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The Science of Positive

Christopher Peterson
University of Michigan
November 7, 2007

Peterson, C., & Park, N. (in press). Positive psychology.

In B. J. Sadock, V. A. Sadock, & P. Ruiz (Eds.),
Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry (9th ed.).
Baltimore: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins.
1. Positive psychology: Overview
2. Positive psychology and therapy
3. Examples of positive psychotherapy
4. Case example
5. Conclusions
Reframing the Framingham Study

• Obesity spreads through social networks

• But so too does non-obesity!
• The value of positive psychology in
reframing the human condition
• Do positive health practices spread as
1. Positive Psychology: Overview

• The scientific study of what

goes right in life
• Signature premise: What is
good about life is as genuine
as what is bad and therefore
deserves equal attention from
• Life entails more than
avoiding or undoing problems
• Explanations of the good life
must do more than reverse
accounts of problems
A Long Past and a Short History

• Seligman (1998)
• Ancestors
• Athenian philosophers
• Lao-Tsu and Confucius
• Witmer
• Rogers and Maslow
• Jahoda
• Empirical research
• Quality of life and subjective well-being
• Primary prevention and wellness
• Agency and self-efficacy
• Giftedness and multiple intelligences
• What happened?
• Positivism got in the way
• Basic versus applied schism
• World War II and clinical psychology
What is Positive Psychology?
• Again, positive psychology is an
umbrella term describing the
scientific study of what makes life
most worth living
• Positive psychologists concern
themselves with
• Positive experiences
• Positive traits
• Positive relationships
• Positive institutions
• Positive psychology does not
replace business-as-usual
• Positive psychology intends to
complement and extend a problem-
focused psychology
Questions, Quarrels, Quibbles …
and Necessary Qualifications

• Assumption that people are

brittle and broken
• Skepticism about relentless
happiness and optimism
• Dumbed-down popularizations
• Regardless, positive psychology
is not indifferent to human
A Real Quick Summary of Positive
Psychology: What Do We Know?

• Most people are happy

• The important correlates of
happiness are social in nature
• Happiness is causal not
• Happiness can be increased
• People are terrible at emotional
• Happiness leads to physical well-
• Positive emotions and negative emotions are
• Positive emotions broaden and build people’s
psychological and behavioral repertoires
• Positive emotions undo the physiological effects
of negative emotions
• Engagement matters
• “Good days” have common features
• A rosy view of matters is associated with physical,
psychological, and social well-being
• Most people are resilient
• Virtue is more than its own reward
• Meaning and purpose matter
• Other people matter
• Religion matters
• Money makes an ever diminishing contribution to happiness
• Work matters
• Eudaimonia trumps hedonism
• The “heart” matters more than the “head”
• Happiness, strengths of character, and good social relationships are
buffers against the damaging effects of stressful life events
• Positive institutions have common features

• The good life can be taught—maybe

2. Positive Psychology and Therapy
• In the beginning …
• Natural homes for positive
• The role of positive psychology in the
• Remediation
• Rehabilitation
• Relapse prevention
• Maintenance
• Promotion
• No consensual theory
• Goals
• Assessments
• Techniques
• And what about positive health
Positive Psychology’s
Vision of the Good Life

• More positive feelings than

negative feelings
• Satisfaction with life as it has been
• Identification and use of talents and
strengths on an ongoing basis
• Engagement in activities
• Contributing member of a social
• Meaning and purpose
• Health and safety
Positive Psychology Measures
• Positive Affect
• e.g., Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS)
• e.g., Profile of Mood States (POMS)
• Happiness
• e.g., Authentic Happiness Inventory (AHI)
• e.g., Orientations to Happiness Scale Life Satisfaction
• e.g., Satisfaction with Life Scale
• e.g., Marital Satisfaction
• e.g., Work Satisfaction
• e.g., Leisure Satisfaction
• Positive Traits
• e.g., Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA)
• e.g., Ryff and Singer’s Psychological Well-Being Scales
• e.g., Search Institute’s Developmental Assets [for youth]
• Values
• e.g., Values Inventories of Research, Schwartz, Scott, and others
• Interests
• e.g., Strong-Campbell Vocational Interest Blank (SVIB)
• Abilities
• e.g., multiple intelligences
• Social Support and Attachment
• e.g., The Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support
• e.g.., Adult Attachment Style Questionnaire
Exercise: A Positive Intake
Positive Psychology Techniques
• Exercises to increase positive feelings
• e.g., performing acts of kindness
• e.g., savoring
• e.g., writing a gratitude letter
• Exercises to decrease negative feelings
• e.g., turning one’s head to see the positive
• e.g., writing about traumatic events
• Exercises to increase life satisfaction
• e.g., counting one’s blessings
• e.g., performing acts of kindness
• Exercises to develop talents and strengths
• e.g., using talents and/or signature strengths of character in novel
• Exercises to increase engagement
• e.g., finding a challenging hobby
• Exercises to increase social connectedness
• e.g., being a good teammate
• e.g., active-constructive responding
• Exercises to increase meaning and purpose
• e.g., performing secret good deeds
• e.g., writing one’s own legacy
• e.g., working for a valued institution
• Exercises to increase health and safety
• e.g., worrying about the right things
What is Positive Psychotherapy?

• Goal is enhanced happiness, life satisfaction,

fulfillment, productivity—components of positive
psychology’s vision of the good life
• So what about
• European spa tradition?
• Human potential movement?
• After-school programs?
• Character education?
• Wilderness adventures?
• Worksite wellness programs?
• Motivational interviewing?
• Life coaching?
• Appreciative Inquiry?
• Sunday School?
• Disney Channel?
Therapeutic Alliance

• Focus here is on approaches

characterized by an explicit
therapeutic alliance between the
positive psychologist and the client
• Collaboration
• Affective bond
• Agreement
• In defining positive psychotherapy,
the relational context of the
intervention is critical
A Taxonomy of Interventions
3. Examples of Positive Psychotherapy

• Personal Happiness Program

• Internet Positive Psychology
• Positive Psychotherapy
• Quality of Life Therapy
• Positive Behavioral Support
• Hope Therapy
• Well-Being Therapy
• Penn Resiliency Program
• Action and Commitment Therapy
• Mindfulness-Based Cognitive
• Positive Therapy
• Day Rearranging
4. Case Example
• “Problem”
• Positive psychology
• Identification of
• Use of strengths to
recraft tasks
• Resolution
5. Conclusions
• Family resemblance
• Primary goal: to enhance well-being and optimal functioning
• Secondary goal: to reduce anxiety or depression
• Cognitive-behavioral
• Short-term structured therapies for individual or small groups
• Out-of-sessions exercises and assignments
• Journals
• Ongoing assessment
• Anti-medical model
• Empirical support accumulating
Remaining Questions

• Comparison to business-as-
usual therapies?
• Boundary conditions?
• What about weaknesses?
• How light-handed is positive
• Why do we live as we do?
Any Final Matters to Clean Up?
Thank You