Throughout most of its history, psychology has focused on psychological disorders. Two major and often opposing schools of thought and methods of treatment have dominated. Behaviorist psychology takes the view that we are mechanisms that can only be changed through outside intervention. Humanist psychology emerged as a reaction to the rigid dogma of behaviorist theorists, but still focuses primarily on negative emotions and how to treat them. What about the positive aspects of our personalities?

The Positive Psychology Institute defines positive psychology as “the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities and organisations to thrive.” Neither a self-help movement nor a breakaway branch of psychology, it seeks to complete the full picture of what makes us tick. We are not, as Freud suggested, just a collection of neuroses. Nor are we, as many behaviorists believe, just flawed mechanisms that can only be fixed with shock treatment, medication or behavioral modification techniques. The discoveries of positive psychology suggest that well-being is actually an integral part of our nature and just needs to be allowed to flourish.

Some conclusions researchers have come to include the following:

  • Most people are fundamentally happy
  • Happiness itself leads to desirable outcomes in life
  • Cooperative relationships are healthy relationships
  • The accumulation of wealth does not lead to happiness
  • Eudaimonia (a charitable spirit) beats hedonism as a route to a satisfying life
  • The heart is more important than the head. While critical thinking is important, learning to care and empathise with others is more important

Many of the conclusions positive psychologists have come to echo the teachings of the world’s great religions. The difference is that while religions are belief systems, positive psychologists study empirical data. The fact that they arrive at many of the same conclusions has profound implications for humanity.

Latest Developments in Positive Psychology

We’ve all been told that “it’s a dog-eat-dog world” and “only the strong survive.” We’ve been told these things so often, they can seem like fundamental truths about human nature. Positive psychologists are learning that selfishness is not a fundamental part of our nature, but is rather an aberration.

Harvard University researchers recently conducted a series of 10 economic studies. Subjects were given a series of games to play. When asked to come to quick decisions, they overwhelmingly chose cooperative solutions. When given time to think, their solutions were more selfish in nature. The conclusion the researchers came to was that “intuition supports cooperation in social dilemmas, and that reflection can undermine these cooperative impulses.” In other words, our natural instinct is not to compete, but to cooperate.

Abraham MaslowPositive psychology is still in its infancy. The term was coined in 1954 by humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, but it wasn’t until more recently that psychologists began thinking of it as a scientific discipline in its own right. In 1998, psychologist Martin Seligman chose “positive psychology” as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. A year later, the first summit conference on positive psychology was conducted and in 2002, the first International Conference was held.

Does positive psychology sound like something you would be interested in exploring further? If so, mark the 7th to the 9th of February, 2014 on your calendar. That’s when the 4th Australian Positive Psychology and Well-being Conference is being held. For more information about the Conference, visit the Welcome page on the Melbourne Graduate School of Education website.

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