Youth Violence and Positive Psychology: Research Potential through Integration

Article excerpt

Positive psychologists can study the relation between some of the discipline's core dimensions and aversive outcomes, including youth violence. Dimensions such as gratitude, forgiveness, sense of meaning, altruism (or at least apparent altruism), prudence, and humility have received attention within positive psychology, and evidence is reviewed suggesting that these may also deserve empirical attention in terms of their relation to youth violence and even their potential to reduce youth violence.

Keywords: positive psychology, violence, youth, character strengths

Positive psychology as a field of study has shown remarkable growth over the last 15 years. The field now has its own journal (Journal of Positive Psychology); graduate programs (e.g., University of Pennsylvania, University of East London, Claremont Graduate University); dedicated scholarships and research grants; international conferences each year; researchers from Europe, the United States, and other regions; and wide sales for some of its textbooks (e.g., Peterson, 2006; Snyder & Lopez, 2007).

One topic receiving little if any attention within this growing field is the application of positive psychology to research on youth violence. However, a positive psychology approach to youth violence research may not only be possible, but beneficial. We will argue for research explicitly linking some core constructs from positive psychology with research on youth violence. These constructs may reduce or at least predict reduced levels of youth violence. Admittedly, positive psychology and youth violence research may initially seem incompatible. Definitions of positive psychology tend to focus on the scientific study of positive traits and well-being (and sometimes positive institutions; e.g., Seligman, 2002). This definitional focus may seem to exclude a focus on youth violence.

Bringing Balance to Positive Psychology by Studying Aversive Outcomes

However, applying positive psychology to youth violence research may help bring balance to positive psychology. A persuasive case has been made by Wong (2009, 2010; see also Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006) that more balance is needed in positive psychology. In particular, he argued that positive psychology focuses on the human appetitive system. In other words, the discipline tends to focus on goals that motivate approach, goals such as happiness and character strengths. These foci, of course, have value. However, Wong has argued that a balanced approach must also integrate the aversive system that helps people avoid or cope well with undesirable outcomes. Well-being requires not only approaching positive goals, but also avoiding negative outcomes or at least dealing well with negative outcomes.

An exclusive focus on strengths and positive emotions ignores significant parts of human life. All humans must not only approach appetitive outcomes, but also avoid aversive outcomes. Building a sustainable future for individuals (O'Brien, 2008) requires not only building the good, but also avoiding the bad. In a sense, the tendency to ignore human tragedy and pain within positive psychology is surprising given the fact that resilience research (which presupposes the existence of tragedy that must be overcome) has been accepted by some to be within the domain of positive psychology (e.g., Yates & Masten, 2004). Furthermore, if positive psychology studies only appetitive constructs, the discipline may overrepresent concerns and causal agents especially relevant for the societal elites and ignore the social issues and barriers to the good life that are more common among the nonelite (e.g., poverty, hunger, violence; Wong, 2007). Thus, a balanced positive psychology will seek to promote strengths and happiness while simultaneously reducing aversive outcomes.

Youth violence is clearly an undesirable outcome. As such, it has been largely ignored within positive psychology. …