What Is Positive Psychology? Your Guide to this Emerging Trend

What Is Positive Psychology?

You may have heard the term being used on TV or read about it in health magazines, but without a complete explanation it’s hard to know exactly what positive psychology is. In general, according to Psychology Today, “Positive psychology is the study of happiness.” This relatively new field focuses on learning how people can become happier and more fulfilled in their lives.

Historically, psychology has aimed at diagnosing, treating and managing mental illnesses and disorders. This approach can be seen as negative, emphasizing the abnormal behaviors of troubled people and trying to “fix” them through therapy and medication. While that is of course a necessary function of psychology that helps many people have better lives, the new trend toward positive psychology is more concerned with human potential. The goal is not to fix existing problems, but rather to research what makes happy people stay that way.

This branch of psychology was founded about 10 years ago by Martin Seligman. Seligman describes his approach as “the scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.” Research in positive psychology involves understanding well-being, personal strengths, wisdom, psychological health, creativity and flow—all factors that are present in psychologically healthy individuals.

The Disease Model

Traditionally, mainstream psychology is concerned with the negative aspects of our lives. However, this was not the original purpose of the field. Before World War II, psychology had three main goals: to “cure mental illness, improve normal lives and identify and nurture high talent,” according to Positive Psychology UK. However, after the war and the influx of psychologically traumatized soldiers back into civilian life, the last two goals fell by the wayside. All resources were focused on learning about and treating the illnesses that were so apparent in these young men and others like them. This led to the disease model, which focuses on the treatment of psychological illnesses and psychopathology.

The disease model has played an enormous role in modern mental health, as Seligman points out. Fourteen mental illnesses that were once viewed as incurable can now be treated and managed effectively. Such illnesses include depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. However, there have also been some adverse results to this approach, including the popular perception of psychologists as anxious to medicate and categorize patients with a definite diagnosis. The disease model also does less to improve normal lives and cultivate high talent individuals. Positive psychology aims to correct these shortcomings.

The Three Levels of Positive Psychology

The science behind positive psychology involves three categories, or levels: the subjective level, the individual level and the group level.

The subjective level is “the study of positive experiences, such as joy, well-being, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, optimism and flow.” In general, this level is about what it takes to feel good personally.

The next level is the individual level, which involves identifying the personal characteristics that make someone a ”good person.“ By studying traits like strengths, virtues, optimism, capacity for love, courage, forgiveness, perseverance, originality, wisdom, relationship skills and talents, psychologists hope to figure out what makes a ”good life.”

Finally, the third level is the group or community level. It is centered on civic virtues and social responsibility. This includes ethics, altruism, tolerance, and other factors that create high-functioning communities with happy, fulfilled citizens.


The practice of positive psychology can be applied in real-world areas like self-help, stress management, human resources, education and therapy. By implementing the strategies and theories behind positive psychology, all types of professional settings can be enhanced through helping individuals develop their personal strengths.

Psychology at NDC Online

If you are interested in studying psychology and applying it to your career, Notre Dame College offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. The curriculum focuses on bio-psychological issues that determine and influence individual actions, thought processes and behaviors. You’ll be empowered to make responsible and thoughtful decisions regarding human behavior and development.

Our program offers four concentration options, including:

  • Clinical and Counseling Psychology
  • Psychology of Special Populations
  • Psychology as a Science
  • Social and Organizational Psychology

These options allow you to specialize your degree to fit your career goals. Learn more about what the study of psychology can mean for your future, both professionally and personally.