Tao of Positive Psychology

            Some years ago I wrote a personality textbook.  I can’t say how many times I’ve told someone that I would never do it again.  It’s not that it was too much work, although it was an incredible amount of work.  No, the two main reasons that I intended to avoid even the idea of writing another textbook are as follows:  first, I never expected to have a good enough idea in another field of study that writing a textbook would be warranted and second, my experience with the textbook publishing industry was extremely negative!

            What has changed?  Interestingly, it is the interaction of my past experiences that has me beginning this project.  There are some decent books available for teaching positive psychology, but I don’t consider any of them to be great.  More importantly, as was the case with the personality textbook I wrote, there was one major section (as I prefer to teach my class) that was being left out of all the available textbooks.  Consequently, I wanted a textbook that covered that general area of interest.  So, I decided to write my own materials once again.

            In recent years I have become familiar with a growing trend in higher education:  efforts to curb the outrageous cost of textbooks, particularly through the creation and adoption of open educational resources (OERs).  The personality textbook I wrote has been made available as an OER and posted on the OpenStax Connections website.  While thinking about how to handle my desire for something new in positive psychology, and knowing that I would soon be eligible for another sabbatical, I decided to apply for a sabbatical leave to provide the time to write an OER textbook for positive psychology.  Our college supports OERs, so guess what?  My sabbatical application was approved.

            Now, here’s the fun part.  OERs are meant to be used, re-used, modified, altered, tailored, mixed, etc.  A faculty member using an OER, or a portion of an OER, can do whatever they want with it.  So, I also feel free to present it however I want.  In other words, although it may at times seem quite “academic,” it doesn’t have to be as formal as a typical textbook.  It can be whatever I want it to be.  Indeed, I can use the word “I” as freely as I choose to.  Those of you who are students have it repeatedly drilled into your heads to never, ever, ever use the first-person.  But, part of this project is a personal journal.  Why would such a thing be written in the third-person?

            So, this project will be a blend of personal and academic writing.  I will cover research in the field of positive psychology, but I may also comment on that research, maybe even adding some personal anecdotes.  In addition, I will include some of the things I use when teaching my own classes.  Hopefully that will prove useful for new instructors teaching this, or other, classes for the first time.

The Structure of this "Textbook"

            I can’t decide whether to refer to this as a textbook, a manual, or something else.  It doesn’t really matter, since as an OER I don’t necessarily expect anyone to use it in whole.  Some may, but that isn’t really relevant.

            As noted above, I am preparing this for the way in which I teach my classes.  It has become my habit to break my classes into five units, each one with a quiz, and I only count four of the five quizzes as part of the grade.  Thus, there are five “chapters” on the following topics:

  • Well-Being
  • Human Strengths & Virtues
  • Positive Emotional & Cognitive States
  • Positive Institutions
  • Stigmatized Groups and the Need for Positivity

            There will also be sections on recommended classroom assignments and the personal journal that I’ll be writing throughout this project.  Actually, journaling is an assignment that I use regularly with my students.  They often ask me to describe how I want them to write journal entries.  Since I give them a great deal of freedom, it’s somewhat difficult for me to describe.  I don’t want to inhibit those who are more creative.  So in this project I will be giving them examples of a journal I’ve written myself, which they can choose to emulate if that makes it easier for them.

So, What Exactly is Positive Psychology?

            When people first think about positive psychology they assume it’s about being happy.  However, it has always been a serious endeavor, devoted to so much more than psychological fluff.  In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, urged psychologists to rediscover their forgotten mission to encourage the growth of human strengths and virtues.  Seligman called this new area Positive Psychology (see Peterson, 2006a; Seligman, 2002; Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Snyder & Lopez, 2005).

            For Seligman (2002), and I know of no one who disagrees with him, the foundation of positive psychology is supported by three pillars:  the study of positive emotion; the study of positive traits (especially strengths and virtues); and finally, the study of positive institutions.  The general goal of positive psychology is to find ways in which psychologists can help people be happier and lead more fulfilling lives, and it can serve as a focus for psychologists to become more appreciative of both human nature and the potential for the field of psychology itself to benefit all people (Sheldon and King, 2001).

            Positive psychology was by no means, however, a new field.  There have always been psychologists and psychiatrists who focused on the positive aspects of human personality growth and development.  In particular, individuals such as Alfred Adler, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow are well-known for their positive approaches, and we will discuss them in this book in part for laying the foundation for the positive psychologists of today.  In addition, it might surprise some people (it certainly surprised me) that a book entitled The Structure of Psychological Well-Being was published 30 years before Seligman’s call for the formal and active study of positive psychology (Bradburn, 1969).

            Indeed, we can go back to the 1950s and find a call for the study of positive psychology by none other than Abraham Maslow (perhaps the most famous psychologist – since Freud was a psychiatrist and Pavlov was a physiologist).  In 1954, Maslow published Motivation and Personality, in which he included a final chapter entitled Toward a Positive Psychology.  However, Maslow shifted away from referring to positive psychology.  Toward a Psychology of Being (Maslow, 1964/1999) was an extension/continuation of Motivation and Personality, and that book begins with a chapter entitled Toward a Psychology of Health (a revision of a lecture given in 1954).  However, the title of the latter book reveals Maslow true preference:


            This is then a chapter in the “positive psychology,” or “orthopsychology,” of the future in that it deals with fully functioning and healthy human beings, and not alone with normally sick ones.  It is, therefore, not in contradiction to psychology as a “psychopathology of the average”; it transcends it and can in theory incorporate all its findings in a more inclusive and comprehensive structure which includes both the sick and the healthy, both deficiency, Becoming and Being.  I call it Being-psychology… (pg. 85; Maslow, 1964/1999)


            Before delving into the primary content of this topic, there is one final note that should be addressed:  culture is important.  The field of psychology has long been criticized for being focused on white, European perspectives.  This criticism is both true and false.  Although many of the founding theorists in the field of psychology were white, male, and European, the fact is that a fair number of them were critically interested in cross-cultural validation of their work.

            For example, in Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung and his colleagues examined cultural images from 42 countries and 6 ancient/extinct cultures (Jung, et al., 1964).  Jung also travelled extensively in Africa, India, and amongst native tribes in America.  Before Erik Erikson was willing to publish his eight psychosocial stages he made sure to validate them in a variety of different cultures:  European, European-American, and two Native American tribes (the Sioux and the Yurok; Coles, 1970, Friedman, 1999).  Carl Rogers, early in his college career, travelled extensively throughout the far east, particularly in China, and something seldom discussed is that his roommate on that trip was a black man (not very common in 1922; Kirschenbaum, 1995, Rogers & Russell, 2002; Thorne, 2003).  In addition, Karen Horney was personal friends with D.T. Suzuki and became very interested in Zen Buddhism (Rubins, 1972, 1978), Abraham Maslow proposed a Fourth Force in Psychology based on transcendence (Maslow, 1964/1999), and Erich Fromm also became friends with D. T. Suzuki and worked with him for some time in Mexico.  The time Fromm and Suzuki spent together resulted in the collaboration entitled Zen Buddhism & Psychoanalysis (Suzuki et al., 1960).

            So, although much of this book will be based on research done here in America by American psychologists, we will do our best to pay careful attention to cultural differences in what constitutes psychological well-being.  This is especially important since the happiest country in the world is not the United States.  That title usually goes to Denmark, where as many as 40% of the people are flourishing.  At first glance, 40% may not seem all that impressive, but the second place country, Switzerland, has only about 30% of its people flourishing (see, e.g., Knoop, 2014)!

            Indeed, many people in the United States like to talk about the concept of American exceptionalism, but we are definitely not exceptional when it comes to being happy.  The happiest people, overall, are either Scandinavian or from down-under, with the most recent list (according to CNN in March, 2016) being:  Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Israel, Austria, and then the U.S. in 13th place.  Of course, 13th is a lot better than 156th, where Syria completes the list as the least happy country on earth.

            Let me finish this introduction with a simple definition of positive psychology, according to the International Positive Psychology Association.  It is “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive” (cited in Knoop, 2014).

            Caveat Emptor:  Some psychologists have characterized the distinction between positive psychology and the historical approaches which were of a positive nature, and indeed set the stage for positive psychology, as being one of a distinct focus on empirical research in the more modern field of positive psychology.  I was trained to conduct biomedical research, and that’s what I did for a number of years (some of my favorite studies are Kelland et al., 1989, 1990, 1991a,b, 1995; Kelland & Chiodo, 1993).  So believe me, I appreciate empirical research.  As always, however, there are a few problems with such a singular perspective.

            One major problem is the Reproducibility Project: Psychology led by Brian Nosek, in which a collaboration of scientists attempted to reproduce 100 studies in the field of psychology (published in the distinguished journal Science and reported in numerous media outlets; see Nosek, 2015).  Less than 40% of the studies were replicated, casting doubt (perhaps seriously so in the minds of some) on the value of empirical research in psychology.  As positive psychology is now coming of age, there are growing challenges to the applicability of the research in this field, including books such as The Happiness Myth (Hecht, 2007) and Understanding Happiness:  A Critical Review of Positive Psychology (which we’ll discuss in Section V; Power, 2016).

            Another problem I see is that history in the field of psychology is valuable (and interesting!), and it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Personally, I like history, and I appreciate how it can put things in perspective, as well as deepen our appreciation for current research when we know more about how our field of study got where it is today.

            Thus, there is value in examining the historical approaches to and perspectives on positive psychology.  Combined with the current research, which tends to confirm historical theorizing, we arrive more confidently at a point where we can discuss the value of positive psychology.  So this book takes a different approach than others, which is, of course, it’s primary purpose.  Add to that the fact that it’s an open educational resource (i.e., free to everyone), and hopefully it will be useful to many students of psychology.

            If what you’re looking for is the perfect positive psychology textbook, all I can say is:

            Neti Neti!


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