Science Watch

If you measure a field’s success by the media attention it attracts and the number of people it influences, positive psychology is a sensation.

Positive psychology — a term coined in 1998 by former APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, and Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD — has been the darling of the popular press, making the cover of Time (Jan. 17, 2005), and featured in The Washington Post (2002), the London Sunday Times Magazine (2005), The New York Times Magazine (2006), U.S. News & World Report (2009), and even a six-part BBC series (2006). It’s spawned dozens of books geared toward both a scientific and popular audience, including Seligman’s latest on the virtues of positive psychology: “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being,” published by Simon & Schuster this month.

The goal, according to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, was to create a field focused on human well-being and the conditions, strengths and virtues that allow people to thrive. Although some researchers, including Csikszentmihalyi, had already studied happiness, optimism and flow, psychology was disproportionately focused on treating mental illness rather than promoting mental health, they say.

In just a few years, positive psychology has changed that, with almost 1,000 articles related to the field published in peer-reviewed journals between 2000 and 2010 on topics that include well-being, pride, forgiveness, happiness, mindfulness and psychological strength — and how these attributes are related to both mental and physical health.

“It’s been extremely good for psychology,” says University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD. “It balanced out our research portfolio. And with the science in place, interventions are coming along rapidly. I’ve never seen a field change so fast.”

Positive psychology is finding its way into therapy, schools, businesses and even the U.S. Army, which in 2008 began using the tenets of the field as the foundation for its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program.

The fast pace from research to application never could have happened without a big, well-publicized push by the field’s founders, says positive psychology trailblazer Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who started studying positive emotion several years before the field was launched. Before positive psychology took root, she would have considered it a great success to have her work land on the syllabus of a psychology course. Now she sees her work put into large-scale practice.

Moving too fast?

But not everyone is positive about this branch of psychology. Critics aren’t convinced that the research findings are strong enough to move so swiftly toward applications. Some disapprove of the field’s public interpretations, which they say have allowed overblown conclusions about the power of the positive, including the perception that people can stave off illness with more optimism.

According to critics, leaders in the field imply in their writings and public presentations that positive psychology can provide a psychological inoculation to protect from later adversity. That “seems far-fetched” based on what vocal critic University of Pennsylvania health psychologist James Coyne, PhD, has read in the literature.

Coyne believes the field’s translation to practical applications has moved faster than the science and has been swept up by popular culture, self-help gurus and life coaches. He points to companies, including FedEx, Adobe and IBM, that are hiring “happiness coaches” to work with employees, schools that are embedding positive psychology in their curriculum and the Army, which is hoping to reach all its 1.1 million soldiers with its resiliency training. And he bristles at the books coming out of the field with titles, such as “The How of Happiness.”

There are certainly instances of people overselling the claims of positive psychology, what University of Utah health psychologist Lisa G. Aspinwall, PhD, calls “saccharine terrorism.” Aspinwall is a lead author of a special issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine (Vol. 39, No. 1) that explored the link between positive psychology and health. And although best-selling authors such as minister Norman Vincent Peale of “The Power of Positive Thinking” fame and television producer Rhonda Byrne, who wrote “The Secret,” preach mindless versions of positive thinking, they don’t represent positive psychology research.

“Books like that are incredibly dangerous,” says Aspinwall. “But we can’t control what people will do with the research once it exists.”

In fact, argues Seligman, leaders in the field have been quite cautious with their claims. He adds that most of the programs applying positive psychology are based on solid research. The school programs, for example, emulate a program created and tested by researchers at the Penn Positive Psychology Center, which Seligman directs. Twenty-one replications of the program with children, adolescents and young adults have shown that it reliably prevents depression and anxiety, he says. Many positive psychology life coaches and motivational speakers have graduated from Penn’s Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program, which has trained more than 150 professionals in applying the science of positive psychology in their professional lives.

In addition, the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program was created with the help of a team of prominent positive psychologists and built on decades of research (for a detailed discussion of the Army’s program and how it’s being evaluated, see the January American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No. 1). One component of the program, for example, ties into research by Fredrickson that suggests that people who have at least three positive emotions for every one negative emotion tend to flourish and are more resistant to adversity than people with lower “positivity” ratios. Through the program, soldiers learn how to interpret their emotions and increase their positivity ratios.

The problem, says Julie Norem, PhD, professor of psychology at Wellesley College, is that the Army’s program doesn’t take into account individual differences that her own research suggests may make strategies — such as increasing optimism and positive emotions — backfire. While Norem doesn’t deny the many studies suggesting that optimism and positive mood can help some people, her work indicates that being optimistic and positive may not benefit everyone.

She studies people she calls “defensive pessimists” who deal with anxiety by thinking about everything that could go wrong. Her studies show that by processing the negative possibilities, defensive pessimists relieve their anxiety and work harder at their task to avoid those pitfalls. Several studies by Norem and others suggest that forcing optimism or a positive mood on an anxious defensive pessimist can actually damage performance on tasks that include math problems, anagrams and playing darts.

Another study, published in Psychological Science in 2009 (Vol. 20, No. 9), showed that if people with low self-esteem repeat a positive statement such as, “I’m a lovable person,” they actually feel worse than people with low self-esteem who didn’t repeat the statement. People with high self-esteem feel a little better, but not much.

These kinds of studies emphasize that interventions need to take into account individual differences, says Norem. “People who use defensive pessimism are anxious and have developed a good strategy for dealing with that anxiety,” she says. “They don’t need to be made into optimists.”

But the dominant message coming out of positive psychology doesn’t readily acknowledge this idea that one size does not fit all, she says. “If you’re going to define yourself as a field and then become prescriptive and say this is what people should do to be happier, you have the responsibility to search out other points of view and consider them,” says Norem. “You certainly need to take [those points of view] into consideration when you present your arguments to the public.”

Although many prominent positive psychology researchers agree with Norem that individual differences are important, they also believe that the research to date suggests that most people will benefit from the tenets of positive psychology. Seligman likens the risk of teaching resiliency and well-being to the risk of immunizations. A small group may suffer an allergic reaction, but the vast majority will benefit, he says.

Taking a small risk for a large gain is the definition of “public health,” says Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, PhD, MD, the Army’s director of comprehensive soldier fitness. With rates of combat fatigue and suicide at all-time highs, the Army needed to take a proactive approach to help its soldiers become more psychologically resilient rather than follow the traditional model of waiting until they begin to flounder.

“If we had waited [for the science to catch up], we’d still be talking and planning,” she says.

Of the 3,100 sergeants who have completed the master resiliency training course, where they learn how to use the resiliency program to train other soldiers, she says, “none have said they’ve been harmed and hundreds have said it’s the best training they have had.”

Eventually, the Army will have enough data to tease out whether the intervention is not only working, but whether there are some soldiers who do better than others, and even whether there are some who do worse, says Seligman. The Army is systematically evaluating the program with controlled evaluation of more than 31,000 soldiers.

Coyne and other critics are worried that with programs like the Army’s that offer the message that people only need to be more optimistic to be healthier, wealthier and wiser, people may feel defeated if they can’t turn their lives around. As a health psychologist, Coyne is chiefly concerned about the research claiming that optimism, improving social ties and increasing a person’s sense of meaning and purpose can influence health.

“Particularly for cancer, there’s a strong biological component that isn’t movable in that way,” he says. Certainly, in terms of survival rates, he says, there’s no evidence that being more optimistic and positive will help a cancer patient live longer.

Aspinwall agrees that the data on cancer have not been convincing. But most researchers agree that the findings are robust with many studies linking optimism and positive emotion to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of infections.

Even for cancer patients, she says, there’s evidence that traits such as optimism and interventions to increase positive emotion can reduce pain and improve quality of life. In his new book, Seligman points to data from the Women’s Health Initiative study (Circulation, Vol. 120, No. 8) of more than 97,000 women that found that pessimism and “cynical hostility” were significant predictors of cancer.

“I don’t think you can damn all of positive psychology because the studies of cancer haven’t yielded much,” adds University of Michigan health psychologist Christopher Peterson, PhD, who’s working on a large initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to determine whether there are psychological factors that make people more resilient to illness and disease.

A monolithic message?

Although there may be some very valid and good research coming out of positive psychology, philosophical psychologist Barbara Held, PhD, takes issue with what her read of the literature interprets as a “monolithic message” coming from leaders of the positive psychology movement. She’s been a vocal critic of the field and although she’s seen a move among scientists toward more nuanced messages, she still thinks the dominant message is that happiness is good and good for you and if you can’t make yourself happy, then given positive psychology’s readily available techniques, it’s your own fault. “I take issue with it because it blames the victim,” she says.

Positive psychology proponents agree that the field’s success has come with some pitfalls, including the dissemination by the mass media — though, they argue, not by the researchers themselves — of overly simplistic messages like the ones Held criticizes.

University of California, Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubormirsky, PhD, for one, welcomes the criticism. She believes it will serve to make the field stronger and she tries to address it in her research by being clear that not every tool will work for everyone. Her work focuses on what makes people happy, and she’s not only developed several tools that she thinks can help, but she’s studied “person-activity fit,” focused on the idea that not all happiness-increasing strategies work for everyone and not all work in the same way. For example, one of the tasks that she finds helps people boost their happiness is setting aside time to “count their blessings.” Her research shows that some people benefit when they do this once a week but others don’t benefit at all.

And while she gives a lot of credit to positive psychology for her ability to work on happiness despite the sneers of her colleagues, she isn’t sure there’s still a need for a field called positive psychology.

“In some ways, the main purpose has been achieved: There are lots of scientists looking at questions about the positive side of life,” she says.

The future of the field hinges on that research, says Fredrickson. That includes training top-notch researchers and it’s why Csikszentmihalyi started the first, and still only, doctoral program in positive developmental and positive organizational psychology at Claremont Graduate University in 2007. He still believes, however, it would benefit both psychology in general and positive psychology in particular for it to become more integrated into psychology as a whole rather than separated out. Peterson likes to think of positive psychology not as a subfield at all, but rather as a perspective that cuts across all branches of psychology.

“By keeping ourselves separate, it becomes easy to wallow in self-congratulations and to take our cues from the extreme fringes of positive psychology — the smiley face people,” says Csikszentmihalyi. “And that’s exactly who we don’t want to become.”


Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.