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A brief history of Positive Psychology

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

In the early 1960s, Martin Seligman, an American psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books, was working on Byron Campbell’s lab at Princeton University. At that time, the prevailing theory of motivation was the drive reduction theory: all animals act out of the need to satisfy their own biological needs.

However, in 1959, Robert White published a work that went against the drive reduction theory called “Motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence”. In it, he argued that people and animals often acted simply for the sake of mastery over the environment.

Seligman found this to be true. Accomplishment is often pursued for its own sake, even if it doesn’t translate into increases in positive emotions, meaning or the quality of relationships. Some endeavours are worthwhile and contribute to well-being.

Many of the early psychological theories (Adler, Jung, Ellis) and current theories from Positive Psychology and the "solution-focused" therapies are antecedents to modern-day personal development. Instead of pathology (“What is wrong with you?”) as the main focus, these theories focus on behavioural change through increased awareness and choices for desired future results and solutions to current problems in living, with the individual as the creator and artist of his or her life. (“What is right with you?”)

When educational psychologist Donald O. Clifton first designed the interviews that subsequently became the basis for his approach towards the Strengths-movement, he began by building on the base of Positive Psychology by asking, “What would happen if we focused on what is right with people, instead of trying to fix what is wrong with them?” This is the classic mindset of Positive Psychology.

Thus, emerged a philosophy of using talents as the basis for the consistent achievement of excellence (strength). Specifically, the strengths philosophy is the assertion that individuals can gain far more when they expend effort to build on their greatest talents than when they spend a comparable amount of effort to remediate their weaknesses (Clifton & Harter, 2003).

Positive Psychology began as a new area of psychology as recent as 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association, though the term originates with Maslow, in his 1954 book ”Motivation and Personality”, and there have been indications that psychologists since the 1950s have been increasingly focused on the promotion of mental health rather than merely treating illness.

In the first sentence of his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman claimed: "for the last half-century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only – mental illness", expanding on Maslow’s comments. He urged psychologists to continue the earlier missions of the psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.

From the time it originated in 1998, this field invested tens of millions of dollars in research, published numerous scientific papers, established several masters and Ph. D programs, and has been involved in many major news outlets.

For more on this and other related subjects, go check out my new book, "Launch your Brilliance"

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