A PRIMER IN Positive Psychology
A PRIMER IN
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Peterson, Christopher, 1950 Feb. 18–
A primer in positive psychology / by Christopher Peterson.
Includes bibliographical references and indexes.
1. Positive psychology. I. Title.
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper
I dedicate this book
with love and gratitude
to my parents, who taught me
to love learning, to work hard, and
to get along with others
Positive psychology as an explicit perspective has existed only since 1998, but enough relevant
theory and research now exist concerning what makes life most worth living to fill a book
suitable for a semester-long college course. This is that book. Writing occupied me during 2005,
and I wrote with an audience of college students in mind. Perhaps they had previously studied
psychology, perhaps not. Regardless, all the material here is accessible and—I hope—interesting
In writing about this new field, I did so from the viewpoint of general psychology. Positive
psychology is psychology, and psychology is science. I have tried to do justice to the science of
the good life in covering topics ranging from pleasure and happiness to work and love. What do
we know, and how do we know it? And what remains unknown?
I also wrote with a more general audience in mind, given growing popular interest in positive
psychology. Perhaps even more so than psychology students, for whom critical thinking is
explicitly urged by their instructors, the general public needs a fair and balanced presentation of
what psychologists know and what they do not. Positive psychology is plenty exciting without
the need to run far ahead of what has already been established.
Who am I? My personality will show itself in the pages to come. But more formally, I am a
baby boomer who grew up in the Midwest. I went to school at the University of Illinois, then the
University of Colorado, and finally the University of Pennsylvania. I have been a psychology
professor at the University of Michigan since 1986, where I have taught a variety of courses,
including introductory psychology, psychopathology, research methods, and—of course—positive
psychology, to more than 20,000 students. I am the former director of our Clinical Psychology
Training Program, but my identity is now that of a positive psychologist. I spent most of my
professional career concerned with depression, despair, and demoralization. I am now a different
kind of psychologist, one concerned with happiness, character, and purpose.
It has been said that physical scientists stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, whereas
social scientists step in their faces (Zeaman, 1959). My story is different because as a member of
the Positive Psychology Steering Committee, I have been able to stand next to and to work with
some remarkable scholars who have shaped positive psychology from the beginning: Mike
Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, George Vaillant, and—first among equals—
The positive psychology research which has so energized me has been generously supported
by the Mayerson Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the Annenberg/Sunnylands Trust
Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the U.S. Department of Education. And much of what I
have written here had its beginning in collaborative projects with Nansook Park and Marty
Writing this book went smoothly, in no small part because I worked with Oxford University
Press, in particular associate publisher Joan Bossert and associate editor Jennifer Rappaport,
unwavering supporters of positive psychology and my own writing. Lisa Christie carefully edited
what were rough chapters and suggested useful resources for each chapter. Vincent Colapietro,
Ed Diener, Steve Maier, Nansook Park, Stephen Post, Lilach Sagiv, and George Vaillant helped
me to track down some specific citations. Thanks to all.
1 What Is Positive Psychology?
2 Learning About Positive Psychology: Not a Spectator Sport
3 Pleasure and Positive Experience
5 Positive Thinking
6 Character Strengths
8 Interests, Abilities, and Accomplishments
10 Positive Interpersonal Relationships
11 Enabling Institutions
12 The Future of Positive Psychology
A PRIMER IN Positive Psychology
What Is Positive Psychology?
The chief purpose of education is to teach young people to find pleasure in the
right things.—PLATO (~400 BCE)
If it is possible, talk to your parents about the day your were born. Not how or where or when,
but what they were thinking and feeling when they first held you. I suspect that what rushed
through them was a mix of fears and hopes. The fears included whether you were healthy and
safe and whether they would be able to take care of you. The hopes included the wishes that you
would grow up to be happy, that you would live a fulfilling life, that you would have skills and
talents, that you would learn how to use these in a productive way, that you would someday
have your own family and friends, and that you would become a valued member of a social
Now think about the very end of your life, whenever that might be. Suppose you have the
time to think back over your life in its final moments. What would be your greatest satisfactions?
And what would be your greatest regrets? I suspect that your thoughts and feelings would play
out along the same lines as those of your parents decades earlier. Was your life a good and
fulfilling one? Did you do your best, even when it was difficult? Did you have people in your life
who loved you and whom you loved in return? Did you make a difference for the better in your
community? I doubt that your regrets would include not eating more Fritos, not working longer
shifts, or not watching—for the 10th time—cable television reruns of Law & Order. I doubt that
you would wish you had taken more shortcuts in life, that you had put your own needs more
frequently ahead of other people’s needs, or that you had never thought about what life means.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what goes right in life, from birth to death and
at all stops in between. It is a newly christened approach within psychology that takes seriously
as a subject matter those things that make life most worth living. Everyone’s life has peaks and
valleys, and positive psychology does not deny the valleys. Its signature premise is more nuanced
but nonetheless important: What is good about life is as genuine as what is bad and therefore
deserves equal attention from psychologists. It assumes that life entails more than avoiding or
undoing problems and hassles. Positive psychology resides somewhere in that part of the human
landscape that is metaphorically north of neutral. It is the study of what we are doing when we
are not frittering life away.
In this book, I describe positive psychology and what positive psychologists have learned
about the good life and how it can be encouraged. Some of you are reading this book because it
has been assigned for a college course. Others of you are reading it simply because you are
curious and want to learn more. In either case, I will voice one more suspicion: You will find
some food for thought here and an action plan that might make your own life a better one.
Positive Psychology: A Very Short History With a Very Long Past
You may already have studied psychology. If so, perhaps you encountered this terse
characterization of the field by Herman Ebbinghaus, one of the field’s luminaries: “Psychology
has a long past, but only a short history” (Boring, 1950, p. ix). What this means is that
psychology has been a formal discipline for little more than 100 years but that its enduring issues
were phrased centuries before by philosophers, theologians, and everyday people. How do we
know the world? How and why do we think and feel? What is the essence of learning? What does
it mean to be a human being?
Let me borrow this characterization and assert that positive psychology has a very long past
but only a very short history. The field was named1 in 1998 as one of the initiatives of my
colleague Martin Seligman in his role as president of the American Psychological Association
(Seligman, 1998, 1999). One of the triggers for positive psychology was Seligman’s realization
that psychology since World War II had focused much of its efforts on human problems and how
to remedy them. The yield of this focus on pathology has been considerable. Great strides have
been made in understanding, treating, and preventing psychological disorders. Widely accepted
classification manuals—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) sponsored
by the American Psychiatric Association (1994) and the International Classification of Diseases
(ICD) sponsored by the World Health Organization (1990)—allow disorders to be described and
have given rise to a family of reliable assessment strategies. There now exist effective treatments,
psychological and pharmacological, for more than a dozen disorders that in the recent past were
frighteningly intractable (Barrett & Ollendick, 2004; Evans et al., 2005; Hibbs & Jensen, 1996;
Kazdin & Weisz, 2003; Nathan & Gorman, 1998, 2002; Seligman, 1994).
But there has been a cost to this emphasis. Much of scientific psychology has neglected the
study of what can go right with people and often has little more to say about the good life than
do pop psychologists, inspirational speakers, and armchair gurus. More subtly, the underlying
assumptions of psychology have shifted to embrace a disease model of human nature. People are
seen as flawed and fragile, casualties of cruel environments or bad genetics, and if not in denial
then at best in recovery. This worldview has crept into the common culture of the United States.
We have become a nation of self-identified victims, and our heroes and heroines are called
survivors and sometimes nothing more.
Positive psychology proposes that it is time to correct this imbalance and to challenge the
pervasive assumptions of the disease model (Maddux, 2002). It calls for as much focus on
strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the
worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of
the distressed (Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Psychologists interested in
promoting human potential need to start with different assumptions and to pose different
questions from their peers who assume only a disease model.
The past concern of psychology with human problems is of course understandable. It will not
and should not be abandoned. People experience difficulties that demand and deserve
scientifically informed solutions. Positive psychologists are merely saying that the psychology of
the past 60 years is incomplete. As simple as this proposal sounds, it demands a sea change in
The most basic assumption that positive psychology urges is that human goodness and
excellence are as authentic as disease, disorder, and distress. Positive psychologists are adamant
that these topics are not secondary, derivative, illusory, epiphenomenal, or otherwise suspect.
The good news is that these generalizations about business-as-usual psychology over the past 60
years are simply that—generalizations. There are many good examples of psychological research,
past and present, that can be claimed as positive psychology.
The very long past of positive psychology stretches at least to the Athenian philosophers in
the West and to Confucius and Lao-Tsu in the East (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). In
the writings of these great thinkers can be found the same questions posed by contemporary
positive psychologists. What is the good life? Is virtue its own reward? What does it mean to be
happy? Is it possible to pursue happiness directly, or is fulfillment a by-product of other pursuits?
What roles are played by other people and society as a whole?
Somewhat later but still many centuries ago, we encounter the ideas of religious figures and
theologians—Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Thomas Aquinas, and many others—who also
posed deep questions about the meaning of the good life and its attainment. When we identify
common themes across the disparate world views they advanced, we see that they advocated
service to other individuals, to humankind as a whole, and to a higher power and purpose,
however it is named. Today’s positive psychologists also emphasize a life of meaning and
emphasize that it can be found in both spiritual and secular pursuits. In so doing, positive
psychology places the psychology of religion in a central place it has rarely occupied in the
history of the discipline (Emmons & Paloutzian, 2003).
Within psychology, the premises of positive psychology were laid out long before 1998. In the
beginning, psychologists were greatly interested in genius and talent as well as in fulfilling the
lives of normal people. Setting the immediate stage for positive psychology as it currently exists
were humanistic psychology as popularized by Rogers (1951) and Maslow (1970); utopian
visions of education like those of Neill (1960); primary prevention programs based on notions of
wellness—sometimes dubbed promotion programs—as pioneered by Albee (1982) and Cowen
(1994); work by Bandura (1989) and others on human agency and efficacy; studies of giftedness
(e.g., Winner, 2000); conceptions of intelligence as multiple (e.g., Gardner, 1983; Sternberg,
1985); and studies of the quality of life among medical and psychiatric patients that went beyond
an exclusive focus on their symptoms and diseases (e.g., Levitt, Hogan, & Bucosky, 1990).
Today’s positive psychologists do not claim to have invented notions of happiness and well-
being, to have proposed their first theoretical accounts, or even to have ushered in their scientific
study. Rather, the contribution of contemporary positive psychology has been to provide an
umbrella term for what have been isolated lines of theory and research and to make the self-
conscious argument that what makes life worth living deserves its own field of inquiry within
psychology, at least until that day when all of psychology embraces the study of what is good
along with the study of what is bad (Peterson & Park, 2003).
FAQs About Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is not without its critics (Cowen & Kilmer, 2002; Lazarus, 2003; Taylor,
2001). Up to a point, those of us who are positive psychologists welcome criticism because it
means that people are paying attention and, more important, because we can learn from it. Here
are some of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) that I have encountered in the past few years
when I speak and write about positive psychology (Seligman & Pawelski, 2003). Some of the
questions come from the general public and others from my academic colleagues.
My experience is that everyday people find it exciting and the sort of thing psychology should
be doing (Easterbrook, 2001). Despite the pervasiveness of a victim mentality, everyday people
seem to know that the elimination or reduction of problems is not all that is involved in
improving the human condition. In contrast, the academic community is often skeptical of
positive psychology. Contributing to skepticism are widespread assumptions within the social
sciences about human nature as flawed and fragile, notions more explicit among social scientists
than the general public. From this starting point, the field can only be seen as the study of fluff—
perhaps even as a dangerous diversion while the world goes to hell. Social scientists are doubtful
about the existence of the good life and certainly about the ability of people to report on it with
fidelity. We too are mindful of the dangers of self-report but point out that “social desirability” is
hardly a nuisance variable when one studies what is socially desirable (Crowne & Marlowe,
Is Positive Psychology Just Happiology?
When positive psychology is featured in the popular media, it seems that no one in charge of
layout can resist accompanying the story with a graphic of Harvey Bell’s clichéd smiley face,2
beaming at readers in its jaundiced glory (e.g., U.S. News & World Report, September 3, 2001;
Newsweek, September 16, 2002; USA Weekend, March 9, 2003; Time, September 17, 2005;
Psychology Today, February 2005). This iconography is terribly misleading because it equates
positive psychology with the study of happiness and indeed with a superficial form of happiness.
All other things being equal, smiling is of course pleasant to do and pleasant to observe, but a
smile is not an infallible indicator of all that makes life most worth living. When we are highly
engaged in fulfilling activities, when we are speaking from our hearts, or when we are doing
something heroic, we may or may not be smiling, and we may or may not be experiencing
pleasure in the moment. All of these are central concerns to positive psychology, and they fall
outside the realm of happiology.
To foreshadow later chapters in this book, I note that pleasure and happiness are certainly of
great interest to positive psychology but are more complex than whatever is conveyed by a
smiley face. Positive psychologists study positive traits and dispositions—characteristics like
kindness, curiosity, and the ability to work on a team—as well as values, interests, talents, and
abilities. They study social institutions that can enable the good life: friendship, marriage, family,
education, religion, and so on.
I cannot resist noting that not all smiles are created equal. Researchers have long
distinguished among types of smiles, arguing that some are more genuine than others. A so-
called Duchenne3 (1862/1990) smile involves one’s whole face and is sincere because it cannot
be faked. Contrast it with a flight attendant’s smile, a forced grimace that involves only one’s
What Is the Relationship of Positive Psychology to Humanistic Psychology?
In one of the early discussions of positive psychology, Marty Seligman and Mike
Csikszentmihalyi4 (2000) tersely distanced this new field from humanistic psychology, one of
psychology’s venerable perspectives that was particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s and
still has many adherents today. In very general terms, humanism is the doctrine that the needs
and values of human beings take precedence over material things and, further, that people
cannot be studied simply as part of the material world. Humanists argue that scientific
psychologists miss what is most important about people by focusing on the supposed causes of
behavior, as if people were simply billiard balls, doing poorly or well depending on what other
billiard balls happen to have ricocheted into them.
Well-known psychologists within the humanistic tradition include Abraham Maslow (1970)
and Carl Rogers (1951). Both emphasized that people strive to make the most of their potential
in a process called self-actualization. Self-actualization can be thwarted by various conditions,
but if these conditions are changed, then the potential within each individual will necessarily
This is a very different way of thinking about human nature than that embodied in
psychoanalysis or behaviorism, dominant perspectives within psychology during the 20th
century. Humanistic psychology stresses the goals for which people strive, their conscious
awareness of this striving, the importance of their own choices, and their rationality. The
attention of psychology is thereby directed away from mechanical causes and toward
fundamental questions about existence and meaning.
Humanistic psychology often overlaps with another venerable viewpoint: existentialism. The
critical idea of existentialism is that a person’s experience is primary. To understand any
individual is to understand him or her subjectively, from the inside out. There is no other way.
Existentialists see people as products of their own choices, and these choices are freely
undertaken. To use their phrase, existence precedes essence, with essence understood to mean a
person’s particular characteristics. Existentialists stress that there is no fixed human nature, only
the sort of person that each unique individual becomes by the way she chooses to define herself.
As applied specifically to psychology, these humanistic and existential viewpoints have
several emphases (Urban, 1983):
the significance of the individual
the complex organization of the individual
the capacity for change inherent in the individual
the significance of conscious experience
the self-regulatory nature of human activity
Implicit here is an impatience with “scientific” psychology as it is typically conducted, because it
does not always deal with what is most important about people (Maslow, 1966).
Humanists and existential theorists believe that psychologists must pay more attention to an
individual’s way of seeing the world, and here they join ranks with yet another intellectual
movement, phenomenology, which attempts to describe a person’s conscious experience in
terms meaningful for that individual. Described so starkly, phenomenology has a superficial
resemblance to cognitive approaches within psychology (H. Gardner, 1985), in that both are
concerned with thoughts and thinking, but this is a misleading similarity. Cognitive psychologists
specify the terms with which to describe thinking and then try to use this theoretical language to
describe the thoughts of all people. In contrast, phenomenologists start with the experience of a
specific individual and then attempt to describe it.
In light of this background, why did Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi say that positive
psychology was different? They made two arguments. First, positive psychology regards both the
good and the bad about life as genuine, whereas humanists often—but not always—assume that
people are inherently good. Second, positive psychology is strongly committed to the scientific
method, whereas humanists often—but again not always—are skeptical of science and its ability
to shed light on what really matters.
As points of relative and occasional contrast, I agree with the arguments of Seligman and
Csikszentmihalyi, but as positive psychology has evolved and more carefully examined allied
perspectives, the wholesale dismissal of humanistic psychology now seems glib and mistaken.
Certainly, most existentialists would agree that each person has the capacity for good and bad,
just as positive psychology assumes. That the good life is simply a matter of choice seems to go
too far, given the well-documented barriers to thriving posed by external circumstances like
pestilence, poverty, and prejudice, but positive psychologists nowadays acknowledge that notions
of choice and will are indispensable ones (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Many humanistic psychologists, from decades ago (e.g., Rogers, Gendlin, Kiesler, & Truax,
1967) to the present (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2000), are as committed to science as any positive
psychologist. The deeper issue is what one counts as legitimate science. I have a relaxed and
inclusive conception of the scientific method: the use of evidence to evaluate theories. There are
multiple sources of useful evidence—each with its own pros and cons—and science should not
privilege one source over another. Scientific psychology can learn much from carefully controlled
laboratory experiments, but so too can it learn much from case studies of exceptional individuals,
from interviews and surveys of the general population, and from analyses of historical
The aforementioned billiard ball conception of psychology is a caricature that applies
nowadays to very few psychologists of any stripe. Like humanistic researchers, positive
psychologists believe that people are appropriately studied by talking to them about things that
most matter and seeing how their lives actually unfold (Park & Peterson, in press a).
In sum, positive psychology and humanistic psychology are close relatives. In some instances,
their features are identical, and in some other instances, they can be distinguished. No good
purpose is served by wrangling over which provides a better overall perspective, a debate that
likely has no resolution. In any event, science is always about particulars, and some empirical
studies undertaken from a humanistic perspective will shed light on the good life, as will some
empirical studies undertaken from a positive psychology perspective.
Is Positive Psychology Anything More Than What Sunday School Teachers Know?
Some of the findings of positive psychology (and humanistic psychology, for that matter) seem
commonsensical once articulated. So, other people matter mightily. Money cannot buy
happiness. Those with a reason to live do so, and do so rather well. “I knew that,” says the
skeptic, which leads to another frequently asked question about the field: Does it add anything to
what we already know about the good life and how to achieve it?
I am sure that you are familiar with Robert Fulghum’s (1986) popular book All I Really Need
to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and its numerous spin-offs. It seems only a matter of time
before someone asserts that everything that positive psychology has to teach was already taught
to most of us in kindergarten, in Sunday school, on our grandmother’s knee, or on the Lizzy
McGuire Show. How do I respond to this criticism?
Well, for starters, it is wrong. Common sense and obviousness can always be asserted after the
fact. Suppose I had pointed out—contrary to the actual evidence—that positive psychology has
shown that we need not be concerned with what other people think or do, that “he who dies
with the most toys wins,” and that a ceaseless quest for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. “I
knew all that as well,” says the same skeptic, which leaves us with an obvious need for evidence
that will allow us to sort through the contradictory things that we all seem to know so well.
As you read this book, you can judge for yourself which of the findings of positive psychology
are surprising. But when they are not especially surprising, I urge you to ask further, “So what?”
Psychology makes too much of its counterintuitive findings, showing for example that people
may be unaware of what influences their judgments and actions (e.g., Nisbett & Wilson, 1977),
that our memory of events—even vivid ones—is rarely if ever literal (cf. Brown & Kulik, 1977),
and that there are limitations to people’s rationality (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). This
celebration of the counterintuitive often takes the form of highlighting the shortcomings of
people and in effect saying, “Look at how stupid we all are.” Research like this can be important
for correcting common sense, but not if it leads to the conclusion that people are hopelessly
flawed and inadequate. Then we have the scientific equivalent of shock journalism.
Remember the basic premise of positive psychology: that human goodness and excellence are
as authentic as are human flaws and inadequacies. Too much attention to the counterintuitive
leads us to ignore what people do well and results in a strange view of the human condition.
Some of the true miracles of human activity receive scant attention from psychologists. For
example, consider that most automobile drivers most of the time negotiate interstate highways
without accident, all at more than 70 miles per hour. Consider that most people who give up
smoking are successful on their own without professional help. Consider that almost all children
learn language without explicit instruction. Consider that most people who experience a
traumatic event recover from its effects.
In chapter 4, I describe research showing that people are often unable to predict how long
they will be happy or sad following important life events. So, most young people predict that
being dumped by a girlfriend or …