Research Update: The Power of Positive Psychology: The Paradigm Shifts from Problem-Solving to Optimism

By Carruthers, Cynthia; Hood, Colleen D. | Parks & Recreation, October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Research Update: The Power of Positive Psychology: The Paradigm Shifts from Problem-Solving to Optimism


Carruthers, Cynthia, Hood, Colleen D., Parks & Recreation


The traditional focus of many professionals in health and human services is reducing problems within the community. Youth workers attempt to reduce the school drop-out rate, teen pregnancy and youth drug and alcohol abuse. Urban planners want to decrease urban blight, traffic congestion and crime. Medical professionals attempt to treat diseases and conditions, many of which are created by unhealthy lifestyles. Psychologists and other mental health workers try to understand and treat conditions, such as depression, anxiety and conduct disorders. Yet despite all of these efforts, the problems remain and professionals become discouraged (Benson, 1997; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). What all of these examples have in common is a societal focus on the removal of problems, rather than cultivating individuals and communities.

But a paradigm shift is emerging that could change this outlook. Professionals and other community members are beginning to realize that the removal of problems, by itself, does not automatically result in vibrant, connected or holistically healthy individuals (Pittman, 2003). The focus is shifting increasingly toward creating the optimal societal conditions rather than treating what it wants to avoid. Nowhere is that paradigm shift more apparent than in the discipline of positive psychology.

The aim of positive psychology is to study, identify and amplify the strengths and capacities that individuals, families and society need to thrive (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Paradoxically, the things that allow people to experience deep happiness, wisdom, and psychological, physical and social well-being are the same strengths that buffer against stress and physical and mental illness (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi). Leisure plays a central role in positive psychology and in helping individuals and communities achieve their highest potential.

Well-Being and the Meaningful Life

One psychological framework that shows promise for understanding happiness and the development of one's full potential is that of well-being (Vaillant, 2002). Ryan and Deci (2001) recently reviewed this literature and suggested that there are two primary approaches to the study of well-being. The first approach is hedonic or subjective well-being. This approach views well-being as the presence of positive mood and life satisfaction. Well-being, then, is feeling good more often than feeling bad.

The second approach to the study of well-being is psychological well-being. Psychological well-being is tied to personal growth and the cultivation of one's full potential (Fava & Riuni, 2003; Keyes, 2003). Individuals experiencing psychological well-being have a sense of autonomy, competence, self-acceptance, belongingness and purpose (Fava & Riuni).

Seligman (2002) suggests that an individual who is experiencing psychological well-being is leading the "good life," which is an essential component to authentic happiness. Also included in well-being is a sense of social connectedness and contribution (Keyes). According to Seligman, only an individual who can step beyond personal boundaries can experience the "meaningful life."

At times, leisure service providers have had to defend the importance of their services, yet many leisure professionals struggle to explain the value of the simple pleasures associated with involvement in recreation. Leisure, as a context for fun and enjoyment, was considered less important than other life domains.

However, many leisure service providers are becoming aware of the research supporting the benefits of leisure, and designing programs that intentionally use leisure services to promote positive physical, emotional and social health. They are strategically repositioning their services as a community benefit (Crompton & Kaczynski, 2004). The positive psychology movement provides significant support for the importance of pleasure and positive emotion in life.

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Research Update: The Power of Positive Psychology: The Paradigm Shifts from Problem-Solving to Optimism
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