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What Is Positive Psychology?

Study what makes people flourish.

Most research in psychology focuses on the negative—mental illnesses, learning disabilities, and other dysfunctions. But the field of positive psychology takes a different approach, considering how “normal” people can attain greater happiness and purpose in their lives. It operates on the assumption that what is good in life is just as real as what is bad, and that mental health is not merely the absence of mental illness.

Positive psychology does not replace other methodologies. Instead, it focuses on studying the positive outliers (people who are achieving more and living with greater purpose and drive, and who are satisfied with their lives). Researchers look closely at experiences and traits that flourishing individuals and organizations have in common.

What Is Positive Psychology?

Positive Benchmarks

Positive psychology takes a close look at indicators of flourishing, such as optimism, self-confidence, and hope. Researchers define these terms and look closely at factors in the lives of people who experience them. Interestingly, research reveals that wealth plays only a partial role in an individual’s overall satisfaction with life. Other factors—such as deep friendships, meaningful relationships, and a sense of purpose—are also important contributors to human flourishing. Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist and researcher, described three possible paths to human happiness: the Pleasant Life (focused on wealth and pleasure), the Good Life (which emphasizes personal strengths), and the Meaningful Life (finding purpose by using personal strengths to serve a larger purpose).1

Positive Strengths

Identifying and cultivating positive character traits is another emphasis in positive psychology. Several studies have shown that gratitude contributes to overall happiness. When Seligman conducted a study where more than 400 people were tasked with writing letters of gratitude to people who had impacted them positively, the participants’ happiness score increased and positive effects lingered for a month.2 Other character strengths associated with human flourishing include resilience and compassion.

The PERMA Model

Developed by Seligman, the PERMA model attempts to create a set of guidelines for understanding human happiness. Each element represents a core component of well-being:3

  1. Positive Emotions

    Seeking out positive emotions can be frustrating and fruitless at times, but this component is more about taking time to notice and fully enjoy positive emotions when they come. People who live in the moment, rather than letting negative thoughts about the past or future rule their perception of the present, are often happier.

  2. Engagement

    Also related to living in the moment, engagement describes the ability to be present with people, activities, or tasks at hand. A sense of focus or “flow” plays a part, and people typically experience engagement when they are doing something that is meaningful to them—whether it’s creating a work of art or spending time with a loved one.

  3. Relationships

    Relationships with other people (and with animals) are vital building blocks in human happiness. Despite the Western emphasis on individualism, research is clear that people need other people to attain a state of happiness and well-being. Strong relationships that include empathy, vulnerability, intimacy, and love are vital.

  4. Meaning

    A sense of meaning or purpose plays a pivotal role in a person’s level of happiness and fulfillment. Many find ultimate value in their religious beliefs, while others focus on helping others, serving a cause greater than themselves, or pursuing creative arts. Those who take time to discover their personal strengths and abilities often find a greater sense of meaning—and happiness—in their jobs.

  5. Accomplishment or Achievement

    Setting goals and reaching them brings a lot of satisfaction to individuals and organizations alike. The ability to set goals that are both realistic and challenging is key. When individuals know they are meeting their goals and improving their abilities, they thrive.

If you’re interested in learning more about positive psychology, consider pursuing a psychology degree. A career in psychology could include activities such as research, counseling, and patient care, with the ultimate goal of helping others flourish.

Walden University is an accredited institution that offers an online BS in Psychology degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,