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What is Positive Psychology?

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By: burgundy bug

“I was so happy simply to exist.”

Source: Traditional Art | Penelope Peru Photography

The field of psychology often hones in on understanding mental and behavioral disorders. Every time a new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is released, psychologists and psychiatrists are tasked to familiarize themselves with an ever expanding list of disorders as well as updates to previously defined terms.

At the cusp of the 21st century, Martin Seligman, P.h.D. sought to change that by pursuing the field of positive psychology, says University of Penn.

Through extensive research, Seligman found the happiest individuals were those who valued humanity, temperance, as well as persistence, according to the Pursuit of Happiness, an organization inspired by the field of positive psychology and run by a variety of medical experts.

“[Seligman’s] vision of happiness combines the virtue ethics of Confucius, Mencius and Aristotle with modern psychological theories of motivation,” their website says.

Positive psychology isn’t an entirely new concept. While modern positive psychology hit the ground running 20 years ago, it pulls themes and ideas discussed over 50 years ago by leading humanistic psychologists, such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, says the University of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center.

What is Positive Psychology?

“Some of us felt that psychology was too focused on detrimental behavior without values playing any role of necessary importance,” said one of the founding figures of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, at a 2017 International Positive Psychology Association conference.

“We thought that psychologists should take more seriously what makes a good life; a good life for individuals, society, and for the future.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi defines positive psychology during a 2017 IPPA conference

Source: What is Positive Psychology about? – By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi | FLIGBY – The Leadership Game

However, positive psychology isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and happiness. In fact, happiness plays a small role in the larger field of positive psychology, states the Positive Psychology Center.

Instead, positive psychology focuses on the traits that allow individuals and communities to thrive. The study hones in on three core aspects:

  1. Positive emotions
  2. Positive individual traits
  3. Positive institutions

This involves scientific inquiry on: contentment, optimism, self-love, creativity, curiosity, self-control, wisdom, civility, nurturance, work ethic, and tolerance, to name a few.

Positive Psychology v.s. Positive Thinking

“Positive psychology recognizes that in spite of the advantages of positive thinking, there are times when negative or realistic thinking is appropriate”

Positive Psychology Center

Positive thinking takes more of a cognitive behavioral therapy approach, as it encourages replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones, according to WebMD.

It doesn’t mean ignoring an issue, rather positive thinking is a practice that encourages you to focus on the glass being half full rather than half empty – or, just being grateful that you have a glass in the first place.

Whereas the Positive Psychology Center says there are times in which negative thinking can lead to a more accurate perception in various situations.

In the grand scheme of things, Positive Psychology focuses less on encouraging optimism and more or less focuses on the science behind optimism: what it is and how it relates to thriving.

Why Did It Take so Long for Positive Psychology to Become Relevant?

“Since World War II, psychology has focused its efforts on psychological problems and how to remedy them.”

Positive Psychology Center

Historically, it’s less common that researchers study mindfulness, optimism, happiness, and so forth – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?

Not to mention, scientists have to prove their research is worth funding in order to receive the grant, as seen in the National Institutes on Health’s grant submission process.

It could be much harder to prove to the government that research on positive mental health is relevant when 47.6 million adults and 7.7 million youth experienced mental illness in 2018 and 2016 respectively, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ statistics.

In Conclusion

Positive Psychology is driven by psychologists including Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi who have revived the discussions of Rogers, Maslow, and many other humanistic psychologists from the mid-20th century.

The field has made great progress interlocking optimism and science by studying human flourishing both psychologically and neurologically.

One of the field’s more recent theories of well being includes “PERMA,” in which Seligman proposes wellbeing is founded upon positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, says University of Penn’s Authentic Happiness.

It’s both understandable and necessary for psychologists to be concerned with mental illness. Yet, mental wellness is within the realm of psychology, too, and positive psychologists feel it should be treated as such.

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burgundy bug


A cynical optimist and mad scientist undercover, burgundy bug is the editor, graphic designer, webmaster, social media manager, and primary photographer for The Burgundy Zine. Entangled in a web of curiosity, burgundy bug’s work embodies a wide variety of topics including: neuroscience, psychology, ecology, biology, cannabis, reviews, fashion, entertainment, and politics. You can learn more about working with burgundy bug by visiting her portfolio website: burgundybug.com

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