Positive Psychology: FAQs

The following is an excerpt from the "Positive Psychology: FAQs" paper by Martin E. P. Seligman and James O. Pawelski, as published in Psychological Inquiry Vol. 14, No. 2 (2003). Scroll to the bottom for a link to the full paper.

Is Positive Psychology just "Happiology"?

Lazarus (this issue) thinks that positive psychology is almost entirely about the study of positive emotion, and the target article seems largely a vehicle for the promotion of his own theory of emotions. Indeed, positive psychology holds that the scientific understanding of subjective well-being—pleasure, contentment, joy, mirth, ecstasy, ebullience, and the like—is important. We believe, however, that positive psychology is not only the study of positive feeling but also the study of positive traits and positive institutions. Within the study of positive emotion itself, we divide it into emotion about the past (satisfaction, contentment, pride, and the like); the present, which is commonly termed happiness by the layperson (pleasure, ecstasy, joy, and the like); and the future (hope, optimism, trust, faith, and the like). Seen this way, although happiness in the lay sense is one important subject of positive psychology, it forms only one third of the area of positive emotion, which in turn forms only one third of the domain of positive psychology.

Positive psychology on this view is about more than just hedonics, the study of how we feel. We believe that simple hedonic theory, without consideration of strength, virtue, and meaning, fails as an account of the positive life. A simple hedonic theory claims that the quality of a life is just the total good moments minus the total bad moments. This is more than an ivory tower theory, because very many people run their lives around exactly this goal. The sum total of our momentary feelings turns out to be a very poor measure of how good or how bad we judge an episode—a movie, a vacation, a marriage, or a life—to be. How well an episode ends, how intense the peak of pleasure or pain, the trajectory of the episode—worsening or improving—are all documented violations of hedonics, and they easily override the sum of the feelings in an experience (Fredrickson, 2001; Schkade & Kahneman, 1998).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great Anglo-Viennese philosopher, was by all accounts miserable. A collector of Wittgensteinobilia, Seligman has never found a photo of Wittgenstein smiling. Wittgenstein was depressive, irascible, and scathingly critical of everyone around him and even more critical of himself. In a typical seminar held in his cold and barely furnished Cambridge rooms, he would pace the floor muttering, "Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, what a terrible teacher you are." Yet his last words give the lie to hedonics. Dying alone in a garret in Ithaca, New York, he said to his landlady, "Tell them it's been wonderful!" (Malcolm, 2001).

We want to suggest that positive character, the deployment of strength and virtue, is a road to the good life, a life different in kind from the pleasant life, but no less wonderful and no less positive (Peterson & Seligman, in press). The Wittgenstein story illustrates that a life of strength and virtue can override grim hedonics. Flourishing is the centerpiece of positive psychology, and Robert Nozick's "experience machine" shows that positive experiences alone are not sufficient for flourishing (Nozick, 1974). Nozick imagined a machine that can give a person any experience desired. By placing the person in a floating tank and hooking up electrodes to the brain, talented neuropsychologists could use this machine to give the feeling of writing a great novel, making a new friend, or reading an interesting book. Although we may long for such experiences, few of us would agree to hook up to this machine for life. Nozick argued that this is, in part, because we want to have these feelings only as a result of our actually doing these activities. It is not just positive feelings we want, we want to be entitled to our positive feelings. We want to construe, "appraise" perhaps, our good feelings as stemming from personal strengths and virtuous action (Lyubomirsky, 2001).

Thus positive psychology is not, and has never been, just happiology. It is the study of three very different kinds of positive lives: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life (Seligman, 2002).

Miss the Mark?

Wealthy cultures invent myriad shortcuts to feeling good. These produce positive emotion in us without our going to the trouble of using our strengths and virtues. Shopping, drugs, chocolate, loveless sex, and television are all examples. Positive psychology does not deny that these shortcuts, along with many others, can result in positive emotion. However, following Nozick (and Aristotle), positive psychology is principally interested in the emotions that result from the exercise of strengths and virtues.

We are not puritan or sophomoric enough to suggest eliminating shortcuts. There is a cost of getting happiness so cheaply, however, when the shortcuts become one's principal road to happiness. Positive emotion alienated from positive character leads to emptiness; to a lack of meaning; and as we age, to the gnawing fear that we are fidgeting unto death. It is possible that the spiritual malaise and the epidemic of depression that has swept all the wealthy nations (Seligman, Reivich, Gillham, & Jaycox, 1996) have at their core the use of the shortcuts displacing the use of the strengths to produce positive emotion."

Read the full "Positive Psychology: FAQs" here.