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Positive psychology and well-being

Posted on: July 30, 2021

Positive psychology has grown at a huge rate since its inception in the late 1990s, attracting hundreds of millions of pounds in research grants whilst also being commercially accessible through the rise of self-help books, and coaches and consultants worldwide.

When Martin Seligman was elected head of the American Psychological Association in 1998, an epiphany led him to convene with teams of the nation’s best psychologists to change the entire approach of psychology away from mostly treating mental illness towards focusing on personal strengths and developing human flourishing. As a result, positive psychology was born.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology was developed to flip the original negative bias of psychology into a positive one, focusing on what is good in a person’s life rather than focusing on their trauma, illness or shortcomings.

It aims to focus on strengths in human thoughts, feelings and behaviour rather than repairing the bad, taking the lives of average people from ‘good’ to ‘great’, rather than focusing solely on those who are struggling.

To put it simply, Christopher Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a notable researcher of positive psychology, defined it as ‘the scientific study of what makes life most worth living’.

The recent rise of positive psychology

American psychologist Martin Seligman’s early research laid the foundations for the psychological theory of ‘learned helplessness’, with ‘Generality of learned helplessness in man’ first published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1975. 

This theory explained how humans and animals can learn to feel helpless and like they lose control over what happens to them, which was then connected to mental health conditions like depression. Seligman’s work created ideas and evidence to back up many treatments and prevention strategies in psychiatry and psychotherapy for depressive symptoms.

In the late 1990s, after being elected as the head of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to move away from the negative and towards the positive and what makes a good quality of life – happiness, well-being, character strengths, and flourishing. In 2000, alongside Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the foundation paper of the new field of positive psychology was published.

The exclusive focus on pathology that has dominated so much of our discipline results in a model of the human being lacking the positive features that make life worth living. Hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance are ignored or explained as transformations of more authentic negative impulses.” Seligman M.E.P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction.

Following this foundation paper, Seligman has written extensively about positive psychology, including popular books Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, and Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. He has also contributed heavily to the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Since its inception, positive psychology has attracted thousands of researchers around the world, and much evidence for psychological well-being has been established which can be applied to many areas of life, including relationships, teaching, and the workplace. 

The PERMA theory of well-being

A cornerstone of positive psychology is Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being which attempts to answer the fundamental question ‘what is human flourishing and what enables it?’.

This theory proposes five essential building blocks, each with techniques to increase that specific area for overall happiness for a good life. All blocks should be pursued for their own sakes throughout the lifespan rather than as a means to an end, and are all defined independently of each other.

Positive emotion

A hedonic route to well-being is by increasing positive emotions. The PERMA theory suggests we can increase our positive emotions about the past through gratitude and forgiveness, the present by savouring physical pleasures and mindfulness, and the future by building hope and optimism.


When someone is fully deploying their skills, strengths and attention for a challenging task, a state of ‘flow’ can be achieved. First coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the flow state is so gratifying that people will do a task for the sake of it, rather than what comes out of it. Concentration is fully absorbed, self-awareness disappears, and an individual will have no perception of time. 

Though it is a term that is often used to refer to work or creative pursuits, flow can also be achieved during a number of positive experiences, including a good conversation, reading a book, gardening, or sports training amongst many other things.


Connections to other people through social relationships can give our lives a sense of purpose and meaning, and so relationships are fundamental to overall well-being. Joy, laughter, a feeling of belonging, and pride are a few feelings that can be felt from healthy and positive relationships, as well as support through the hard times.


Finding meaning in life is finding a purpose that is bigger than the self. Some people may find this through religion, family, science, politics, social causes, or community.


Achievement, competence and success can come in different ways for different people, whether that’s at work, at home, in sport, or in hobbies.

While this theory has been criticised for being subjective well-being with the use of self-regulation and self-report, many systematic reviews have been conducted by positive psychologists globally using PERMA on different groups of society. 

The Authentic Happiness website has a PERMA questionnaire for individuals looking to measure their own well-being.

How to use positive psychology for improved well-being

While the old proverb may be ‘money can’t buy you happiness’, that sentiment is often lost in our increasingly materialistic world. However, positive psychology research suggests that people overestimate the impact of money on their happiness, so focusing less on wealth will likely make you happier (Aknin, Norton, & Dunn, 2009). When you do spend money, spending it on experiences rather than material possessions can provide more of a boost to happiness (Howell & Hill, 2009), or spending money on other people can produce greater happiness for the giver (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008).

Oxytocin may provide greater trust, empathy and morality in humans, so hugs or other shows of physical affection may give a big boost to your overall well-being and the well-being of others (Barraza & Zak, 2009), and happiness has been shown to be contagious, with people who have happy friends and significant others being more likely to be happy in the future (Fowler & Christakis, 2008).

Selfless behaviour can also improve well-being, as people who perform acts of kindness towards others may get a boost (Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl, & Lyubomirsky, 2012) and volunteering time to a cause you believe in can improve well-being and life satisfaction, and may also reduce depressive symptoms (Jenkinson et al., 2013).

Positive psychology in the workplace

Many businesses now adopt a corporate wellness policy or programme, and research has shown that these can be powerful tools for enhancing positivity in the workplace. Using the PERMA theory, applying positive emotions to work can also have a positive affect on overall well-being. 

Positive emotions are correlated with better physical health and stress management in a number of studies, allowing individuals to take on big challenges at work without feeling overwhelmed, and they can enhance interpersonal relationships and creativity, enabling better teamwork and more productive job performance (Amabile et al., 2005). 

Using positive emotions at work can also lead to greater job satisfaction, creating less burnout and less intention to look for another job elsewhere (Thoresen et al., 2003). 

Further develop your knowledge of positive psychology

On the University of Wolverhampton’s 100% online MSc Psychology, the Positive Psychology and Well-being module will broaden your knowledge on the phenomena of positive psychology, covering topics such as resilience, growth and flow, as you explore how they relate to personal mental well-being and performance.

Accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS), this degree is studied part-time, allowing you to continue building your career as you fit your learning around your life.

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