Academic journal article East Asian Archives of Psychiatry

Positive Psychology: An Approach to Supporting Recovery in Mental Illness

Academic journal article East Asian Archives of Psychiatry

Positive Psychology: An Approach to Supporting Recovery in Mental Illness

Article excerpt

What is Positive Psychology?

The academic discipline of positive psychology (PP) developed from Martin Seligman's 1998 presidential address to the American Psychological Association. (1) He maintained that psychology so far had mostly addressed only one of its original aims, i.e. curing mental illness, whilst largely neglecting the 2 other aims, i.e. helping people to lead more productive and fulfilling lives; and identifying and nurturing high talent. Consequently, Seligman dedicated his presidency at the American Psychological Association to initiating a shift in the focus of psychology towards the positive aspects of human experience, positive individual traits, and more generally, the positive features which make life worth living. (2) In this context, the term "positive" was only ambiguously defined as what "promises to improve the quality of life and also to prevent the various pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless". (2)

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2) originally conceptualised PP as a "new movement" in psychology. This notion of a movement was considered necessary in order to counteract the perceived powerful focus of psychology on the negative aspects of life and ill health. A number of definitions of PP have since been proposed but no clear boundaries have been defined for the field. A systematic review conducted in 2011 found 53 published definitions of PP spanning 6 core domains: (i) virtues and character strengths, (ii) happiness, (iii) growth, fulfilment of capacities, development of highest self, (iv) good life, (v) thriving and flourishing, and (vi) positive functioning under conditions of stress. (3)

Since its introduction, a wealth of research and opinion papers, books, and journal special issues have been published and a dedicated PP journal has been established. Networks, courses, and research centres have been created, and sizeable amounts of money have been allocated to PP research, education, and training by various funders. (4) Positive psychology has also received broad and international media coverage.

Along with the rapid evolution of PP and the extensive publicity, PP also generated some criticism which falls into 5 overlapping domains. First, PP was criticised for denying or openly devaluing closely related prior work. (5) Early-stage publications were met with strong disapproval due to their implicit or explicit assumption that PP had newly created its constituent topics of interest. (6) In fact, there is a long history of movements and psychological schools that also attended to the positive aspects of life. However, whilst many of the research topics examined in PP have been studied before (e.g. attachment, optimism, love, and emotional intelligence), other topics in PP were less popular before and were boosted through the introduction of PP. These included gratitude, forgiveness, awe, inspiration, hope, curiosity, and laughter. (7)

A second concern was that PP rhetoric was polarising and created a false dichotomy of a new 'positive' and an old 'negative' or 'usual' psychology. (8,9) In reality, the large majority of academic work in psychology may be considered neither positive nor negative, but neutral. (7) In clinical practice, an exclusive focus on the positive was criticised for creating a "tyranny of positive attitude" preventing people from expressing negative emotions, (9) and helping people to avoid difficult but necessary therapeutic processes. (10)

A third criticism concerns the feasibility of discriminating positive and negative variables. This criticism pertains to 2 areas: (i) the processes by which variables have a positive or negative effect; and (ii) the measurement of variables as either positive or negative. Variables may not be invariably positive or negative. (8,11) For example, research showed that dispositional pessimism can have debilitating motivational effects while defensive pessimism can help people deal with anxiety, adapt, and perform better than strategic optimists. …

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