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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2018

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2018 | Volume 22 | Issue 2

A Positive Psychologist's View of Positive Psychology

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, Western Oregon University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Welcome, readers of the Eye. I am glad that you have wandered down to this page, because you have found my new column, one devoted to providing brief but comprehensive descriptions of all the different subfields of contemporary psychology. In the following issues, I will cover many areas of psychology, some being established, traditional subfields (e.g., social psychology), others being less well-known and perhaps widely misunderstood subfields (e.g., forensic psychology), and yet others not being subfields at all, but rather perspectives that cross-cut all areas of psychology (e.g., evolutionary psychology). At times, we will interview leaders in the various subfields to get their perspective on the state of affairs in their chosen domain of inquiry. At other times, I will simply attempt to provide a useful introduction to an area and encourage you to explore it further.

With that all said, this first article is devoted to an area near and dear to me, my own area of interest: positive psychology. In what follows, we will discuss what positive psychology is, the history of the field, major areas of research and application, and opportunities for study and career.

What Positive Psychology Is

Positive psychology has been succinctly described in a number of different ways and has been variously referred to as:

  • “ …the science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions,” (Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015).
  • “ …the scientific and applied approach to uncovering people’s strengths and promoting their positive functioning,” (Lopez, Pedrotti, & Snyder, 2015).
  • “ …the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life,” (Seligman & Czikszentmihalyi, 2000).
  • “ …the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions,” (Gable & Haidt, 2005).
  • “ …the scientific study of what makes life most worth living,” (Peterson, 2006).
  • My personal favorite:

  • “ …nothing more than the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues,” (Sheldon & King, 2001).
  • Although the above definitions differ in the particulars, there are broad commonalities and underlying but significant points to be taken. For one, positive psychology (like much of psychology as a whole) is a science and dedicated to the study of the above topics via empirical means. This fact distinguishes positive psychology from other areas of inquiry, for example humanistic psychology, a related field that has historically studied similar topics via nonempirical means. For two, notice that the above definitions focus on positive functioning and not positive feeling. Many mistakenly assume that positive psychology is happy-ology, or the exclusive focus on positive emotional states. It is not. Certainly, positive emotions, mood, and affect are central to positive psychological functioning. But, there is wide recognition among positive psychologists that there is much more to life than simply feeling good.

    I suspect that you now have a sense of what positive psychology is, so we will move on. But, before we do, just to make sure everyone is on the same page, I offer my own very concise definition:

  • “ Positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human feeling and functioning,” (McMahan, just now).
  • Feel free to quote me if you like.

    History and Development of Positive Psychology

    When discussing the (relatively short) history of this field, it is important to state at the outset that many of the topics commonly investigated in positive psychology have been addressed at length elsewhere. Indeed, questions regarding the nature of well-being, happiness, and the “good life” have been addressed by philosophers, politicians, and scholars from a variety of disciplines since antiquity. However, the history of positive psychology proper begins in earnest at the 1998 Presidential Address of the American Psychological Association (APA). Martin Seligman, newly appointed APA President and eminent scholar who up to this point spent much of his career studying human misery (specifically, depression), articulated a simple point: psychology had for too long focused too heavily on studying and understanding pathology, and as a result, we knew very little about the things that make life worth living. Seligman encouraged his audience and the field of psychology to focus their inquiries on both the positive and the negative in order to provide a more balanced and accurate view of the nature of human psychological functioning.

    Following this address, Seligman and several colleagues, most notably Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and Christopher Peterson, pushed for the establishment of a separate field of scientific study called “positive psychology,” a term first coined by Abraham Maslow many years previous. Seligman, with Czikszentmihalyi, published a now-well-known article in a special edition of American Psychologist that outlined a framework for the new science (Seligman & Czikszentmihalyi, 2000). Many researchers and practitioners were receptive of this call to the positive, and in the years since the publication of this seminal piece of work, the field has exploded in popularity, with some referring to this explosion as “the positive psychology movement.”

    Currently, positive psychology is a thriving area of both research and practice. In the last two decades, the field has seen the establishment and continued development of several journals focused on the publication of positive psychological research (e.g., the Journal of Positive Psychology); increases in the publication of books; increases in the number of prizes, grants, and awards for research in positive psychology; and a growing number of professional organizations dedicated to supporting the work of positive psychologists (e.g., the International Positive Psychology Association). In fact, in one recent review (see Donaldson et al., 2015), researchers identified over 1,300 peer-reviewed research articles published between 1999 and 2013 that examined positive psychological topics, and the number of articles published per year increased substantially in each year examined. Given this increase, I wanted to examine the state of affairs at the time of this writing (August 2017). So, I did. And, in my own very rough search of articles available on PsycINFO, I identified over 2,500 peer-reviewed journal articles on topics related to positive psychology that were published between 1999 and 2017. Suffice it to say, the field has come a long way in a short time.

    Major Areas of Research and Application

    There are a multitude of topics currently being examined from a positive psychological perspective, and it would be futile to attempt to provide an exhaustive list of all areas of research in this field (particularly with the limited word count I have for this column). So, I won’t attempt it. But, what I will do is briefly cover some of the more well-established and well-known areas.

    As noted above, positive psychology can be broadly divided into the study of (a) positive subjective states, (b) positive individual traits, and (c) positive institutions. The investigation of positive subjective states involves research on happiness, well-being, flow, mindfulness, love, and so on. Positive individual traits that are studied include character strengths, gratitude, learned optimism, hope, courage, and wisdom, among others. The study of positive institutions involves examining how the institutions, organizations, and various social contexts we come into contact with every day impact our psychological functioning, and a great deal of work in this area has focused on the role of schools, work, families, and community organizations in promoting well-being.

    Knowledge generated through basic research on the above topics has been applied in a number of different domains. In particular, positive psychological principles are now frequently applied within industry and various organizations to improve job satisfaction and productivity, within academic contexts to promote student well-being and academic performance, as well as within therapeutic contexts where positive psychotherapy is now frequently used as a treatment for depression and trauma-related psychopathology.

    Moreover, one of the main applied research areas of positive psychology focuses on the testing and development of positive psychological interventions, practices aimed at encouraging optimal functioning in not only those with some type of diagnosable psychological disorder, but also in nonclinical populations (i.e., those without mental illness). Empirical research in this area indicates that engagement in simple behaviors like regularly counting your blessings, showing gratitude to others, identifying and cultivating personal strengths, and practicing mindfulness is associated with increased well-being.

    In one major example of the application of positive psychology, resilience training programs developed by Seligman and colleagues have been adapted for use in the U.S. military in order to promote resilience in soldiers and their families (see the 2011 special issue of American Psychologist on Comprehensive Soldier Fitness for more information). In short, positive psychology is a field that not only conducts rigorous scientific research examining optimal functioning, but also aims to apply this research within many different contexts for the betterment of society.

    Academic and Career Opportunities

    Although academic courses in positive psychology didn’t exist just 20 years ago, due to the rapid development in the field, the vast majority of university psychology departments now teach these courses. Additionally, many departments offer more advanced, seminar-style courses on special topics in positive psychology. If you, the reader, are interested in learning more about positive psychology, I strongly encourage you to check out your department’s catalog to see which courses are being offered. Concerning graduate training, across the world, over 20 new graduate programs in positive psychology have been developed, including two large and well-established programs at the University of Pennsylvania (see and Claremont Graduate University (see However, as with graduate training more generally, your potential faculty advisor’s research interests are often more important than the focus of your program, and many active positive psychologists teach in graduate programs in more conventional areas of psychology (e.g., social, developmental). So, when looking for graduate training opportunities in positive psychology, I encourage you, the prospective graduate student, to first focus on identifying potential advisors with interests in positive psychology, regardless of whether they teach in an explicitly identified positive psychology program (to get started, see

    Regarding careers, as one might expect, many positive psychologists work in the academe (e.g., university faculty) and/or in mental health services (e.g., clinical psychologists). However, because positive psychology can be applied in a number of different domains (see above), the career opportunities for those with interests and training in positive psychology is quite varied. Some of the more common career fields include working in research firms, education, government agencies, human resource departments, and consulting firms. In addition, the number of individuals who work independently as career or life coaches, motivational speakers, and/or writers on positive psychological topics is increasing. Indeed, one can even find positive psychologists writing regular columns for the Eye on Psi Chi…


    Donaldson, S. I., Dollwet, M., & Rao, M. A. (2015). Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 185–195.

    Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9, 103–110.

    Lopez, S. J., Pedrotti, J. T., & Snyder, C. R. (2015). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

    Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.

    Sheldon, K. M., & King, L. (2001). Why positive psychology is necessary. American Psychologist, 56, 216–217.

    Further Reading

    Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Achieving and sustaining a good life. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 422–428.

    Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

    Sheldon, K. M., Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (2011). Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward.

    Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Western Oregon University where he teaches courses in research methods, advanced research methods, and positive psychology. He is passionate about undergraduate education in psychology and has served Psi Chi members in several ways over the last few years, including as a faculty advisor, Psi Chi Western Region Steering Committee Member, Grants Chair, and most recently, as the Western Regional Vice-President of Psi Chi. His research interests focus on hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being, folk conceptions of happiness, and the relationship between nature and human well-being. His recent work examines how exposure to immersive simulations of natural environments impact concurrent emotional state and, more broadly, how regular contact with natural environments may be one route by which individuals achieve optimal feeling and functioning. He has published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, Personality and Individual Differences, and Ecopsychology, among other publications. He completed his undergraduate training at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Wyoming.

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