Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

What's the "Positive" in Positive Psychology? Teleological Considerations Based on Creation and Imago Doctrines

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

What's the "Positive" in Positive Psychology? Teleological Considerations Based on Creation and Imago Doctrines

Article excerpt

While positive psychology has considered a social science perspective of optimal development and living, a pressing question for the integration of psychology and theology is to consider what Christian theology suggests is essential for humans to thrive. Recognizing that God's purposeful action in creation has a telos, that is, a goal or purpose for humankind, propels Christian psychologists to investigate a theology of thriving in order to more fully grasp what God has intended for humanity. In this essay we argue that the Christian faith uniquely contributes multiple perspectives to our understanding of human thriving and flourishing that are central to psychological inquiry and are unique contributions to positive psychology. Specifically, the doctrines of creation and imago Dei broaden and deepen our understanding of thriving by providing a teleological perspective.

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The field of positive psychology has gained increasing momentum in the last decade. Academia and popular culture have enthusiastically welcomed a renewed emphasis on optimal functioning and development as well as thriving and flourishing (Damon, 2004; King & Clardy, 2014; Larson, 2000; Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Snyder & Lopez, 2009). For example, clinical, personality, social, and developmental psychologies have brought constructs such as well-being, flourishing, thriving, positive psychology, and positive youth development to the forefront of theoretical, methodological, and applied dialogues. Clinical psychologists have sought to conceptualize mental health beyond the absence of pathology (Keyes, 2007; Snyder & Lopez, 2009). Personality and social psychologists have distinguished between a flourishing life and a languishing life (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Ryff, 2008); and developmental psychologists have begun to more intentionally ask what can go right, rather than merely focus on what can go wrong with young people (Benson & Scales, 2009; Damon, 2004; King & Clardy, 2014; Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, in press). These efforts have increased our imagination and understanding of human well-being and development. However, from an integrative approach, we still need to ask: How might we understand the "positive" in positive psychology from a Christian theological perspective?

This is a difficult question for social scientists to answer as scientific inquiry does not offer the proper epistemological tools to adequately address this topic. For example, the field of psychology is not equipped to make precise claims about the nature of idealized personhood or optimal development. Such ideals are relegated to disciplines engaged with ideology, morality, and values such as philosophy and theology. Specifically, investigating goals of human development, or what it means to thrive, invokes questions of teleology. What is the goal or telos of different approaches within positive psychology (e.g., What is the goal of optimal development or of positive youth development?)? Although a goal or telos is implicit in the various theories or frameworks of positive psychology, few social scientists have explicitly addressed these teleological issues (see Balswick, King, & Reimer, 2005; Entwistle & Moroney, 2011; King & Clardy, 2014 for exceptions).

Given the epistemological resources of the social sciences, this void is not surprising within the field of psychology, and the teleological perspective opens a door for theology to contribute to an understanding of what it means for humans to thrive. A valuable question for the integration of psychology and theology is to consider what Christian theology suggests is essential for humans to thrive. Recognizing that God's purposeful action in creation has a telos--that is, a goal or purpose for humankind--propels Christian psychologists to investigate a theology of thriving in order to more fully grasp what God has intended for his creation, especially as humans. …

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