Feature

Determined to shift the focus of American psychology from what is wrong with humans to what is right--from a disease model to a model of flourishing--50 researchers met recently in Lincoln, Neb., at the First Annual Positive Psychology Summit.

They examined topics ranging from the strength of wisdom to the evolutionary function of positive emotion to the importance of sensual pleasures like chocolate at a conference named "Measuring the wellsprings of a positive life."

Robert Emmons, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, noted, for example, that "human flourishing cannot be completely understood without a consideration of goal-striving and the psychological systems that enable successful goal attainment. The quality of one's inner life is determined by the nature of one's goal pursuits. Goal content, goal orientation and goal structure each contribute to a sense of well-being."

And Ed Diener, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, and co-organizer of the summit, emphasized that there is a weak relationship between wealth and subjective well-being. He is currently "measuring subjective well-being and income and happiness."

He says one of the "best predictors" of well-being is not what material possessions a person has, but "whether he has meaningful goals."

The guiding force behind the conference was former APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD. He and the psychologists who joined him in Lincoln compared notes on the scientific foundations of positive psychology and set the stage for regular conferences. (The next summit gathering will be held in Washington, D.C., Sept. 1-4.)

The gathering was the start of a scholarly attempt to examine how positive human feelings affect life, says Barbara Frederickson, PhD, a University of Michigan psychologist who studies positive emotions.

"We're not just trying to make people feel better," she says. "The overall message is that people can't trivialize traits like strength, wisdom and morality because there is a scientific base now; people have to take us seriously. It's just the beginning."

Defining the term

What exactly is positive psychology?

Seligman says positive psychology has three pillars: "First, the study of subjective well-being--life satisfaction and contentment when about the past; happiness, joy and exuberance when about the present; and optimism, faith and hope when about the future. But happiness unattached to positive character is fragile and hollow, says Seligman, so the second pillar is the study of positive individual traits--intimacy, integrity, leadership, altruism, vocation and wisdom, for example. Third, the study of positive institutions."

Adds Donald O. Clifton, PhD, chairman of Gallup, Inc., which hosted the summit: "I would think we are more ready for positive psychology than ever before. I see having introductory studies supporting the notion of the potential for positivity. It is there in our inheritance, as much as a predisposition for the negative."

Next steps

Although summit attendees left Nebraska with no definitive answer for achieving well-being, they did discuss various goals for the movement, including:

  • Developing two complementary branches of science and practice: one that alleviates and prevents negative traits and feelings and another that promotes well-being.
  • Changing the nature of psychotherapy by developing explicit ways of identifying and nurturing the strengths of patients.
  • Developing assessment devices which measure the psychological health of individuals of the communities and of the nation.
  • Developing a curriculum for teaching positive psychology, not only in universities, but also as a part of high school psychology classes.
  • Starting an intensive effort to raise funds from foundations and companies to expand scientific research.

"One of the things we really want to do is start having it as a recognizable field," said best-selling author Mary Pipher, PhD, a Lincoln psychologist who attended the conference.

Pipher says she was "intellectually stimulated," but adds that "the people who came here, as of right now, are not a very united group. There are a lot of different people who have to connect the dots between their ideas."

So how can the philosophy of positive psychology trickle down to help clinicians in their practices? Seligman says the first order of business is not to rush things, but to encourage more research, lest positive psychology be built "on a foundation of sand."

One question Diener has: "Are there personal characteristics that are universally positive across cultures and life circumstances?"

And though there may not be total agreement on where the movement is headed, the group, in the finest example of positive psychology, is optimistic that its leader is on the right path.

Pipher says, "Seligman will be the Freud of the next century."

"We're not just trying to make people feel better. The overall message is that people can't trivialize traits like strength, wisdom and morality because there is a scientific base now; people have to take us seriously. It's just the beginning."

Barbara Frederickson
University of Michigan