JUN 17, 2016 10:26 AM PDT

What is Positive Psychology?

WRITTEN BY: Julianne Chiaet
Perhaps you've heard of the term "positive psychology." Contrary to what many have assumed, it doesn't just mean to "be positive." It's an entire field of psychology that has emerged within the last two decades dedicated to promoting the positive aspects of human life. For instance, what are a person's strengths and how could he or she use them to live life to the fullest? 

In the 1940s, psychology had three distinct goals: to cure mental illness, to nurture potential, and to increase happiness. WWII was being fought during this time (1939-1945) and, previous to the war, therapy was conducted solely by psychiatrists. Psychologists mostly worked in academic or experimental settings. However, when the soldiers returned home, too many were “shell shocked” for psychiatrists alone to handle. 
 
Overwhelmed with “shell-shocked” soldiers, psychiatrists called on psychologists to help. The U.S. government additionally called on psychologists to help their veterans. At the time, there weren’t enough mental health professionals in the field who were trained to work in therapeutic settings. The U.S. government poured money into the field of mental health, establishing dozens of PhD programs to train clinical psychologists. They handed out large grants to research solutions to help the veterans.

Around the world, the field of psychology rapidly expanded and strides in research were made. Illnesses were classified and treatment protocols were created. For instance, “shell shock” was redefined as post-traumatic stress disorder, and researchers developed specific ways to treat these cases. The study of mental illness has helped save millions of lives. Unfortunately, the focus on disease has come with a cost.
 

In 2014, about 2.8 million U.S. teens between the ages of 12 and 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Adults, teens, and children are experiencing more mental illness than ever before. Positive psychology posits that the spike of mental illness is due to the current disease model of mental health. 

The current disease model promotes the perspective that if there is no diagnosable problem, everything is okay. Society has taken up this perspective and raised children in accordance to it. Positive psychology, however, acknowledges that “the absence of something wrong with your youth does not equate to something being right,” GoStrengthsOnline says. The field was established by Martin Seligman in the late 1990s. 

"We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift,” GoStrengthsOnline says. "Psychology is reverting back to its roots.” Researchers in the field of positive psychology are devoting their efforts towards researching the positive aspects of all people. By encouraging growth through focusing on the positives of a person and population, people become more resilient when faced with adversity. Instead of struggling with mental illness, children grow to be more fulfilled, productive, and happy. 

Thousands of studies have already proved that positive psychology works. Hopefully, society will soon let go of the perspective promoted by the disease model of mental health, and move towards embracing this new “well-being model.” 

Sources: GoStrengthsOnline (video), PositivePsychology.org.uk, "history of psychology" via Annenberg Learner 
About the Author
  • Julianne (@JuliChiaet) covers health and medicine for LabRoots. Her work has been published in The Daily Beast, Scientific American, and MailOnline. While primarily a science journalist, she has also covered culture and Japanese organized crime. She is the New York Board Representative for the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). • To read more of her writing, or to send her a message, go to Jchiaet.com
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