A Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental Questions and Future Directions for a Positive Psychology

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A Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental Questions and Future Directions for a Positive Psychology Lisa G. Aspinwall and Ursula M. Staudinger (Eds.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association (www.apa.org). 2003, 369 pp., $39.95 (hardcover).

According to Martin Seligman, a distinguished pioneer who spearheaded the positive psychology movement, psychology had three major missions prior to the second World War: (a) successful treatment of mental illness, (b) striving to make people's lives more fulfilling, and (c) identifying and nurturing human talents and abilities (Seligman, 1998). Although the field has made substantial strides toward categorizing and treating mental disorders over the past 5 decades, Seligman and fellow advocates of the positive psychology movement in this book call for psychologists to reclaim their "neglected missions," meaning that they once again take up the task of improving overall quality of human life through renewed research emphasis on human strengths, virtues, and potential. Inspired by the 1999 Positive Psychology meeting in Akumal, Mexico, editors Lisa G. Aspinwall (University of Utah) and Ursula M. Staudinger (Dresden University of Technology in Germany) have collected 23 essays representing voices from a variety of psychological disciplines to create A Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental Questions and Future Directions for a Positive Psychology.

The overall goal of Aspinwall and Staudinger is to compile essays from leaders in various subdisciplines of psychology, not just those with special interest in positive psychology, so as to examine the ways a focus on human strengths has influenced the field of psychology and to explore the potential impact of this focus on the future of the field (p. xv). The resulting essays (each approximately 8-12 pages in length) are wonderfully diverse not only in terms of their perspectives within psychology, but also in their approaches to meeting the volume's goals. Several of the contributing authors chose to focus on the importance of specific human strengths such as creativity (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi), the human capacity to seek out and maintain close relationships (Berscheid), and constructive cognition and goal setting (Cantor). Such chapters limited their attention to specific attributes or capacities and so are largely lacking in concrete visions of the specific structure and function of a positive psychology.

Even so, other chapters do a fine job in taking broader perspectives and offering general conceptual frameworks for understanding positive psychological functioning. As just one example, the chapter by Baltes and Freund is devoted to the Wisdom-SOC model, which proposes a dynamic and context general model of human strengths. They view ideal human functioning as a state of perpetual adaptation and "becoming" rather than a predetermined developmental end state. The chapter by Caprara and Cervone ("Personality as an Agentic, Self-Regulating System") attempts to delineate an integrated conception of personality that is more in tune with positive psychological ideas. …