Centre for Confidence and Well-being

Skip to content

The story of Positive Psychology

Since his ground-breaking learned helplessness experiments on dogs in the 1960s, Martin Seligman has towered over psychology both in the USA and abroad.

His work on 'learned helplessness' led him on to study depression and then from there on to research into optimism and pessimism. In 1998 he became President of the American Psychological Association. As presidents usually have a theme they pursue during their year of office, Seligman was casting about for what his might be. It came in the form of an epiphany while gardening with his 5 year old daughter. This consisted mainly of an understanding that raising children should not be about fixing what is wrong with them but about recognising and building on their strengths.

Seligman believed this insight did not fit with the usual preoccupation of psychology as his discipline had become narrowly focused on what was wrong with people and paid scant attention to what was right. This had not always been the case. In the 1920s and 30s psychology had three main areas of interest: understanding ordinary human life to help people become more productive and fulfilled, understanding and nurturing genius and the study and treatment of mental illness. But after World War ll, in the US and the UK, new government spending priorities allowed psychologists to make a living treating or researching mental illness. This meant that a disease focus came to dominate psychology. Thus Seligman and Csikszentmihaly write of this era of psychology 'practitioners went about treating the illnesses of patients with a disease framework by repairing damage: damaged habits, damaged drives, damaged child-hoods, and damaged brains'. 

Csikszentmihalyi recounts how he went to the US to study psychology in the 1950s. His interest in psychology had been kindled by a desire to understand human strength and character. But he found that what was being taught under the banner of psychology was a 'branch of statistical mechanics'. What Csikszentmihalyi aspired to was an understanding of the conditions which allowed individuals to operate at their best. He wanted a 'science of human beings' which would include an understanding of what is and what could be.

These two great psychologists had a chance meeting on holiday and together decided to found 'Positive Psychology'. Professor Seligman then made this topic the focus of his Presidential speech in 1999 and many see his speech as an important turning-point in psychology. Various conferences followed and so did a variety of publications. In 2006 a new Journal of Positive Psychology was launched. Several universities now offer Positive Psychology as a subject. Over 800 students have enrolled for the course at Harvard University making it the most popular subject in the university's history. 

The interest in Positive Psychology has also extended beyond universities. Time Magazine devoted more than 60 pages to the subject in one of its 2005 editions. In the UK the Sunday Times Magazine devoted considerable space to highlighting the rise of the topic and its relevance. 

The UK and European dimension

As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi are based in the USA, Positive Psychology is American in origin. However, there is growing interest in the UK and in Europe in Positive Psychology. There is now a European Positive Psychology Network which hosts a conference every two years. Several readers in Positive Psychology have been published in the UK and a Centre for Applied Positive Psychology is being set up in 2006. You can hear Dr Alex Linley, editor of one of these texts and Director of the new Centre, talk about the European dimension of Positive Psychology and subtle differences in approach between the Europeans and Americans, in the audio section.

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006

Centre Events Previous Centre Events External Events Carol's Talks