What is Positive Psychology

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY is the “scientific study of optimal human functioning... to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.”  This definition comes from co-founders Profs Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who established the field to investigate the positive side of psychology – our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It seeks to answer the big questions such as what makes us happy? What does it take to flourish? What gives meaning to life?  What are the ingredients of a good life? What are the characteristics of a positive leader?

Positive psychology has evidenced a range of practices, that help people to happiness and success. Strengths are the toolkit we use to help people feel good, function well and flourish.  There are many different applications of positive psychology for personal and professional development. At Positive Psychology Training we cover the lifespan from Positive Youth to Positive Ageing.

Core elements in positive psychology include happiness, wellbeing, resilience, strengths, positivity, optimism, mindsets, motivation, goals and achievement. It’s an applied science – positive psychologists are typically graduates of the MSc in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP). As practitioners we use coaching as an approach and operate in the health model, with a focus on building up wellbeing and the best in life rather than on repairing the worst. The positive news is that neuroscience shows that it is possible to develop a more positive mindset and grow our happiness, develop our strengths and learn optimism. Our minds are malleable – more flexible than fixed.

First Wave Positive Psychology

Positive psychology was officially launched in 1998 when Prof Martin Seligman became the president of the American Psychological Association. The first wave sought to rebalance psychology at a time when the ratio of studies of depression to happiness was around 72 to 1. The first wave was best known as the science of happiness and focused on positive phenomena including emotions, traits, cognitions, behaviours and organisations.

Second Wave Positive Psychology

The second wave emerged in the 2010s. This phase focuses on polarity and the symbiotic relationship between positive and negative and their interaction. How there can be a positive in the negative, for example, how dissatisfaction with life can act as a catalyst for change. And a negative in the positive. Love, for example, is considered to be our supreme emotion but the shadow side is that it can lead us to tolerate toxic  individuals.

Third Wave Positive Psychology

The third wave is happening right now and the theme is broadening; in the focus of inquiry, in methodologies and in culture and through collaboration with other fields.

Positive psychology has also broadened from a focus on personal wellbeing and positive institutions into planetary wellbeing.


Here’s a great overview of Positive Psychology from Sandip Roy of the Happy Project. Watch a 5-minute animated summary of positive psychology.

Image (c) Lomas et al, 2020