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Gable.haidt.what is Positive Psychology

Gable.haidt.what is Positive Psychology

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What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology?
Shelly L. Gable
University of California, Los Angeles
Jonathan Haidt
University of VirginiaPositive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to theflourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions. In this brief introduction, the authors give examples of current work in positive psychology and tryto explain why the positive psychology movement has grown so quickly in just 5 years.They suggest that it filled a need: It guided researchers to understudied phenomena. Theauthors close by addressing some criticisms and shortcomings of positive psychology,such as the relative lack of progress in studying positive institutions.
The gross national product does not allow for thehealth of our children, the quality of their education, orthe joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intel-ligence of our public debate or the integrity of ourpublic officials. It measures neither our wit nor ourcourage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neitherour compassion nor our devotion to our country; itmeasures everything, in short, except that which makeslife worthwhile. (Kennedy, 1968)
Robert F. Kennedy’s lament about the grossnational product is analogous to positive psy-chology’s lament about what might be calledthe “gross academic product” of psychology. InJanuary 2000, when Seligman and Csikszentmi-halyi edited a special issue of 
American Psy-chologist 
devoted to positive psychology, theyclaimed that psychology was not producingenough “knowledge of what makes life worthliving” (p. 5). In the second half of the 20thcentury, psychology learned much about de-pression, racism, violence, self-esteem manage-ment, irrationality, and growing up under ad-versity but had much less to say about characterstrengths, virtues, and the conditions that lead tohigh levels of happiness or civic engagement. Inone metaphor, psychology was said to be learn-ing how to bring people up from negative eightto zero but not as good at understanding howpeople rise from zero to positive eight.In just 5 years since that special issue, quite abit has happened in what has become known asthe positive psychology movement. Many ed-ited volumes and handbooks have been pub-lished (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003;Keyes & Haidt, 2003; Lopez & Snyder, 2003;Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Schmuck & Shel-don, 2001; Snyder & Lopez, 2002). Dozens of conferences have brought researchers togetherfrom all over the world. Numerous grants havefacilitated the research of young investigatorsand created collaborations among researchersfrom many countries. Courses in positive psy-chology are springing up in scores of universi-ties and high schools. Those of us involved inpositive psychology are often amazed at howfast the train has been moving.However, scholars who are not involved inpositive psychology may be skeptical aboutboth the cargo and the destination of the train.In this introduction, we would like to addressthose who are doubtful about positive psychol-ogy, or just unfamiliar with it. We relate ourview of positive psychology, how we respond tosome recent criticisms of the positive psychol-ogy movement, and where we think the field isgoing. Both of us are experimental social psy-chologists whose work happens to fall withinthe purview of positive psychology. We alsoco-run a yearly conference, the Positive Psy-chology Summer Institute, in which 20 graduatestudents, postdoctoral students, and assistantprofessors from all over the world and from allof the subfields of psychology are brought to-gether for 6 days to learn from each other andfrom a handful of more senior researchers. Weare excited by the quality of the work we seeeach summer and by the caliber and diversity of 
Shelly L. Gable, Department of Psychology, Universityof California, Los Angeles; Jonathan Haidt, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia.Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-dressed to Shelly L. Gable, Psychology Department, Uni-versity of California, 4560 Franz Hall, Box 951563, LosAngeles, CA 90095-1563. E-mail: gable@psych.ucla.edu
Review of General Psychology Copyright 2005 by the Educational Publishing Foundation2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, 103110 1089-2680/05/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.103
103
 
the scholars who attend the summer instituteand participate in other positive psychology ac-tivities. We would like to invite you to considergetting involved too, because if all goes well,positive psychology may not be around formuch longer. If the positive psychology move-ment is successful in rebalancing psychologyand expanding its gross academic product, itwill become obsolete.
What Is (and Was, and Is Not) PositivePsychology?
Positive psychology is the study of the con-ditions and processes that contribute to theflourishing or optimal functioning of people,groups, and institutions. Defined in this way,positive psychology has a long history, datingback to William James’s writings on what hetermed “healthy mindedness” in 1902, to All-port’s interest in positive human characteristicsin 1958, to Maslow’s advocacy for the study of healthy people in lieu of sick people in 1968,and to Cowan’s research on resilience in chil-dren and adolescents (e.g., Cowan, 2000). How-ever, for reasons discussed later, the past half century has seen the study of the psychologicalaspects of what makes life worth living recedeto the background, whereas studies on disorderand damage have taken center stage. The recentpositive psychology movement grew out of rec-ognition of this imbalance and a desire to en-courage research in neglected areas.What are some neglected areas? A samplingof the research topics covered by the 60 scholarswho have taken part in the Positive PsychologySummer Institute in the past 3 years
1
provides anice illustration of some of them. Many of thescholars are studying areas that were not trulyneglected, such as attachment, optimism, love,emotional intelligence, and intrinsic motivation.But others are studying areas of human experi-ence about which there was very little publishedresearch before the year 2000, such as gratitude,forgiveness, awe, inspiration, hope, curiosity,and laughter (there are commonalities betweentickle-induced vocalization in rat pups andyouthful laughter in humans, highlighting thelikely possibility of common underlying neuro-biological systems; Burgdorf, 2001). Some arestudying well-being or flourishing in unusual orunderstudied populations, including Latinos inthe United States, South Asians in arrangedmarriages, elderly people with cognitive impair-ments, cancer patients, and people with schizo-phrenia (whose daily lives turn out to includeabout the same balance of positive and negativemoments as those of nonschizophrenics; Gard,2001). Others are studying the psychobiologicalunderpinnings of happiness and morality. Someare studying techniques to improve well-being,such as mindfulness meditation, journal writing,well-being therapy, savoring, and exposure togreen spaces. If these research programs seemworthwhile and interesting and you agree thatour field is better off with an understanding of flourishing to complement our understanding of despair, then you too may be a positivepsychologist.However, positive psychology does
not 
im-ply that the rest of psychology is negative, al-though it is understandable that the name mayimply that to some people. In fact, the largemajority of the gross academic product of psy-chology is neutral, focusing on neither well-being nor distress. Positive psychology grewlargely from the recognition of an imbalance inclinical psychology, in which most researchdoes indeed focus on mental illness. Research-ers in cognitive, developmental, social, and per-sonality psychology may not believe that thingsare so out of balance. However, even in thesefields, we believe that there are many topics thatcan be said to have two sides, and although agreat flurry of research occurs on the negativeside, the positive side is left to lie fallow. Forexample, in the two areas with which we aremost familiar, this imbalance is evident. In thefield of close relationships, many studies haveexamined how couples respond to each other’smisfortune (e.g., social support) or bad relation-ship behavior (e.g., criticisms and infidelities),but little is known about how couples respond toeach other’s triumphs (e.g., savoring positiveevents) or good relationship behavior (e.g.,compliments and displays of affection; see Reis& Gable, 2003). And there are volumes of work examining how couples and families resolveconflict but very few studies examining themhaving fun and laughing together. In the area of morality, there are thousands of published stud-ies on the negative moral emotions, the emo-
1
The first year of the summer institute was run by DacherKeltner and Lisa Aspinwall.104 GABLE AND HAIDT
 
tions we feel when others do bad things (anger,contempt, and disgust) or when we ourselves dobad things (shame, embarrassment, and guilt);however, there are only a few empirical studiesof the positive moral emotions, the emotions wefeel when others do good things (gratitude, ad-miration, and moral elevation; see Haidt, 2003).Despite these inequities, positive psycholo-gy’s aim is not the denial of the distressing,unpleasant, or negative aspects of life, nor is itan effort to see them through rose-coloredglasses. Those who study topics in positive psy-chology fully acknowledge the existence of hu-man suffering, selfishness, dysfunctional familysystems, and ineffective institutions. But theaim of positive psychology is to study the otherside of the coin—the ways that people feel joy,show altruism, and create healthy families andinstitutions—thereby addressing the full spec-trum of human experience. Moreover, positivepsychology makes the argument that these pos-itive topics of inquiry are important to under-stand in their own right, not solely as buffersagainst the problems, stressors, and disorders of life (although we believe the evidence is clearthat many positive processes shield us fromnegative outcomes, a point we return to later).Sheldon and King (2001) defined positivepsychology as “nothing more than the scientificstudy of 
ordinary
human strengths and virtues,”one that “revisits the
average
person” (p. 216;italics added). In this definition is the acknowl-edgment that our field as a whole is relativelysilent regarding what is typical, because what istypical
is
positive. Indeed, 9 of 10 Americansreport being “very happy” or “pretty happy”(Myers, 2000). And, contrary to the notion thatthis is unique to American soil, studies haveconsistently revealed that most people acrossthe globe score well above the neutral point onmeasures of life satisfaction (Diener & Diener,1996), and even people who many might as-sume would be very unsatisfied with their lives,such as slum dwellers in Calcutta, are actuallyquite satisfied with their lives (Biswas-Diener &Diener, 2001). Thus, despite the very real im-pact of the negative aspects of life documentedin the past few decades of psychological re-search, most people are doing well, and we, aspsychologists, tend to overlook the greater partof human experience and the majority of peo-ple, families, groups, and institutions.
Why a Positive Psychology
Movement 
,and Why Now?
Why do we need a
movement 
in positivepsychology? The answer is straightforward. Thescience of psychology has made great strides inunderstanding what goes wrong in individuals,families, groups, and institutions, but these ad-vances have come at the cost of understandingwhat is right with people. For example, clinicalpsychology has made excellent progress in di-agnosing and treating mental illnesses and per-sonality disorders (e.g., American PsychiatricAssociation, 1994). Researchers in social psy-chology have conducted groundbreaking stud-ies on the existence of implicit prejudice andnegative outcomes associated with low self-esteem (e.g., Josephs, Bosson, & Jacobs, 2003;Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park, 1997). Health psy-chology has shown us the detrimental effectsthat environmental stressors have on our phys-iological systems (e.g., Dickerson & Kemeny,2004). And cognitive psychology has illumi-nated the many biases and errors involved in our judgments (e.g., Gilovich, Vallone, & Tversky,1985). These are all important findings in ourfield, but it is harder to locate correspondingwork on human strengths and virtues.
2
So why has our field been so much moreinterested in foibles than in strengths? We seethree reasons. The first is compassion. Thosewho are suffering should be helped before thosewho are already doing well. We certainly agreewith this notion; however, we also think that anunderstanding of human strengths can actuallyhelp prevent or lessen the damage of disease,stress, and disorder. For example, research oncoping has demonstrated that appraisals of neg-ative life events that put them into perspectivewith one’s own capabilities for meeting thechallenge mediate the actual experience of dis-tress (e.g., Folkman & Lazarus, 1988). AndTaylor and colleagues (Taylor, Kemeny, Reed,Bower, & Gruenwald, 2000) have provided per-suasive evidence that beliefs such as optimismand a sense of personal control are protectivefactors for psychological and physical health.
2
One can point to inspiring work such as the jigsawclassroom of Aronson, Blaney, Stephan, Sikes, and Snapp(1978), which brought out the best in students, but suchcases are few and far between.105SPECIAL ISSUE: WHAT IS POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY?

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