Traditionally, the field of psychology has been focused on dysfunction and disease, providing a one-sided, misleading view of the human condition. With the advent of positive psychology, this has changed. A more balanced approach to human experience is now followed and the usefulness of positive psychology in warding off mental illness is being explored. However, it has been criticized that by introducing a dichotomy between supposedly positive and negative emotions and assigning them to one of these two categories, puts one at risk of losing perspective. Nevertheless, it is concluded that the positive psychology movement is a beneficial step as it provides a more holistic and well-rounded understanding of the human experience and both its benefits and its shortcomings.
The traditional disease model of psychology provides an incomplete, one-sided view of the human condition and an over pathologizing of daily life. With the advent of positive psychology, humanity’s understanding of itself has developed and can advance further as their virtues are nurtured.
Before World War II, the field of psychology had three aims: (1) to cure mental illness, (2) to help all people live productive and fulfilling lives and (3) to identify and nurture talent. In the two years following the Second World War, both the Veterans Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health were founded. This altered the course of psychology – psychologists realized they could earn money by treating mental illnesses and academics realized they could earn money if their psychological research focused on pathology. Psychology essentially became a discipline wholly centred on a model of illness and dysfunction and, at that stage, was primarily ‘victomology’.
Positive psychology refers to something the pathological model of psychology does not address. Psychologists understand very well the way in which afflicted individuals survive adversity but do not know much or appreciate how ‘normal’ individuals flourish under less harsh conditions. Psychologists hoped that positive psychology would initiate a change in the focus of psychology towards building positive attributes and understanding what it is that makes life worth living. Positive psychology can thus be termed the scientific study of optimal human functioning.
The foremost question of philosophy, according to the French philosopher Camus, is why one should not commit suicide? The central question is, “What makes life worth living?”. By following psychology’s traditional disease model, it can be seen that simply curing depression is not enough. That is, there must be reasons for living, positive attributes which are nurtured by positive psychology.
The fundamental concept of positive psychology can be reaffirmed by the American psychologist Seligman’s experience as a father. He realized that raising a child was not simply focused on fixing what was wrong with them, but rather about nurturing them and encouraging them and allowing them to develop their strengths. Positive psychology refers to the values of well-being, of satisfaction in the past, of hope and optimism for the future and for happiness in the present –‘Happyology’.
Another aspect of the psychology of importance is the concern with prevention. It is clear now that the disease model does not address how one can prevent problems such as depression, substance abuse or schizophrenia in young people at risk. The noticeable advancements in prevention have arisen from a perspective not on correcting weakness but rather building capabilities. Researchers in prevention have uncovered some of the traits that can ward off mental illness: courage, optimism, faith, hope, honesty and insight.
It is imperative to further the study of and continue advancing the practice of positive psychology. One main reason is that not everyone will be afflicted with a mental illness during their lifetime, but it is probable that nearly everyone will want to be happy and lead a fulfilling life.
However, focusing too much on either the positive or the negative puts one in danger of losing perspective. The tendency to assign any emotion to one of two valences, positive or negative, is a problem with the positive psychology movement. Separating several discrete emotions into two broad categories (negative or positive) is seen as regressive. This approach can be seen as unhelpful, as it undervalues the distinctive significance of each discrete emotion. In reality, emotions aren’t fixed. They have the potential of being either negative or positive on different occasions. For example, love can be a positive emotion when shared by two people but an extremely negative emotion when unrequited. The classification of emotions is thus fluid and not fixed. This relates to the positive psychology movement by undermining it insofar as it cannot have solid foundations if the very nature of the traits and attributes it promotes are not intrinsically positive and can, in fact, be seen as negative depending on the situation. Shakespeare’s Hamlet affirms this as he stated that, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Psychotherapy currently is where one explores their troubles and weaknesses, but it would be equally as beneficial to also build strengths in that instance. Psychologists in training will need to learn about both negative and positive psychological perspectives in order to balance and consolidate their understanding of the human experience and to better work with their clients.