Positive approach

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Positive appraoch

Believes that  we should study what is best about human beings and how we can develop our positive qualities in order to lead fulfillws lives. This approach is grounded in belief that people want to lead their lives the best lives they can, and work to enhance their experiences of love, work and play. 

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Positive assumptions

  1. Acknowledgment of free will.

  2. Authenticity of goodness and excellence.

  3. Focus on ‘the good life’.


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Positive assumptions: acknowledgement of free will

  • Believes humans are in charge of own emotions and have freewill to change how they direct their emotions. Assumption is as humans we are self-directing and adaptive and that a good life can be experienced if we use our strengths and virtues to enhance our lives.

  • According to Seligman, happiness isn’t a result of good genes/luck it’s result of recognising strengths and working on developing these so our lives can be better and to minimise negativity.

  • Assumptions contrast with deterministic approaches e.g. biological approach suggests our thoughts and feelings are determined by physiological make-up, psychodynamic approach proposes childhood experiences determine adult behaviour and behaviourist approach attributes our behaviour to influence environmental stimuli.

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Positive assumptions: acknowledgement of free will

  • Assumption supported by work of Ed Diener who carried out research into why people are happy. Diener devoted research time to finding out about factors that increase well-being and happiness.

  • Research carried out by Diener and Seligman (2002) looked at ties students had with friends and family, measured in terms of amount of time they invested in these relationships. Researchers found students who had strongest ties to friends and family were happier and negative correlation between level of happiness and depression, highlights fact  we’re in control of our happiness in that we can choose to engage in activities that are known to make us happy which alleviate feelings of low mood.

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Positive assumptions: authenticity of goodness and

  • Assumption states feelings of happiness and goodness are as natural as feeling anxiety and stress so psychologists need to assign these positive states of mind equal attention.

  • Seligman (2002) believes traits like virtue and happiness are less authentic than negatives traits and states (e.g. anxiety and depression) has been obstacle in psychological research. Believes we’ve inherent traits which he calls ‘signature strengths’ like kindness, generosity and humour- need to nurture traits in order to transform our lives.

  • Traditionally, psychology as a discipline has focused on disorders (i.e. mental health problems) and negative states of mind.

  • Primary goal: change philosophy and practice, involving focusing on celebrating good things in life instead of magnifying the worst.

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Positive assumptions: authenticity of goodness and

  • Assumption is influential in therapies which are based on positive approach, rather then trying to fix what’s wrong, role of positive therapist is to facilitate positive well-being and help achieve fulfilment.

  • Approach offers different way of alleviating mental illness like depression. Can be achieved by focusing on traits that produce goodness and excellence in individual (e.g. altruistic behaviour and/or the individual's competencies) and helping people understand natural, valuable traits can be further developed.

  • Positive approach believes such understanding will act as buffer to protect individual from future mental health problems as well as being important in its own right.

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Positive assumptions: good life

  • Primary focus i.e. factors contributing most predominantly to a well-lived life.

  • Seligman (2003) distinguishes between 3 desirable lifes:

-pleasant life (happiness comes from pursuing positive emotions in relation to past, present and future).

-good life (happiness comes from pursuing activities that positively absorb and engage us).

-meaningful life (happiness comes from a deep sense of fulfilment by living for a purpose much greater than oneself).

  • Pleasant life:starting point, next step is good life:place of happiness, good relationships and work. However, Seligman encourages people to go further than ‘good life’ and seek a meaningful life in their continuing quest for happiness.

  • To achieve good life, need to develop strengths and virtues (e.g. wisdom and knowledge, courage, spirituality, love) as these are natural routes to gratification and help us function in face adversity.

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Positive assumptions: good life

  • Seligman suggests good life is combination of three elements:

  1. Positive connection to others- encompasses our ability to love, trust, enjoy happiness, forgive and develop spiritual connections with self and others.

  2. Positive individual traits- may include personal qualities like sense of integrity, morality, creativity, bravery, courage and humility.

  3. Life regulation qualities- qualities that we need to develop to regulate, monitor and control our behaviour in order to accomplish our goals. May include sense of autonomy, independence, faith in our decision making and wisdom to guide our behaviour.

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Positive appraoch relationship formation

  • Positive relationships contribute to healthy well-being (including friendships, relationships with family and romantic relationships).

  • Positive psychology is focused on conditions in which happiness thrives so topic of relationships is important.

Authenticity of goodness and excellence

  • Feeling love, kindness, generosity and forgiveness etc are authentic and this can explain why relationships are formed.

  • Entering and maintaining relationship allows individuals to develop and express their ‘signature strengths’.

  • Individuals strive towards happier and contented life whereby through their relationships they’re able to nurture these qualities (e.g. practise generosity, kindness and forgiveness).

  • We’re socially programmed to work hard to find and build relationships with others and these relationships, if positive, contribute substantially to happiness.

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Positive appraoch relationship formation

Good life

  • It advocates that as individuals we strive towards a ‘good life’ which is a place of happiness, good relationships and work.

  • Seligman suggests one element of good life is ‘positive connection to others’ and this can explain relationship formation. ‘Positive connection to others’ encompasses our ability to love, trust, enjoy happiness and forgive and these are essential ingredients in healthy relationship formation and maintenance.

  • Seligman, happiness and good life come from pursuing activities that absorb and engage us. For many people, social and romantic relationships as well as relationships with one's family help achieve this. E.g. many people become besotted and totally absorbed in other person when they first enter romantic relationship, this absorption and engagement in relationship may lead them to feel they’re experiencing the good life.


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Positive appraoch relationship formation

  • Idea supported by research shows people in relationships are happier than those who aren’t, with some psychologists claiming marriage is single most reliable happiness indicator. Indeed research carried out by Pew Research Center in 2005 reported 43% of married respondents to be ‘very happy’ compared with 24% of unmarried respondents.

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Positive appraoch relationship formation

Example: Explaining formation of friendships

Seek friendship because:

  • encourages expression of authentic emotions like kindness, generosity and altruism for both parties involved.

  • Rewards from friendship act as buffer during difficult challenges in life, helping prevent negative states like depression and anxiety developing.

  • Positive psychology would see friendships as one of the key ingredients to happiness. Using our signature strengths to promote mutually useful and altruistic friendships assures physical, emotional and mental well-being. Overall, people feel happier when engaging in activities which increase their connection to a friend (Howell et al 2009).

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Myers and Diener (1995) methodology and procedures

  • Article is a review (on happiness). 1980/90’s there was a flood of research exploring people's sense of well-being so this is what had been revealed:

Interviews and questionnaires

  • Asses happiness=consider person’s sense of happiness- subjective well-being (SWB).

  • SWB done by interviewing people using simple closed questions (i.e. how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days on a scale of 1-10?)

  • Alternatively, multi-item scale (questionnaire) can be used, includes number of questions related to happiness.

  • Both cases: quantitative measure (numerical) produced to represent happiness.


  • One way to discover what people are doing is asking them to report what they’re doing at selective times (observe behaviour).Researchers use peppers to remind participant to send message saying what they’re doing/thinking about at moment-sample behaviour.

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Myers and Diener (1995) methodology and procedures


  • One way to discover happiness is considering what factors covary with it.

  • Some factors may contribute to making person happy but other other factors are consequences of being happy.

  • Not always clear which is cause and which is effect e.g. people with high SWB have positive appraisal of life events around them but could be other way around-person tends to see events around them in a rose-coloured way and this may create higher SWB.


  • Review of other research and some research referred to is based on multiple studies.

  • Some of these are reviews, some are meta-analyses.

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Myers and Diener (1995) findings

Myths of happiness

Is happiness related to age?

  • Survey: 170,000 people of all ages in 16 different countries found no difference.

  • People of all ages equally happy- mean score:80% satisfaction with life (Inglehart 1990).

  • However, at different ages, different factors contribute to happiness e.g. social relations and health become more important factors with age (Herzog et al 1982).

  • People experience crises but aren’t restricted to particular age such as supposed mid-life crisis in one's early 40s (McCrae and Costa 1990).


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Myers and Diener (1995) findings

Is happiness related to gender?

  • Inglehart- survey of people in 16 different countries found 80% of men and women said they were fairly satisfied with life.

  • Haring et al. 1984- person's gender accounted for 1% of global well-being.

  • However, Robins and Regier 1991- found women are twice as vulnerable as men to depression.

Is happiness related to race/culture?

  • Diener et al. 1993- African-Americans report nearly twice as happy as European Americans.

  • Inglehart, 1990- no notable differences between countries. Porulgal 10% people reported happy compared with 40% in Netherlands.

  • People in individualist cultures (people more concerned with their individual needs) report greater SWB than in collectivist cultures (people focus on needs of group)- makes sense that individualist cultures, individual happiness matters more.

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Myers and Diener (1995) findings

Is happiness related to money?

  • Austin et al, 1987- survey (1993) found 75% of American college students selected being well off financially as an essential life goal, compared with 39% in 1970.Not everyone agrees money buys happiness but most agree having more money would make them happier.

  • Diener et al. 1993- found correlation of +.12 between income and happiness- correlation between income and happiness is modest.

  • Diener et al, 1993- People richer don't report greater happiness- survey of people on Forbes rich list found 37% were less happy than average American.

  • Argyle 1986- People who win lottery only report brief increases in their happiness.

  • However, lack of important of money does not apply to situations where people are poor, For example, in poor country like Bangladesh, people with money report higher SWB than those without money. So affluence does increase happiness but once certain level of comfort is reached (basic needs met) increased wealth makes little difference.

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Myers and Diener (1995) findings

Happy people

  • Seems people can be happier than others, regardless of life's ups and downs.

  • Costa et al 1973- found people who reported being happy in 1973 tended to be happy ones decade later.

Traits of happy people

  • High self esteem- if like themselves and typically agree with statements like “i'm a lot of fun to be with” and “i have good ideas”.

  • Sense of personal control- feel empowered rather than helpless do better at school, cope better with stress/typically happier.

  • Optimism- agree with statements like “when i undertake something new i expect to succeed”.

  • Extraversion- people who are more outgoing are happier when with other people than alone.

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Myers and Diener (1995) findings

Relationships of happy people

  • For some it creates more stress and unhappiness than happiness, Jean- Paul Sartre (1973) said “Hell is other people”.

  • For most, benefits outweighs strains (for most ppl).

  • Burt 1986- People who can name several close friends are healthier and happier than people who can't name such friends.

  • Lee et al 1991- Married people are happier than unmarried people 39% versus 24%.

  • Wood et al 1989- In meta-analysis of 93 studies, women and men reported similar levels of happiness for marriage and non-marriage.


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Myers and Diener (1995) findings

Work and the flow of happy people

  • Work satisfaction affects happiness.

  • People who are out of work are less likely than those in work- work provides identity, sense that one's life matters and sense of community.

  • However, work can be unsatisfying/stressful and is associated with unhappiness,

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi- introduced concept of flow, extent to which we become caught up in activity so other things matter less. He used beppers to question people throughout their day about what they were doing and whether they were happy. He found people were happiest when engaged in mindful challenge and experiencing flow.


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Myers and Diener (1995) findings

Faith of happy people

  • Poloma and Pendleton 1990- North America and Europe people who are religious report higher levels of happiness.

  • Gallup 1984- people with a high spiritual commitment were twice as likely to say they were very gappy e.g. people who agree with statements like “my religious faith is the most important thing in my life”.

  • Witter et al 1985- happiness also associated with strength of religious affiliation and frequency of worship attendance.

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Myers and Diener (1995) conclusion

  1. Importance of adaption.

  • Effects of positive/negative events fade over time e.g. people who win lottery only experience short term increases in happiness. Conversely, people who go through psychological trauma like those who survived horrific experiences in concentrations camps recover their hope and happiness.

  • Recent longitudinal study found that it's only events in last three months that influence SWB- due to human capacity to adapt to life circumstances.

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Myers and Diener (1995) conclusion

  1. Cultural worldview.

  • Cultural attitudes predispose people to interpret life events differently.

  • Some cultures construe world as benevolent and controllable place whereas other cultures emphasise negative emotions like anxiety, anger and guilt.

  1. Values and goals.

  • People with high sense of SWB have goals- ambitions.

  • Other facts- money/intelligence, matter if relevant to goals.

  • Explains why money matters more in poor country because relevant to one's goals, in more affluent society money matters less because that isn't prime factor in achieving one's goals.

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Myers and Diener (1995) conclusion

The future

  • Person's happiness is not predictable from age, gender or affluence.

  • Appears to be associated with race and culture- people who are happy possess certain traits, tend to have close relationships enjoy their work and are religious.

  • Importance of such understanding is psychologists can help build word that enhances human well-being.

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Myers and Diener evaluation: method and procedure


  • Data collected about subjective well-being (SWB) is subjective- when someone reports they are happy we have no way of confirming/challenging that.

  • Respondents might not be telling the truth- on questionnaires people produce social desirable answers- research found social desirability scores correlate with happiness scores i.e. people who represent themselves as happy tend to give socially desirable answers.

  • However, when friends are asked to rate happiness of same people, their ratings correlate with target individuals social desirability scores- confirms validity of original answers.

  • Also, people may think they're happy but actually repressing their feelings of unhappiness (psychodynamic view).

  • However, unlikely since research has found that people describe themselves as happy and are satisfied with life are described same way with family and friends.

Overall, reason to believe we can trust subjective reports of happiness.

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Myers and Diener evaluation: method and procedure


  • Many findings are correlational- we can't assume particular factor is a cause of happiness.

  • May be important intervening variables e.g. link between marriage and happiness may be due to other things in marriage rather than relationship i.e. married people have more disposable cash than single people because two incomes but only need one house/car etc making them happier.

Further issue with correlational data- we don't know direction of relationship. E.g. marriage- research shows happy people are more appealing as marriage [partners (Mastekaasa 1992). Therefore, could be happiness makes marriage more likely than vice versa.

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Myers and Diener evaluation: method and procedure

The samples

  • Data based on Western samples as researchers are American and have conducted research in USA-.

  • Roots of happiness may be different in other cultures, hint of this in article when comparing individualistic and collectivist cultures.

  • People in former report higher levels of happiness- may be people in collectivist cultures are equally happy but don't express happiness- pleasure comes from success of group rather than individual.
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Myers and Diener evaluation: method and procedure

The samples

  • Data based on Western samples as researchers are American and have conducted research in USA-.

  • Roots of happiness may be different in other cultures, hint of this in article when comparing individualistic and collectivist cultures.

  • People in former report higher levels of happiness- may be people in collectivist cultures are equally happy but don't express happiness- pleasure comes from success of group rather than individual.
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Myers and Diener evaluation: alternative evidence

Evaluation: Alternative evidence

  • Emergent ideas in classic study is happiness stays fairly steady level through life with occasional highs/lows- some researchers call this your happiness set-point and believe it could be at least partly due to genetics- gene linked to happiness, the 5-HTT gene (controls levels of neurotransmitter serotonin- some people have form of this gene and report higher instances of life satisfaction- Schinka et al, 2004).

  • However, not all psychologists agree with view e.g. Sonja Lyubormirsky (2013) argues happiness is 50% genetics and 10% circumstances, remaining 40% is self control e.g. factors individual themselves is able to have influence over.

  • Lyubormirsky got this from review of studies asking people about happiness-studies comparing levels of happiness in twins/family members (estimate genetic factors) and studies comparing people who had easy lives and more difficult ones (estimated circumstantial factors).

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Myers and Diener evaluation: ethical issues and so

Psychological harm

  • Benefits of this research is little risk of harm to participant because behaviour is not being manipulated.

  • However, possible some people who are unhappy may not welcome being asked about their happiness, may feel more depressed about being asked so researcher must be sensitive to participants needs and debrief them approximately.

  • Ethical guidelines (e.g. British Psychological Society's code of ethics)
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Myers and Diener evaluation: ethical issues and so

Socially sensitive research

  • Might make us more likely to think (positively/negatively) about certain group of people e.g. culture.

  • Myers and Diener 1995- conclusion about happiness of particular cultural groups e.g. Inglehart's 1990 findings that in portugal 10% of people reported they were happy compared with 40% in Netherlands. May lead to people assuming any Portuguese people they meet may be unhappy and likely to meet happy Dutch person.

  • Also, may need to be cautious about statistics like this because don't know if sample used was fair representation of Portuguese and Netherlands populations.
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Evaluating positive appraoch: strengths

A shift in focus for psychology.

  • Moves focus of psychology beyond explaining and treating disorder and illness gto celebrate human character and how our authentic strengths can be developed to ensure we experience greater life contentment. (shifts attention from interest in negative states e.g. anxiety and depression to positive states e.g. happiness and optimism). This focus underpinned by believe that focussing on only disorder and disease results in limited understanding of human condition.

  • Sheldon and King (2001)- psychology traditionally failed to encourage human growth. Instead has negative bias, “when a stranger helps another person, psychologists are quick to find the selfish benefit in the act”. Instead of studying weakness and damage and trying to fix what is wrong, psychology needed to build on what is right about human nature.

  • This isn't a determinist view, positive psychology recognises people want to think about their future to become proactive in changing their destiny and understanding they have free will over their emotions.

Martin Seligman (2000)- shift in thinking, believing “The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyse in focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing worst things in life and build positive qualities.

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Evaluating positive appraoch: strengths


  • Fundamental assumptions been applied in many fields of life in order to help individuals, organisations and communities to flourish e.g. education. Stress management, occupational psychology and therapy.

  • Firstly, approach been in resilience training for US Army following extended campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years. Aim of specialised training is to improve different aspects of resilience (emotional, spiritual) and try reduce incidence of stress symptoms and suicide.

  • Employing techniques drawn from positive psychology, programme focusses on building mental toughness by identifying and developing signature strengths (humour, courage, perseverance) and preventing pathology so soldiers can return home without serious mental health issues.

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Evaluating positive approach: strengths

  • Secondly, education- in USA a growing number of schools embracing positive psychology curricula (PPCs) which involves intentional activities to increase overall well-being through development of positive cognitions, feelings and behaviours.

  • In 2002, US Department of Education awarded a 2.8 millions dollar grant for positive psychology to be taught to ninth graders.

  • In 2007, UK Department for Children, Schools and Families set 10 new targets to improve children's well-being by 2020 so it's anticipated that schools in UK start implementing positive psychology strategies into curriculum, following Wellington College, Berkshire (in 2006 took decision to include positive psychology and happiness lessons as part of its core curriculum).
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Evaluating positive approach: strengths

Free will approach.

  • Unlike other approaches (biological, psychodynamic and behaviourist) it does not propose deterministic account of human behaviour- based on notion that individuals are neither predetermined/restricted.

  • Have person freedom to grow and develop natural signature strength and  virtues- psychology criticized for deterministic view of human behaviour and positive psychology questions validity of traditional approaches which display determinism (treats individuals as victim of own biological and environmental characteristics).

  • Traditional psychological approaches postulated view that past determines present and future- Seligman believes pessimism obstructs possible development.

  • Positive psychologists recognise humans are self-regulating and not victims of own past. Instead, possess character strengths and virtues which can be development enhance life and result in greater fulfillment.

  • This control of developing our authentic strengths results in control over mental health and well-being, leading to contented happy life.

  • Free will isn't only option but a necessity for leading contented life, according to approach, humans flourish by motivation to develop authentic strengths and only achieve this when recognise they have free will to elicit change.
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Evaluating positive approach: weaknesses

Not a new idea.

  • Claims of novelty for it being new and fresh are false- positive potential of human beings was celebrated by Abraham Maslow and humanistic psychology movement in late 1950s/60s.

  • Some critics maintain figure like Seligman ignore work of psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Carl Jung who were among first to criticize existing approaches as being negative.

  • In fact, humanistic movement emerged as backlash to predominant psychological theories of behaviourism and psychoanalysis, and Maslow urged people to think about addressing higher needs recognising individuals internally directed and motivated to fulfil human potential.

  • Therefore, it's neither unique/novel in recognising the deficit in psychological research.

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Evaluating positive approach: weaknesses

  • Further clash comes from psychologus desire to separate itself from humanistic psychology on grounds of methodological inquiry. Whereas positive psychology claims to be advance on humanistic psychology because its adopted scientific study of well being, humanistic psychology critical of successors behaving ignoring of qualitative methods will result in narrow explanations of human behaviour.

  • Whether two approaches reconcile remains to be seen however can't deny positive psychology has rooms in humanistic psychology and in order to understand positive movement we needs to understand where it's come from.
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Evaluating psychodynamic approach weakness

Can happiness be measured?

  • Scientific? Defining happiness proved challenging in itself as each individual will have different idea about what happiness means to them.

  • When two people say they're happy, could be referring to two different states of mind- may not be issued in own right however problem when measuring happiness and developing scientific measurements for subjective state of mind.

  • Advances in neuroscience have allowed researchers to objectively measure emotional experience of happiness e.g. according to meta-analysis by Wager et al (2003) positive emotions found likely to activate the basal ganglia than negative emotions.

  • Neuroscientific research into happiness raises new question about whether happiness is discrete emotion that can be measured in confined time in lab setting or whether runs along continuum with other emotions.
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Evaluating positive approach: weaknesses

Ignoring individual differences?

  • Criticised for ignoring individual and cultural differences and proposing a one size fits all philosophy and conclusions about power of positive.

  • Christopher and Hickinbottom (2008)-  suggest approach is ethnocentric, based on culture- bound Western ideas centred on individual autonomy and fulfilment. Claim Americas cultures preoccupied with idea that positive emotions, attitudes and thoughts are obligatory for good life, where negative emotions generally considered to be something avoided/controlled.

  • Point out collectivism as opposed to individualism is dominant outlook in 70% words population and cultural context should not be overlooked when determining positive qualities (complaining).

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Evaluating positive approach: weaknesses

  • Julie Norem (2001) highlights danger in ignoring individual differences in assumption that all positive qualities are beneficial and should be universally developed. Norem studies people who she calls defensive pessimists who deal with anxiety by thinking everything that could go wrong in situation (negative thinking). Her studies show, by processing realistic possibilities, defensive pessimists deal with their anxiety and work harder to avoid anticipated pitfalls.  

  • Studies by Norem and others suggest forcing optimistic/positive mood on anxious defensive pessimist can damage performance.
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