Positive Psychology and Adolescent Mental Health: False Promise or True Breakthrough?

Article excerpt

While president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman (1998), called for a Manhattan Project for the social sciences. Seligman's vision was that the social sciences look beyond human weakness, damage, and remediation to reclaim one of its fundamental missions: the understanding and facilitation of human strength and virtue. In response to Seligman's call and similar pleas by others (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 1999; Goleman, 1992; Myers, 1992), positive psychology emerged as a long-overdue alternative to the field's traditional focus on pathology and dysfunction (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Its proposed mission was the scientific study of human strength, resilience, and optimal human functioning.

The promise of positive psychology for American adolescents is apparent to anyone who has had contact with a cross-section of these youth. In such a group, one encounters a surprising number of youngsters who are bored, unmotivated, and pessimistic about their future. This malaise was strikingly illustrated by Larson and Richards' (1991) random sampling of self-reports on 16,000 moments in the daily experience of a representative sample of white, working- and middle-class adolescents, a group that seemingly had everything going for them. These youth reported being bored for 27% (4,300) of these random moments. What particularly surprised the researchers, however, was that honor students were as likely as those involved in delinquent activities to be among those reporting high rates of boredom, in many cases for more than 50% of random moments. According to Larson (2000): "Many do their schoolwork, comply with their parents, hang out with their friends, and get through the day, but are not invested in paths into the future that excite them or feel like they originate from within.... They communicated an ennui of being trapped in the present, waiting for someone to prove to them that life is worth living" (p. 120).

Positive psychology promises to get adolescents' internal fires lit, to help them develop the complex skills and dispositions necessary to take charge of their lives, to become socially competent, compassionate and psychologically vigorous adults. Yet, without causal principles that accurately explain optimal adolescent psychological functioning, any explanation of "the good life" for these youth is as possible and as feasible as any other. Only principles will bring discipline to the proposed mission of positive psychology and provide a consistent standard upon which to judge the truth and integrity of its findings and propositions. Without a unifying principle-based conceptual foundation, positive psychology (like traditional psychology) will inevitably splinter into ever-increasing numbers of separate and often competing theories, practices, and areas of specialization, each with its own research agenda based on its own set of variables. Thus, the efforts of positive psychology to evolve all will be done separately and simultaneously, rather than systematically and in concert. If this occurs, positive psychology will inevitably fail to keep its promise to our young people.


The purpose of this paper is to offer a principle-based model of optimal adolescent mental health that can serve as a unifying conceptual framework to help guide positive psychology as it seeks to achieve its proposed mission. This model has been previously known in the literature as Psychology of Mind (POM), and Neo-Cognitive Psychology (NCP). Presently, it is commonly referred to as Health Realization (HR) and the Three-Principle Understanding. The pioneering work on this paradigm was done by psychologists, Robert Mills (1988, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1997, 2000) and George Pransky (1990, 1997). The HR perspective has been applied extensively to the areas of at-risk youth, delinquency, and criminality by Thomas Kelley (1990, 1993a, 1993b, 1993c, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2003, in press). …


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