology aimed to capture and optimize this to better one’s day-to-day life. He states:

In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1906, William James asked why some individuals were able to utilize their resources to their fullest capacity and others were not. In order to understand this, he said two more questions must be answered: “(a) What were the limits of human energy? and (b) How could this energy be stimulated and released so it could be put to optimal use?” … These questions are a clear demonstration of William James’ interest in the study of optimal human functioning and its relationship to experience, a common thread woven throughout positive psychology literature.

At the time, to assess the power of human potential while focusing more so on human accomplishments rather than human flaws was unheard of. William James helped pioneer a field of study that aimed to view human beings as subjective individuals who experience the same situation in completely different ways.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsAdditionally, psychologists began focusing on a humanistic approach to psychological development with the foundation of Abraham Maslow with his introduction of the hierarchy of needs. In his model, which put emphasis on the highest form of human development represented as self-actualization, focused not only on core necessities such as food, shelter, love, and belonging, but put them in a format that characterized development as meeting the current needs in order to successful development of needs above it.

Within this model, Maslow looked at the human experience as a whole and found that the way in which essential needs are fulfilled are just as important as the needs themselves. In order to achieve the next level the hierarchy, individuals must fulfill the essential needs within their current category. This look keeps focusing on the path in which an individual is able to reach their fullest potential and states that an individual is incapable of fully achieving self-actualization if needs such as food and shelter, as well as other necessities such as love and belonging, are not met.

As we approach our fullest potential and begin to look at the development of human beings from a positive psychological perspective, we begin to understand the power of a positive outlook on accomplishments. By looking at things beyond flaws within human beings, positive psychologists are able to study the way in which the human experience is shaped by positive and meaningful life experiences. Through the study of positive psychology, we can learn to better individuals in both personal and professional environments to ultimately shape their potential into one that can help grow organizations both inside and out.