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The Humanistic Approach: Positive Psychology

The Humanistic Approach: Positive Psychology
Modern researchers have taken heed of another insight offered by Maslow, Rogers, and other humanists, who enjoined psychologists not to focus so much on deficiency and pathology.

Positive Psychology


Modern researchers have taken heed of another insight offered by Maslow, Rogers, and other humanists, who enjoined psychologists not to focus so much on deficiency and pathology. Instead, these early humanists emphasized that humans also have positive needs—to be healthy and happy, and to develop their potential. These points underlie a relatively new movement called positive psychology.


In the last decade or so, there has been a tremendous burst of research activity that has sought scientifically to examine optimal human functioning (C. Peterson, 2006). The focus of this research has been on positive subjective experiences, such as happiness, fulfill-ment, and flow; positive individual traits, including character strengths, values, and inter-ests; and positive social institutions, such as families, schools, universities, and societies. In the next sections, we consider what positive psychology has found concerning positive states and positive traits.




Novelists, philosophers, and social critics have all voiced their views about what hap-piness is and what makes it possible. Recently, academic psychologists have also entered this discussion (e.g., Ariely, 2008; Gilbert, 2006; Haidt, 2006; Lyubomirsky, 2008; B. Schwartz, 2004). What has research taught us about happiness?

One intriguing finding concerns the notion of a happiness set point, a level that appears to be heavily influenced by genetics (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996) and is remark-ably stable across the lifetime—and thus relatively independent of life circumstances. What produces this stability? The key may be adaptation, the process through which we grow accustomed to (and cease paying attention to) any stimulus or state to which we are continually exposed. One early demonstration of this point comes from a study that compared the sense of well-being in people in two rather different groups. One group included individuals who had recently won the lottery; the other was a group of para-plegics (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bullman, 1978). Not surprisingly, the two groups were quite different in their level of happiness soon after winning the lottery or losing the use of their limbs. When surveyed a few months after these events, however, the two groups were similar in their sense of contentment with their lives—an extraordinary testimony to the power of adaptation and to the human capacity for adjusting to extreme circumstances.


Adaptation is a powerful force, but we must not overstate its role. Evidence suggests that everyone tends to return to their happiness set point after a change (positive or negative) in circumstances, but there are large individual differences in how rapid and complete this return is. Thus, some people show much more of a long-term effect of changes in marital status (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2003) or long-term dis-ability (Lucas, 2007). Clearly, set points are not the whole story; circumstances matter as well—more for some people than for others.


So far, we have focused on what positive psychologists have been learning about happi-ness, but they are also concerned with other positive states, such as the energy and focus that are evident when the individual is fully engaged by what she is doing. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has examined such states by studying the experiences of highly creative artists. He found that the painters he studied became so immersed in their painting that they lost themselves in their work, becoming temporarily unaware of hunger, thirst, or even the pas-sage of time. Csikszentmihalyi called the positive state that accompanied the artists’ paint-ing “flow,” and he documented that far from being unique to artists, the same sort of highly immersed and intrinsically rewarding state is evident in rock climbers, dancers, and chess players (Figure 15.28). By systematically studying people as they work and play,

Csikszentmihalyi has found that flow is most likely to be experienced when there is an opti-mal balance between the challenge presented by an activity and one’s skills to meet that challenge. If the level of challenge is too low for one’s ability, one feels bored. If the level of challenge is too high for one’s ability, one feels anxiety. But if the challenge is just right— and one feels that the activity is voluntarily chosen—one may experience flow.




Positive psychologists have been concerned not just with positive states, like feeling happy; they have also been concerned with positive traits—what we might think of broadly as being a good person (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). This interest has aligned them to some degree with the trait approach. However, positive psychologists emphasize delineating a set of narrower and more specific traits, namely, the “positive” or “desirable” traits.


Defining and understanding these traits has been a central concern since the earli-est days of psychology (James, 1890), but the topic was set aside as too philosophical and value-laden for many years. Only in the past decade has the systematic exposition of positive traits again come to the fore. One notable effort, led by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, has focused on developing a classification of characterstrengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2004)—personal characteristics that (1) contributeto a person’s happiness without diminishing the happiness of others, (2) are valued in their own right, rather than as a means to an end, (3) are trait-like and show variation across people, (4) are measurable using reliable instruments, and (5) are evident across cultures, rather than specific to one or a few cultures (C. Peterson, 2006).


Peterson and Seligman have identified 24 character strengths with these attributes, organized into six clusters, as shown in Table 15.1. The first cluster of character strengths centers around wisdom and knowledge; the second cluster centers around courage; the third cluster centers around humanitarian concerns; the fourth cluster centers around justice; the fifth cluster centers around temperance, defined by an absence of excess; and the final cluster centers around transcendence.


This is a broad list—but may not be broad enough. For example, other researchers have emphasized a role for optimisma generalized expectation of desirable rather than unde-sirable outcomes (Scheier & Carver, 1985). Another important character strength is resilience, which refers to surviving and even thriving in the face of adversity—includingsuch extreme circumstances as serious illness, hostile divorce, bereavement, and even rape

and the ravages of war. These positive tendencies appear to be associated with a number of important life outcomes, such as greater success at work, with friends, and in marriage (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). The strengths also matter for one’s physiological functioning and health (Ryff et al., 2006; Salovey, Rothman, Detweiler, & Steward, 2000). For example, people who are generally optimistic also have a better-functioning immune system and so are more resistant to problems that range from the common cold to serious illness (Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Segerstrom, 2000).


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