History of Positive Psychology

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Passion July 25, 2017

History of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is a framework for understanding happiness in everyday life. Maslow, in his foundational textbook Motivation and Personality, recognized a disparity between the clinical psychology focused on mental illness and a pragmatic approach to helping individuals create full and healthy lives. Over 50 years later, psychologists are using powerful data collection and artificial intelligence to study the factors leading to fulfillment, and the application of their research affects the way we understand leadership, marketing, and inspiration.

Pre-Modern Cognitive Psychology

Although Maslow coined the term, the history of positive psychology has roots tracing back to 1908, in an address to the American Psychological Association where William James challenged his peers to question why some people live fully engaged lives and others don’t. Even earlier, philosophers in Ancient Greece such as Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato contemplated what it meant to live a virtuous life, and how a person could hope to achieve fulfillment.

Modern psychology left the realm of thought experiment and entered scientific study in the late 19th century, when a link was firmly established between local regions of the brain and specific motor skills and behavior. Wilhelm Wundt, one of the earliest psychologists, published the groundbreaking Principles of Physiological Psychology in 1874. In less than three decades, psychology as a research science flourished, and theories such as operant and classical conditioning shaped the behaviorist paradigm of the early 20th century.

Modern Behavior

Behaviorism as a systematic approach was built on physiology and the premise that all behaviors are reflexes learned in response to stimuli or previous experiences. Pavlov published his foundational work on classical conditioning, and psychologists closely studied the development of infants to determine factors that influence sensorimotor skills, language and cognitive function, and emotional stability as adults. Psychologists B. F. Skinner and Carl Jung were both modern behaviorists, and their work deeply shapes the way we perceive and discuss personality, self-development, and habit formation.

It wasn’t until 1998 that positive psychology became a scientific area of study. Now considered the founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman’s presidential address to the APA clearly drew a line between the disease model of early psychologists and the positive model we understand today. For years, psychologists had further studied the human psyche and classified groups of behaviors and attitudes into illnesses, diseases, or disorders.

Post-Modern Positive Psychology

Positive psychology shifted the focus to “what works” instead of “what’s broken.” Christopher Peterson, a co-author with Seligman and professor at the University of Michigan, theorized that contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and optimism for the future are defining pillars of positive psychology. Donald Clifton further dedicated research to strengths-focused assessments that changed the way we understand career fulfillment and employee engagement.

Today, positive psychology is applied by professionals in a variety of fields. Organizations use positive psychology to study employee engagement, retain key talent, improve job satisfaction, and match individuals to their most effective roles within their companies. Key research gives insight when providing constructive feedback or creating mental and physical wellness programs within the workplace. Positive psychology plays a crucial role in nearly every department, and empowers leaders to motivate employees with a better understanding of happiness.

Marketing professionals use positive psychology in the science of story. As marketers, we tap into the deepest emotions of our audiences. We speak to their past experiences, current circumstances, and future hopes and dreams. We understand the importance of identity and the value of positive communication. The Science of Story is inspired by positive psychology, written with real-world experience, by and for champions of inspired organizations.