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Positive Psychology
Article December 2016
DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-397045-9.00049-5

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Carmelo Vazquez
Complutense University of Madrid
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Vzquez C., and Chaves C., Positive Psychology. In: Howard S. Friedman (Editor in Chief), Encyclopedia of Mental
Health, 2nd edition, Vol 3, Waltham, MA: Academic Press, 2016, pp. 290-299.
Copyright 2016 Elsevier Inc. unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.

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Positive Psychology
C Vzquez and C Chaves, Complutense University, Madrid, Spain
r 2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

The Emerging Movement of Positive Psychology


Positive psychology (PP) is a movement or a current of
thought within psychology, the aim of which is to study what
is good in life and why it is worth living. Psychology has
always studied potentially positive aspects (i.e., intelligence,
talent, love, altruism, etc.) but, in many instances, these issues
have been targeted only indirectly as a way to analyze the other
side of the coin (i.e., mental retardation, disability, submission, emotional vulnerability, etc.) rather than as a true
interest on the healthy or adaptive features of those positive
aspects.
PP is not a branch of psychology, or a new paradigm or a
new discipline. It is even less a new science. It is simply
psychology that focuses its interest on the analysis of what is
good in life from birth to death (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). To cover that aim, PP uses, or should use, the
same methodological tools and conceptual frameworks as
standard psychological research (Sheldon et al., 2011).
The term Positive Psychology was proposed by Martin
Seligman in his inaugural address as president of the American
Psychological Association (Seligman, 1999). In a brief communication, he reected that one of the areas in which
psychology of the late twentieth century had to contribute to
making the lives of people better was what I call positive
psychology, that is, a reoriented science that emphasizes the
understanding and building of the most positive qualities of
an individual: optimism, courage, work ethic, future mindedness, interpersonal skill, the capacity for pleasure and insight, and social responsibility (Seligman, 1999).
The term PP has not been entirely devoid of controversies.
The terms positive and negative carry implicit value meanings. Yet, positive and negative are not, in any way, synonyms
of good and evil (Vzquez, 2013a). The distinctive feature of
the PP approach is to pay more attention to the optimal
functioning of human beings without denying that negative
aspects that are intrinsic domains of our experience. The aim
of this approach is to promote research and applications in
areas of experiences and functioning that had been somehow
clouded by other priorities.
PP is not blind to the pain and adversity of human experience. First, many leading gures of this movement have a
long track record of academic and professional contributions
to the alleviation of human suffering (e.g., Seligman, 1975).
Furthermore, some of the best research done in areas like
optimism or resilience, for instance, is being conducted precisely in the context of reactions to highly adverse situations
(e.g., trauma, illnesses, or losses) where some of our best
strengths emerge (Vzquez, 2005, 2013b). The truth is that far
from the charge of neglecting human suffering, this has always
been a prominent part of the agenda of PP. Examples are areas
such as resilience and posttraumatic growth (Paez et al., 2011;
Vzquez et al., 2014a; Cho and Park, 2013), the protective role
of certain positive traits in the occurrence of physical and

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psychological disorders (Peterson, 2006; Emmons and


McCullough, 2003), positive intervention programs for disadvantaged people (Marujo and Neto, 2009), or interventions
in clinical problems (Fava and Ruini, 2003; Seligman et al.,
2006; Lyubomirsky et al., 2011).

What is New in Positive Psychology?


PP has paid attention to different elds of research and applications. The most important ones can be summarized as
follows (Peterson, 2006):
1. Positive subjective experiences (e.g., happiness, calm, vitality, savoring, or ow). In this regard, it should be noted
that subjective happiness is just one of the many topics of
interest to PP but it is only a fraction of emotional wellbeing (see Seligman, 2011).
2. Positive individual characteristics (e.g., character strengths,
virtues, talents, or interests). This is, as we shall see, probably one of the most innovative areas opened in PP.
3. Positive interpersonal relationships (e.g., love, trust, or
friendship).
4. Positive institutions (families, schools, or organizations).
An interesting feature of the PP movement is that it incorporates not only an appreciation for individual aspects
of optimal functioning but also seeks to explore what
conditions (at work, in education, or in any organization)
promote the well-being of people. This broader concern has
attracted the interest of nonpsychologists (e.g. economists,
educators, etc.). In this sense, PP is a channel for many
professionals and scientists who want to genuinely promote human well-being (Layard, 2006). The interest in
studying human well-being and life satisfaction has been
present from the time of ancient Greece and even before
(McMahon, 2006). Aristotle, for example, wrote in depth
about eudaimonia (i.e., happiness or fulllment), and how
the virtuous life could be the way to get to it. As Peterson
(2006) noted, PP has a short past but a long history. It
would be pretentious to naively assert that PP has pioneered the study of concepts like happiness or well-being. In
the recent and distant past of psychology, the idea of a
healthy mindset (William James), fully functioning person
(Carl Rogers), positive mental health (Maria Jahoda), or
self-actualization (Abraham Maslow), have always been in
the discourse, dominant or not, of psychology (Joseph and
Wood, 2010; Fernndez-Ballesteros, 2002). Those authors,
mainly in the stream of the Humanistic movement, had the
merit of incorporating a positive vision of human nature
and they strived to put some related concepts (e.g., selfactualization) in the center of the agenda in psychology.
Although many of these concepts are still very inspiring,
Humanistic Psychology failed to establish an effective research program around these topics.

Encyclopedia of Mental Health, Volume 3

doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-397045-9.00049-5

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Positive Psychology

One of the assets of PP is to bring concepts that seem to be


central for a good life to the scientic arena. For instance,
although the concept of passion played a core role in GrecoRoman philosophy (McMahon, 2006), it has never been the
center of an exhaustive empirical research program until recently (Vallerand and Verner-Filion, 2013). The same applies
to the rescue of other topics that should have never been lost
in the historical development of psychological research. This is
the case, to name a few, of topics like forgiveness (McCullough
et al., 2009), gratitude (Emmons and McCullough, 2003), or
generosity toward others (Dunn et al., 2011). PP has revitalized or, in some cases, has even initiated interest in areas of
human experience that had barely been attended by the academic eld (Snyder and Lopez, 2002).
Some critics of PP have accused the movement of ethnocentrism (Christopher and Hickinbottom, 2008) suggesting
that the denitions and measures of happiness are based on a
culturally biased point of view as they are derived from
Western authors. In fact, there is growing evidence that psychological factors such as, for example, optimism (Segerstrom
and Solberg Nes, 2006) or the need for self-acceptance (Heine
et al., 1999) may not have the same weight in the health or
well-being in all cultures. Thus, it is not difcult to assume that
concepts like happiness or optimism may have different connotations in different parts of the world, and research must be
very cautious in the way these concepts are used in different
cultural contexts. Yet, rather than being an obstacle for a scientic enterprise, science has tools to untie this knot. In fact,
this type of cultural issue has been actively tackled within PP
(Vzquez, 2013a). It is difcult to nd a recent area of research
in psychology where there has been more interest to study
cross-cultural variables than in PP (Diener et al., 2010) with
series of books and journals (e.g., Journal of Happiness Studies)
typically publishing studies on methodological and conceptual issues related to well-being. Thus, researchers in PP are
not particularly nave in the use of concepts such as happiness
or well-being and there is sound cross-cultural research that is
exposing fascinating results on, for example, how people from
different cultures have different implicit concepts of what
happiness is (Oishi and Schimmack, 2010).

The Architecture of Psychological Well-being


A signicant conceptual contribution of PP is related to its
efforts to dene more precisely the core features of what can be
called psychological well-being. There is growing consensus
that well-being is a complex construct that concerns optimal
experience and functioning. Although there are several models
and approaches, most current theories of psychological wellbeing incorporate ingredients derived from two old philosophical orientations: the hedonic and the eudaimonic
component.

Hedonic Well-Being
The hedonic dimension of psychological well-being has been
called subjective well-being (Diener et al., 2003) and includes
both affective and cognitive ingredients. Affective components

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of subjective well-being include positive affect (experiencing


pleasant emotions and moods), low negative affect (experiencing unpleasant, distressing emotions and moods), and
hedonic balance, dened as the overall equilibrium between
positive and negative affect. High levels of hedonic well-being
do not imply the absence of negative emotions, but it means
that negative emotions are still there although they are less
frequent and prominent than positive ones (Fredrickson,
2013). Life satisfaction (global judgments of ones life) and
satisfaction with specic life domains (e.g., housing, education, health, etc.) are considered cognitive components of
subjective well-being (Vzquez et al., 2014b).

Eudaimonic Well-Being
The second main component of the architecture of human
well-being is eudaimonic well-being. Eudaimonic well-being
would come from actions that are coherent with personal
values that imply a full commitment with which people feel
alive and real (Ryan and Deci, 2001). Thus, well-being consists
in the harmonious development of an individuals capacities
which would lead to a virtuous life. This perspective of the
nature of eudaimonic well-being is one of the reasons why the
identication, development, and putting into action psychological strengths has become a central target in PP (Peterson
and Seligman, 2004). A fullled life is one in which we have
the opportunity to express and develop our maximum potentials which would bring benets not only for ourselves but
also for society at large (Waterman, 2008).
Models of eudaimonia in psychology emerged out of early
work on self-actualization by researchers such as Allport or
Maslow. The self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci,
2001) is probably the most inuential current theory in this
regard. It argues that healthy psychological functioning is
based on: (1) an adequate satisfaction of basic psychological
needs (basically, autonomy, relatedness, and competence); (2)
a system of consistent and coherent goals (i.e., intrinsic goals,
better than extrinsic ones) and (3) goals which are consistent
with the persons interests and values. Self-determination
theory asserts that when these needs are satised, motivation
and well-being are enhanced, and when they are limited, there
is a negative impact on our well-functioning (Deci and Ryan,
2000). There is a general agreement that these three needs are
amongst the most basic ones, although meaning of life
(Frankl, 1946) or safety (Maslow, 1943) have also been
proposed.
If these are the basic needs, what are the key indicators of
human optimal functioning? Based on traditional models of
eudaimonic well-being, Carol Ryff proposed what she called
the Psychological Well-being Model, conceptualizing
eudaimonia as a six-factor structure (Ryff, 1989; Ryff and
Singer, 1998): Autonomy, Personal Growth, Self-acceptance,
Purpose in Life, Environmental Mastery, and Positive Relations
with others. Although this factor structure has been debated
(Springer et al., 2006; Ryff and Singer, 2006), it has generated
much research in well-being and health. Importantly, Ryff also
produced scales for assessing psychological well-being with
good psychometric properties (Ryff, 1989).
Research suggests that psychological well-being (in the way
dened by Ryffs model) and subjective well-being (in the way

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Positive Psychology

dened by Dieners model) behave as two separate but related


factors, even after controlling for gender, age, or ethnicity
(Linley et al., 2009) and they have different biological correlates (Ryff et al., 2006; Vzquez et al., 2009). Nevertheless,
correlations between both types of well-being are usually high,
in some cases higher than r 0.80 (Keyes et al., 2002).
Most of the comprehensive models of well-being include
hedonic and eudaimonic components. Recently, Seligman
(2011) has proposed a renewed and extended version of his
previous model of well-being. According to his new reconceptualization, the PERMA model, well-being is a construct
that has several measurable elements: Positive emotion (P),
Engagement (E), Positive relationships (R), Meaning (M), and
Accomplishment (A). Each of the ve elements can be considered as indicators of well-being and they typically involve
both hedonic and eudaimonic components. Future research
should tackle the issue of which model provides the best indexes of validity.
Although eudaimonia and hedonia seem separate entities,
they are deeply intertwined. Although people can engage in
activities that provide only hedonia, probably all eudaimonic
activities are positively related to hedonia. In other words,
engaging in activities that increase personal competencies and
optimal functioning necessarily has an impact on hedonic
outcomes (e.g., life satisfaction or positive affect). Therefore,
the connections between these two pillars of well-being are
more profound (see Waterman, 2008) than what had been
previously thought.

to experiment, create and build. According to this theory, to


the extent that positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and cognition, enabling exible thinking (e.g., creativity),
positive emotions should also enhance peoples subsequent
emotional well-being and personal resources that are essential
to adaptive coping responses amidst stressful events (Fredrickson et al., 2003; Aspinwall, 2001). In turn, patterns of
adaptive coping can be considered a durable personal resource, which can contribute to a greater potential to bounce
back and to nd positive meaning in future adversities facilitating the experience of future positive emotions (Tugade
and Fredrickson, 2002). These personal resources include
physical (e.g., healthy behaviors) (Cohen et al., 2006), social
(Kok et al., 2013), intellectual (Tugade and Fredrickson, 2002),
and psychological resources (e.g., optimism, creativity)
(Scheier and Carver, 1993). In the long term, people who
experience more positive emotions are more satised with
their lives, have better relationships with partners, better jobs,
and even live longer (see Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Therefore,
although positive emotions can be considered as transient and
ephemeral, they may have a rather long-term effect on increasing or maintaining peoples subsequent psychological
well-being channeling more effective coping resources (Tugade
and Fredrickson, 2002). Although the optimal ratio between
positive and negative emotions has been recently debated
(Brown et al., 2013), there is ample evidence that shows that
higher positivity ratios are predictive of ourishing mental
health and other benecial outcomes (Fredrickson, 2013).

Positive Emotions and Well-Being: An Evolutionary


Perspective

Personality and Well-Being: Analysis and


Classication of Personal Strengths

Psychologists have studied emotions for over a century but,


until recently, they had concentrated mainly on negative
emotions, particularly depression, anger, and anxiety. In so
doing, psychologists have inadvertently marginalized the
study of positive emotions. There is a consensus among researchers about the role that negative emotions have played in
our evolution as a species (Fredrickson, 2003). Fear, anger, and
anxiety are like alarms that prepare us to respond in the face of
danger. They are a central part of the well-known ght or
ight reaction. Interestingly, these negative emotions have
very clear concomitant physical signs, such as changes in
autonomic response (e.g., blood pressure, sweating, and body
temperature) (Fredrickson, 2003). In contrast, positive emotions generally do not have clear physiological or even behavioral correlates. They are also fewer in number and less
differentiated, probably because the cost of failure to respond
appropriately to a life threat could be death, whereas the cost
of failure to respond appropriately to a life opportunity is not
likely to be so dire.
However, are positive emotions also useful in some way?
Based on numerous studies on the relationship between
positive affect and cognitive functioning, Fredrickson explains
that positive emotions play a role in human evolution. She
proposed the Broaden and Build theory (Fredrickson, 1998,
2001) that provides a useful theoretical framework to understand how positive emotions may encourage us to explore our
environment, to be open to information, to learn better, and

Besides the research on emotions, PP is increasingly focusing


on individual characteristics associated to well-being. According to Seligman (2011), one of the pillars of well-being
and a factor that makes people ourish is their engagement in
life. Living an engaged life means being actively involved in
what we do, and being aware of our skills and strengths to
favor their use at work, at home and in our relationships with
other people. The model proposed by Peterson and Seligman
(2004) called the virtues in action (VIA) model is a
comprehensive classication initially created to counterbalance the excessive emphasis on pathology that psychology
has had replacing it with a focus on human ourishing
(Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). This model proposes
an initial taxonomy of positive psychological traits by identifying six classes of virtue (i.e., core virtues), made up of 24
measurable character strengths. These character strengths are
independent, relatively stable over time, and moldable by the
context. Furthermore, the authors created an ad hoc instrument i.e., the VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) Peterson
and Seligman (2004) to measure the 24 proposed strengths
(see Table 1).
Research has found that all strengths are positively associated with life satisfaction, but this relation is higher with some
of them (hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity, and love) than with
others (modesty, appreciation of beauty and excellence, creativity, openness, and love of learning) (Park et al., 2004).
There is also a growing interest in studying character strengths,

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Table 1
Virtues in Action (VIA) classication of virtues and
character strengths

1. Wisdom and knowledge

Creativity: thinking of novel and productive ways to do things


Curiosity, interest in the world: taking an interest in all of ongoing
experiences

Critical thinking: thinking things through and examining them from

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improves peoples mood and life satisfaction for several


months, even for people who were depressed (Seligman et al.,
2005; Seligman, 2011).

Positive Psychology and Mental Health: A Fruitful


Relationship

all angles

Love of learning: mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

knowledge
Perspective: being able to provide wise counsel to others
Courage
Integrity: speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a
genuine way
Bravery: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difculty, or pain
Perseverance, persistence: nishing what one starts
Passion: approaching life with excitement and energy
Humanity
Kindness: doing favors and good deeds for others
Love: valuing close and intimate relations with others
Social intelligence: Good understanding of the motives and
feelings of self and others
Justice
Fairness: treating all people the same according to notions of
fairness and justice
Leadership: organizing group activities and seeing to that
they happen
Loyalty: working well as member of a group or team, dedicated to
your colleagues
Temperance
Modesty: letting ones accomplishments speak for themselves, not
seeking to be the center of attention
Prudence: being careful about ones choices; not saying or doing
things that might later be regretted
Self-regulation: Good regulation of desires, needs, and impulses
Forgiveness: forgiving those who have done wrong
Transcendence
Appreciation of beauty and excellence: noticing and appreciating
beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains
of life
Gratitude: being aware of and thankful for the good things
that happen
Hope, optimism: expecting the best and working to achieve it
Humor: liking to laugh and joke; bringing smiles to other people
Spirituality: having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and
meaning of life

their benets, and their differences between countries and


cultures (Park et al., 2004, 2009). Nevertheless, even though
the concept of character strengths is a very useful concept, the
proposed structure of 24 strengths grouped into six high order
virtues has been challenged by empirical studies that have not
conrmed it (Brdar and Kashdan, 2009; Shryack et al., 2010).
Therefore, more fundamental research on the psychometric
properties of the VIA, as well as other similar promising
measures, is needed.
Researchers have designed positive interventions aimed to
increase a persons personal strengths and have been shown to
be effective. One of the positive interventions that have shown
to be most powerful involves taking a personal strength and
deliberately using it in a different way for 1 week. Doing this

Most interventions in areas such as medicine and psychology


have been focused on the reduction of pain, suffering, and
difculties in the development of individual and collective
resources (Vzquez and Hervas, 2008). The World Health
Organization (WHO) recognized that health is a state of
complete physical, mental and social well-being and not
merely the absence of disease or disability (WHO, 1948). This
denition opened the possibility to differentiate between
positive and negative health. When people talk about health
they typically refer to states where there is no physical or
psychological condition altered. Yet, this concept is insufcient
to grasp what positive health should mean. Having good
physical or mental health should not only be understood as
lack of diseases or disorders. Health involves having a number
of capabilities and resources for coping with adversity
(Almedom and Glandon, 2007) and developing our capacities
as individuals (or as societies).

Positive Health: Pioneering Works


Jahoda (1958) was the clearest antecedent of the concept of
positive mental health. She and other experts who met to
discuss this concept identied six characteristics of positive
mental health: positive self-esteem and strong sense of identity, personal growth and development, ability to cope with
stressful situations, autonomy, and accurate perception of
reality and successful mastery of the environment. Years later,
Antonovsky (1979) proposed the salutogenic model suggesting that wellness and illness are ends of a continuum. He
suggested that psychologists should reconsider their focus of
interest by paying more attention to what enables people to
stay well than to what causes people to become ill.

Complete State of Mental Health Model


There are enough theoretical and empirical reasons to assert
that the positive and negative affect, distress and well-being or,
even more generally, illness and health, are relatively independent (Keyes and Waterman, 2003). Thus, all these concepts require specic measurement methods and intervention
strategies. For example, Keyes (2005) showed that different
well-being measures (psychological, social, and emotional) are
independent of, although correlated with, measures of mental
disorders. One implication of these ndings is that clinical
problems or symptoms can be effectively reduced by effective
interventions, but it does not necessarily lead to a signicant
improvement in other areas of their lives. Although the aim of
psychology is explicitly to combat mental disorders, there is no
doubt that to ultimately promote good lives is a formidable
challenge for any discipline. Recently, trying to provide a formal framework to the concept of positive mental health, Keyes

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(2007) proposed a complete state of mental health model.


The idea is to highlight that there are two different continua.
The more traditional continuum consists of a dimension
ranging from no problems to having many health problems
(diseases or disorders). A second continuum has to do with
the greater or lesser presence of optimal psychological functioning (hedonic and eudaimonic). This latter dimension goes
from ourishing states (ourishing) see also Seligman
(2011) to states of languor (languishing). According to the
model, mental health and mental illness are not merely opposite ends of a continuum but two separate dimensions that
should be considered and evaluated separately (Vzquez and
Hervas, 2008).
Thus, positive mental health should be dened by the
presence of psychological well-being, effective psychological
functioning of individuals, and effective functioning of communities (WHO, 2005). This new approach challenges the
extended notion of mental health as the mere opposite of
mental disorder.

Positive Mental Health and Resilience


Traditionally, psychology has focused on vulnerability models,
which established a standard way of thinking in clinical
psychology in areas such as depression, psychosis, or anxiety
disorders. The basic approach of this conception of human
pathology is to nd risk factors (i.e., factors that increase the
likelihood of developing a disorder). Yet, the emphasis on
vulnerability has marginalized research on protective factors
(Keyes and Lopez, 2002). Unfortunately, little is known about
the factors that protect us from developing a psychopathological problem. For example, in the eld of posttraumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), rates of the disorder are much smaller
than it might initially be expected since the majority of the
general population suffers potentially traumatic events in their
lives. Despite this high exposure, only a low percentage of
people develop PTSD (Vzquez, 2005, 2013b; Vzquez et al.,
2014a). Thus, research should explore in detail the routes
leading to resistance, which is the most common response
after traumatic events (Bonanno, 2004).
Resilience is a dynamic process whereby individuals exhibit
positive behavioral adaptation when they encounter signicant adversity or trauma (Luthar and Zelazo, 2003). When a
person is coping with stress or adversity, this process may result in the individual bouncing back to a previous state of
normal functioning (Masten, 2009). Also, from a developmental perspective, risk and resilience studies have identied
factors that prevent the development of psychopathology, including having a supportive adult, an optimisc disposition,
intelligence, and coping resources, among others (Werner and
Smith, 2001).
A more controversial form of resilience is referred to as
'posttraumatic growth, a condition in which the survivors of
traumatic events show a better functioning than before that
event (Vzquez, 2013b). Growth does not occur as a direct
result of trauma; rather it is the individual's struggle with the
new reality in the aftermath of trauma that is crucial in determining the extent to which posttraumatic growth occurs
(Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004).

A number of factors have been associated with adaptive


growth following exposure to a trauma. Spirituality (Yanez
et al., 2009), social support (Luszczynska et al., 2005), optimism (Prati and Pietrantoni, 2009), or active coping (Bellizzi
and Blank, 2006) have been shown to highly correlate with
posttraumatic growth. From the seminal work by Calhoun and
Tedeschi (1999), the study of resilience and posttraumatic
growth has increased its presence in research, in topics as diverse as war (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 2006), victims of sexual
abuse (Grubaugh and Resick, 2007), cancer (Barakat et al.,
2006), or chronic illnesses (Vzquez and Castilla, 2007),
among others.

Measures of Positive Mental Health


One of the most important contributions of PP is the emphasis and focus on the measurement of positive functioning.
Although evaluating positive functioning is not new in
psychology, it is possible that introducing positive measures
allows not only the testing of the effectiveness of different
treatments on various aspects of negative and positive functioning, but also allows one to identify whether some psychological therapies favor selective improvements in specic
areas (Joseph and Wood, 2010).
It is important that newly proposed measurement of positive functioning be theory-driven and supported by the large
amount of knowledge accumulated on psychological well-being
in recent decades (Avia and Vzquez, 2011; Hervs and
Vzquez, 2013; Vzquez and Hervs, 2013; Snyder and Lopez,
2002; Vzquez and Hervs, 2009). Regarding the instruments,
there are increasingly resources, derived from research, to
cover some aspects that are essential for human well-being
(optimism, life satisfaction, positive emotions, sense of control,
etc.). For a review of some of the most relevant measures, see
(McDowell, 2010; Lopez and Snyder, 2003).

Physical Health and Well-Being


Studies on negative mood such as depression or anger, among
others, are 20 times more frequent than the studies dealing
with positive emotional states (Pressman and Cohen, 2005).
In spite of this imbalance, the traditional attention toward
symptoms and diseases is gradually changing into an increasingly wider concept of health that includes the study of
the protective factors for the onset of illnesses as well as the PP
states that inuence the recovery processes both in adults and
children (e.g., Chaves et al., 2015).
The relationship between negative affect and health has
been widely studied from the eld of psychoneuroimmunology (Fang et al., 2008). But, can this system be boosted by
positive emotions? Cohen et al. (2006) attempted to answer
this question. Participants who reported higher positive
emotionality were three times less likely to develop an upper
respiratory tract disease, after controlling for the effects of
other variables. Also, the degree of association between positive affect and illness rates was greater than that shown between negative affect and illness rates. In fact, when both
variables were simultaneously used as predictors, negative affect lost its ability to predict illness.

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Pressman and Cohen (2005) proposed two specic pathways through which positive affect inuences an individuals
health. One pathway highlights the direct effects of positive
affect on the physiological system, in which positive affect
impacts behaviors and biological systems relevant for health.
For example, individuals with a high trait of positive affect
may be more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, have
greater social support and have lower levels of catecholamines
or glucocorticoid hormones. By contrast, in a stress-buffering
pathway, positive affect works as a buffer of stress by reducing
the negative stress effects on health. According to this model,
people enjoying more positive affect do not have so many
social conicts, so they have a fewer stress factors to manage.
When coping with potentially stressful situations, people
with more positive affect have better social networks on which
they can rely. Therefore, they use more effective coping strategies which, in turn, also lead them to feel that they can cope
with problems. Furthermore, positive affect makes it possible
for physiological responses to return faster to a normal state
after a stressful event (Fredrickson, 2009).
Most studies on the inuence of positive affect on health
indicate that it is associated with lower morbidity, lower
mortality, greater survival, better life quality and functioning,
fewer symptoms, less experience of pain and less severity
(Pressman and Cohen, 2012; Diener and Chan, 2011). Yet,
some studies have found an inverse relation, especially in
people with serious diseases. This reverse nding can be explained by the fact that people with more positive affect who
are suffering from serious diseases can sometimes underestimate the number of symptoms, tend to be excessively
optimistic about their prognosis development and so are less
strict in following medical prescriptions (Derogatis et al., 1979;
Pressman and Cohen, 2005).
With regard to eudaimonic well-being, there are also
growing data about its association with health-related biological indicators. Surprisingly, this type of well-being has
been found to have a more consistent relation with physical
health than hedonic well-being. The research group led by
Carol Ryff has found some of the most interesting results in
this area. In samples with older women, they have found that
those with higher levels of life purpose, more feelings of personal growth and better interpersonal relationships showed
lower cardiovascular risk (Ryff et al., 2006) and a lower inammatory response (Friedman et al., 2007). An especially
important issue about the role of eudaimonic well-being in
biology and health is its stress-buffering capacity when facing
adverse effects of negative experiences (Fredrickson, 2009).
The reasons for these fascinating ndings are unclear. A
plausible hypothesis is that eudaimonic well-being may be
related to short- and long-term affect regulation mechanisms
through the search for survival behaviors and adjusting to the
long-term environmental demands.
There is ample evidence that links well-being with better
health (Diener and Chan, 2011). There is evidence that although medical or psychological problems have a signicant
effect on life satisfaction, this effect is consistently higher in the
case of psychological problems, even after controlling
comorbidity and the effect of depression (Vzquez et al.,
2014b). This nding is coincident with the recent World
Happiness Report (Helliwell et al., 2013), which states that

295

mental illness is the single most important cause of unhappiness, with huge costs in terms of misery and
economic waste.
There is a broad range of cross-sectional and longitudinal
evidence showing that people who are emotionally happier,
who have more satisfying lives, and who live in happier
communities, are more likely to be healthy, productive, and
socially connected. The implications of the relations between
positive emotional and health are not restricted to individuals.
There are also implications at a country-level. Interestingly,
there already are some countries that are using well-being data
to improve policy making in domains of health, transport, and
education (Helliwell et al., 2013).

Interventions Based on Positive Psychology: New


Approaches
Over the past decade, research in the eld of PP has emerged
to provide evidence-based answers and to guide practitioners.
Yet, some skepticism exists regarding whether well-being can
be sustainably increased. Is it possible for a person to become
happier, and if so, how? Genetics (i.e., ones temperament and
happiness set point) and to a lesser extent life circumstances (e.g., age, marital status, income level) determine a
sizable portion of ones well-being (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
However, a signicant variance of individual differences in
well-being can be accounted for by ones activities, behaviors,
and perceptions of life circumstances (Lyubomirsky, 2008).
And there are also interesting age-related dynamics. Vaillant
(2002), who led an extensive longitudinal study of human
development, found that as we mature and age, we are less
inuenced by our early experiences and much more affected
by our choices, attitudes and actions.
Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) have been dened
as interventions that: (1) focus on positive topics, (2) operate
by a positive mechanism or target a positive outcome variable,
and (3) are designed to promote wellness rather than to x
weakness (Parks and Biswas-Diener, 2013). Studies have
shown that well-being can be boosted by engaging in intentional, effortful activities, such as writing letters of gratitude
(Lyubomirsky et al., 2011; Seligman et al., 2005), counting
ones blessings (Emmons and McCullough, 2003), practicing
optimism (Sheldon and Lyubomirsky, 2006), performing acts
of kindness (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005), and using ones signature strengths (Seligman et al., 2005). From the pioneering
experimental intervention by Fordyce (1977), PPIs have been
shown to increase well-being in non-clinical samples (e.g.,
Fordyce, 1977; Lyubomirsky et al., 2011). Such evidence
supports the efcacy of single happiness-promoting exercises
in nonclinical populations. Do PPIs effectively enhance
well-being and ameliorate symptoms when treating clinical
problems? Research is showing the effectiveness of these
interventions in a variety of clinical problems, such as affective
disorders (Seligman et al., 2005, 2006; Fava and Ruini, 2003),
social anxiety (Kashdan, 2007), psychosis (Meyer et al., 2012),
or physical diseases (Emmons and McCullough, 2003).
The introduction in the clinical eld of positive interventions that both reduce symptoms and increase well-being is
important since most of the traditional empirically validated

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Positive Psychology

interventions have shown their efcacy by simply reducing


symptoms (Chambless and Hollon, 1998; APA Presidential
Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, 2006). However,
treatments should strive to cultivate an individuals well-being,
rather than only ameliorating symptoms (Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009). Moreover, when patients are asked, having a
positive mental health and returning to ones usual level of
functioning are, in their opinion, more important than
symptom reduction as indicators of true remission (Zimmerman et al., 2006).
The benets of PPIs are especially relevant to those suffering from depression. The symptoms of depression often
involve lack of positive emotion, lack of engagement, and lack
of perceived meaning. Although these features are typically
considered as consequences or mere correlates of depression,
these may also play a causal role in depression. A recent metaanalysis of 51 PPIs with individuals with depressive symptoms
revealed that PPIs signicantly enhance well-being and decrease depressive symptoms (Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009).
Other studies also suggest that therapies that enhance wellbeing may confer an advantage over traditional treatments for
treating residual symptoms such as Favas well-being therapy
(Fava and Ruini, 2003) and preventing future relapse e.g.,
mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (Segal et al., 2002).
In conclusion, PPIs are promising strategies for intervention and prevention. However, there are some issues that
future research should consider. More studies are needed to
know whether the changes that occur in these interventions are
due to placebo or nonspecic effects (Mongrain and AnselmoMatthews, 2012). Moreover, more research on the role of
moderating factors and the optimal conditions underlying
positive activities success is needed. In this vein, Lyubomirsky
and Layous (2013) have proposed a positive activity model
suggesting that features of positive activities, features of persons, and person-activity t moderate the effect of positive
activities on well-being. With regard to the features of positive
activities, their dosage, variety or sequence are important
variables that future research should take into consideration.
In terms of the features of the person, motivation and effort
are signicant variables (Lyubomirsky and Layous, 2013). For
people to benet from a positive activity, they have to effortfully engage in it, be motivated to become happier and believe
that their efforts will pay off (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011). Other
variables such as age, culture or personality are also important
potential moderators (Senf and Liau, 2013). The notion of
person-activity t (i.e., the t between activities and individuals needs, preferences and characteristics) is supported by
studies showing that the degree to which participants report
enjoying a positive activity predicts how often they complete
that activity (Schueller, 2010) and derive happiness from it
(Lyubomirsky et al., 2011).
Finally, future research should examine how to integrate or
incorporate these interventions into empirically based therapies to increase the efcacy of them or to further improve other
aspects of patients lives (Wood and Tarrier, 2010; Rashid and
Seligman, 2013). Thus, psychology begins to have effective
tools to increase individuals well-being. Future generations of
psychologists will be able to expand their resources to offer
more complex validated treatments that are related to human
needs and to increase well-being.

Challenges and Opportunities of Positive Psychology


PP focuses on something very simple to understand: it favors a
look toward skills and capacities of human beings, psychological strengths, or positive emotions. If we do not pay attention to these elements, either from within the PP
movement or from outside (e.g., Wood and Tarrier, 2010),
psychology itself will always be truncated.
The implications of focusing on the study of what constitutes a good life go beyond the limits of psychology. There is
widespread interest in including well-being and positive
mental health (Beddington et al., 2008) as a relevant element
in designing public policies. For instance, in the United
Kingdom, the Ministry of Science published in 2008 a series of
academic reports in many different areas to assess the status of
well-being and mental capital of the country as a basis to
design policies aimed at improving the lives of the UK citizens
(Jenkins et al., 2008). This initiative has generated a national
political debate on well-being (New Economic Foundation,
2011) which has led, among other plans, to include periodic
measures of psychological well-being in national surveys. Encouraging public policies that promote well-being is a terrain
in which economists and policy-makers are becoming interested (e.g., New Economics Foundation, 2011; Forgeard et al.,
2011; Diener et al., 2010; Helliwell et al., 2013; Veenhoven,
2004).
In regard to public health, the Scottish government has
designed a National Program for Improving Mental Health
and Well-being (Myers et al., 2005) that hinges on the idea of
targeting individual and community resilience and psychological well-being as national health objectives. This ambitious
approach suggests that there is a need to use comprehensive
models of mental health, including positive aspects of individual and community functioning, that allow us to use more
robust indicators to establish mental health policies and goals
(Lamers et al., 2012).
In another converging line with this interest, the European
Science Foundation launched an ambitious study in 2013 to
assess the hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Europe, led
by a group of researchers and European psychologists (Huppert, 2013). Similarly, the United Nations, in an unprecedented move, decided in its General Assembly in June
2011, with the support of recognized researchers of psychological well-being, to consider the inclusion of measures of
subjective well-being as additional indicators of human development in UN statistics (Helliwell et al., 2013). Thus, attempts to improve peoples lives, transcending the usual
economic parameters are not trivial but necessary for many
social, academic and political sectors (Helliwell et al., 2013;
Layard, 2006). It must be admitted that PP is becoming a key
factor to promote changes in this direction in the last decade
(Diener et al., 2010; Sheldon et al., 2011).
Psychology in general, through the impetus of PP, has a
great opportunity to introduce elements in public policies to
reduce destitution, poverty and inequality by also improving
peoples lives within psychological parameters (Diener et al.,
2010). If we want psychology to have a role in this endeavor,
we must do so using the best of our resources, delving into
research on the ingredients of positive psychological functioning and well-being.

Author's personal copy


Positive Psychology

Undoubtedly, a perspective impinging on psychological


strengths, or positive emotions, should not naively ignore that
human nature is complex and contradictory. Psychological
functioning cannot be understood while ignoring positive aspects, but bearing in mind that humans are also able to inict
harm and humiliation on others is also necessary. The laudable wish to make an inclusive psychology (McNulty and
Fincham, 2012) requires a deep understanding of psychological pain and depression but also of joy and growth.
A good nal destination of PP would be its incorporation
into mainstream Psychology (Vzquez, 2005; Linley et al.,
2009). Yet, before that happens, there is still a long road ahead
to signicantly alter the course in which traditional psychology
has own (Vzquez, 2013a). There is a need for an open and
frank dialog to integrate traditional approaches in psychology
with PP (Wood and Tarrier, 2010) and that should be done
from a genuine conversation which, as Hayes (2013, p. 317)
noted, focuses on common interests, shared perspectives, and
mutual respect.

See also: Empathy. Gratitude. Happiness and Subjective WellBeing. Hardiness Enhances Effectiveness and Fulllment. Hope.
Optimism, Motivation, and Mental Health. Positive Illusions.
Posttraumatic Growth. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Resilience.
Responses to Natural Disasters. Stress-Related Growth. Wisdom

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