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Review of General Psychology Copyright 2005 by the Educational Publishing Foundation

2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, 103–110 1089-2680/05/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.103

What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology?
Shelly L. Gable Jonathan Haidt
University of California, Los Angeles University of Virginia

Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the
flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions. In this brief
introduction, the authors give examples of current work in positive psychology and try
to explain why the positive psychology movement has grown so quickly in just 5 years.
They suggest that it filled a need: It guided researchers to understudied phenomena. The
authors close by addressing some criticisms and shortcomings of positive psychology,
such as the relative lack of progress in studying positive institutions.

The gross national product does not allow for the In just 5 years since that special issue, quite a
health of our children, the quality of their education, or bit has happened in what has become known as
the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of
our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intel- the positive psychology movement. Many ed-
ligence of our public debate or the integrity of our ited volumes and handbooks have been pub-
public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our lished (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003;
courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither Keyes & Haidt, 2003; Lopez & Snyder, 2003;
our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it
measures everything, in short, except that which makes
Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Schmuck & Shel-
life worthwhile. (Kennedy, 1968) don, 2001; Snyder & Lopez, 2002). Dozens of
conferences have brought researchers together
Robert F. Kennedy’s lament about the gross from all over the world. Numerous grants have
national product is analogous to positive psy- facilitated the research of young investigators
chology’s lament about what might be called and created collaborations among researchers
the “gross academic product” of psychology. In from many countries. Courses in positive psy-
January 2000, when Seligman and Csikszentmi- chology are springing up in scores of universi-
halyi edited a special issue of American Psy- ties and high schools. Those of us involved in
chologist devoted to positive psychology, they positive psychology are often amazed at how
claimed that psychology was not producing fast the train has been moving.
enough “knowledge of what makes life worth However, scholars who are not involved in
living” (p. 5). In the second half of the 20th positive psychology may be skeptical about
century, psychology learned much about de- both the cargo and the destination of the train.
pression, racism, violence, self-esteem manage- In this introduction, we would like to address
ment, irrationality, and growing up under ad- those who are doubtful about positive psychol-
versity but had much less to say about character ogy, or just unfamiliar with it. We relate our
strengths, virtues, and the conditions that lead to view of positive psychology, how we respond to
high levels of happiness or civic engagement. In some recent criticisms of the positive psychol-
one metaphor, psychology was said to be learn- ogy movement, and where we think the field is
ing how to bring people up from negative eight going. Both of us are experimental social psy-
to zero but not as good at understanding how chologists whose work happens to fall within
people rise from zero to positive eight. the purview of positive psychology. We also
co-run a yearly conference, the Positive Psy-
chology Summer Institute, in which 20 graduate
students, postdoctoral students, and assistant
Shelly L. Gable, Department of Psychology, University professors from all over the world and from all
of California, Los Angeles; Jonathan Haidt, Department of of the subfields of psychology are brought to-
Psychology, University of Virginia. gether for 6 days to learn from each other and
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-
dressed to Shelly L. Gable, Psychology Department, Uni- from a handful of more senior researchers. We
versity of California, 4560 Franz Hall, Box 951563, Los are excited by the quality of the work we see
Angeles, CA 90095-1563. E-mail: gable@psych.ucla.edu each summer and by the caliber and diversity of
103
104 GABLE AND HAIDT

the scholars who attend the summer institute marriages, elderly people with cognitive impair-
and participate in other positive psychology ac- ments, cancer patients, and people with schizo-
tivities. We would like to invite you to consider phrenia (whose daily lives turn out to include
getting involved too, because if all goes well, about the same balance of positive and negative
positive psychology may not be around for moments as those of nonschizophrenics; Gard,
much longer. If the positive psychology move- 2001). Others are studying the psychobiological
ment is successful in rebalancing psychology underpinnings of happiness and morality. Some
and expanding its gross academic product, it are studying techniques to improve well-being,
will become obsolete. such as mindfulness meditation, journal writing,
well-being therapy, savoring, and exposure to
What Is (and Was, and Is Not) Positive green spaces. If these research programs seem
Psychology? worthwhile and interesting and you agree that
our field is better off with an understanding of
Positive psychology is the study of the con- flourishing to complement our understanding of
ditions and processes that contribute to the despair, then you too may be a positive
flourishing or optimal functioning of people, psychologist.
groups, and institutions. Defined in this way, However, positive psychology does not im-
positive psychology has a long history, dating ply that the rest of psychology is negative, al-
back to William James’s writings on what he though it is understandable that the name may
termed “healthy mindedness” in 1902, to All- imply that to some people. In fact, the large
port’s interest in positive human characteristics majority of the gross academic product of psy-
in 1958, to Maslow’s advocacy for the study of chology is neutral, focusing on neither well-
healthy people in lieu of sick people in 1968, being nor distress. Positive psychology grew
and to Cowan’s research on resilience in chil- largely from the recognition of an imbalance in
dren and adolescents (e.g., Cowan, 2000). How- clinical psychology, in which most research
ever, for reasons discussed later, the past half does indeed focus on mental illness. Research-
century has seen the study of the psychological ers in cognitive, developmental, social, and per-
aspects of what makes life worth living recede sonality psychology may not believe that things
to the background, whereas studies on disorder are so out of balance. However, even in these
and damage have taken center stage. The recent fields, we believe that there are many topics that
positive psychology movement grew out of rec- can be said to have two sides, and although a
ognition of this imbalance and a desire to en- great flurry of research occurs on the negative
courage research in neglected areas. side, the positive side is left to lie fallow. For
What are some neglected areas? A sampling example, in the two areas with which we are
of the research topics covered by the 60 scholars most familiar, this imbalance is evident. In the
who have taken part in the Positive Psychology field of close relationships, many studies have
Summer Institute in the past 3 years1 provides a examined how couples respond to each other’s
nice illustration of some of them. Many of the misfortune (e.g., social support) or bad relation-
scholars are studying areas that were not truly ship behavior (e.g., criticisms and infidelities),
neglected, such as attachment, optimism, love, but little is known about how couples respond to
emotional intelligence, and intrinsic motivation. each other’s triumphs (e.g., savoring positive
But others are studying areas of human experi-
events) or good relationship behavior (e.g.,
ence about which there was very little published
compliments and displays of affection; see Reis
research before the year 2000, such as gratitude,
& Gable, 2003). And there are volumes of work
forgiveness, awe, inspiration, hope, curiosity,
examining how couples and families resolve
and laughter (there are commonalities between
conflict but very few studies examining them
tickle-induced vocalization in rat pups and
having fun and laughing together. In the area of
youthful laughter in humans, highlighting the
morality, there are thousands of published stud-
likely possibility of common underlying neuro-
ies on the negative moral emotions, the emo-
biological systems; Burgdorf, 2001). Some are
studying well-being or flourishing in unusual or
understudied populations, including Latinos in 1
The first year of the summer institute was run by Dacher
the United States, South Asians in arranged Keltner and Lisa Aspinwall.
SPECIAL ISSUE: WHAT IS POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY? 105

tions we feel when others do bad things (anger, Why a Positive Psychology Movement,
contempt, and disgust) or when we ourselves do and Why Now?
bad things (shame, embarrassment, and guilt);
however, there are only a few empirical studies Why do we need a movement in positive
of the positive moral emotions, the emotions we psychology? The answer is straightforward. The
feel when others do good things (gratitude, ad- science of psychology has made great strides in
miration, and moral elevation; see Haidt, 2003). understanding what goes wrong in individuals,
Despite these inequities, positive psycholo- families, groups, and institutions, but these ad-
gy’s aim is not the denial of the distressing, vances have come at the cost of understanding
unpleasant, or negative aspects of life, nor is it what is right with people. For example, clinical
an effort to see them through rose-colored psychology has made excellent progress in di-
glasses. Those who study topics in positive psy- agnosing and treating mental illnesses and per-
chology fully acknowledge the existence of hu- sonality disorders (e.g., American Psychiatric
man suffering, selfishness, dysfunctional family Association, 1994). Researchers in social psy-
systems, and ineffective institutions. But the chology have conducted groundbreaking stud-
aim of positive psychology is to study the other ies on the existence of implicit prejudice and
side of the coin—the ways that people feel joy, negative outcomes associated with low self-
show altruism, and create healthy families and esteem (e.g., Josephs, Bosson, & Jacobs, 2003;
institutions—thereby addressing the full spec- Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park, 1997). Health psy-
trum of human experience. Moreover, positive chology has shown us the detrimental effects
psychology makes the argument that these pos- that environmental stressors have on our phys-
itive topics of inquiry are important to under- iological systems (e.g., Dickerson & Kemeny,
stand in their own right, not solely as buffers 2004). And cognitive psychology has illumi-
against the problems, stressors, and disorders of nated the many biases and errors involved in our
life (although we believe the evidence is clear judgments (e.g., Gilovich, Vallone, & Tversky,
that many positive processes shield us from 1985). These are all important findings in our
negative outcomes, a point we return to later). field, but it is harder to locate corresponding
Sheldon and King (2001) defined positive work on human strengths and virtues.2
psychology as “nothing more than the scientific So why has our field been so much more
study of ordinary human strengths and virtues,” interested in foibles than in strengths? We see
one that “revisits the average person” (p. 216; three reasons. The first is compassion. Those
italics added). In this definition is the acknowl- who are suffering should be helped before those
edgment that our field as a whole is relatively who are already doing well. We certainly agree
silent regarding what is typical, because what is with this notion; however, we also think that an
typical is positive. Indeed, 9 of 10 Americans understanding of human strengths can actually
report being “very happy” or “pretty happy” help prevent or lessen the damage of disease,
(Myers, 2000). And, contrary to the notion that stress, and disorder. For example, research on
this is unique to American soil, studies have coping has demonstrated that appraisals of neg-
consistently revealed that most people across ative life events that put them into perspective
the globe score well above the neutral point on with one’s own capabilities for meeting the
measures of life satisfaction (Diener & Diener, challenge mediate the actual experience of dis-
1996), and even people who many might as- tress (e.g., Folkman & Lazarus, 1988). And
sume would be very unsatisfied with their lives, Taylor and colleagues (Taylor, Kemeny, Reed,
such as slum dwellers in Calcutta, are actually Bower, & Gruenwald, 2000) have provided per-
quite satisfied with their lives (Biswas-Diener & suasive evidence that beliefs such as optimism
Diener, 2001). Thus, despite the very real im- and a sense of personal control are protective
pact of the negative aspects of life documented factors for psychological and physical health.
in the past few decades of psychological re-
search, most people are doing well, and we, as 2
One can point to inspiring work such as the jigsaw
psychologists, tend to overlook the greater part classroom of Aronson, Blaney, Stephan, Sikes, and Snapp
of human experience and the majority of peo- (1978), which brought out the best in students, but such
ple, families, groups, and institutions. cases are few and far between.
106 GABLE AND HAIDT

This evidence, as well as a plethora of findings The third reason for our field’s focus on the
from other research programs, leads us to be- negative may very well reside in our own nature
lieve that a better understanding of the environ- and our theories about psychological processes.
mental conditions and personal strengths that As Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and
buffer against illness will actually equip us to Vohs (2001) have documented, “Bad is stronger
better help those who are suffering. than good.” In a review of the literature, they
Furthermore, there is the question of ratio. argued that negative events have more impact
Even if everyone agrees that we should spend than positive events and that information about
more money and research time on problems and bad things is processed more thoroughly than
suffering than on health and strength, the ques- information about good. For example, there is
tion is, how much more? Five, 10, or 50 times evidence that automatic vigilance tends to be
more? If our research “investment portfolio” greater to negative stimuli than to positive stim-
gets too far out of balance, we are passing up uli (e.g., Pratto & John, 1991). There is also
opportunities to make rapid scientific progress evidence that we see negative acts as more
with minimal investment. Many of the partici- diagnostic about someone’s inner qualities than
pants in the Positive Psychology Summer Insti- positive acts by making internal attributions for
tute are now leaders in their fields of study the former and external attributions for the latter
despite their young ages, because they have (e.g., Vonk, 1994).
chosen fascinating and important topics that It may be evolutionarily adaptive to recog-
nobody had bothered to invest in before. nize potential threats more readily than poten-
A second reason for psychology’s focus on tial rewards. The former may have had imme-
distress and disease in the past 50 years is diate and irreversible consequences for survival
pragmatic and historical. After World War II, and reproduction, whereas the latter’s impact on
psychologists found that funding agencies were survival and reproduction may have been more
prioritizing research into mental illness and indirect and reversible. For example, Cosmides
other problems, and much work could be found and Tooby (1992) have demonstrated that peo-
helping returning veterans (Seligman, 2002). ple have a mechanism for the detection of indi-
Moreover, by this time, clinical psychology had viduals who violate social contracts by benefit-
come to focus on diagnosis and treatment of ing themselves without reciprocally contribut-
disorders, in the fashion of a medical disease ing to the group (i.e., cheaters), but thus far
model (Maddux, 2002). And, as Keyes and there is no evidence that we possess a mecha-
Lopez (2002) have argued, akin to the medical nism for the detection of the reverse (i.e.,
disease model, we have invested greatly in iden- altruists).
tifying proximal causes of mental illnesses and Moreover, a key reason for the primacy of
creating effective therapies for those who are negative information may be that it violates our
already suffering from disorders, but we have expectations (Olson, Roese, & Zanna, 1996).
fallen short in identifying distal buffers to men- Positive events, information, processes, and in-
tal illness, such as personal strengths and social teractions simply occur more frequently than
connections and prevention aimed at the larger negative ones. For example, one study showed
population. Ironically, then, one cost of focus- that when asked how often a list of eight pos-
ing resources solely on the treatment of those itive (e.g., “A friend, romantic partner, or fam-
who are already ill may be the prevention of ily member complimented me”) and eight neg-
these very same illnesses in those who are not ill ative (e.g., “A friend, family member, or roman-
through research on the strengths and circum- tic partner insulted me”) social events had
stances that contribute to resilience and well- occurred in the past week, participants reported
ness. And this analysis applies equally well to that the negative interactions occurred an aver-
branches of psychology other than clinical. For age of 5.9 times and the positive interactions
example, a focus on prejudice overlooks the occurred an average of 19.0 times. This yielded
process of acceptance, a focus on conflict ig- a ratio of 3.2 positive events for each negative
nores how compromises are forged, and a focus event (Gable, 2000), and the pattern of experi-
on bias misses the many instances of accuracy encing more positive than negative events has
and the circumstances that surround it. been replicated in daily experience studies in-
SPECIAL ISSUE: WHAT IS POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY? 107

cluding both social and nonsocial events (e.g., Challenges to Positive Psychology
school or work; Gable, Reis, & Elliot, 2000).
Thus, negative information, events, and interac- The positive psychology movement is not
tions become the figure to the positive ground without its challengers and critics. Many criti-
because they are the exception and not the cisms seem to arise from the assumption that if
norm. there is a positive psychology, then the rest of
Our bias as humans to more readily perceive psychology must be negative psychology, and if
and process negative information should not, we need a positive psychology it is because this
however, be reflected in the subject matter of so-called negative psychology has taught us lit-
tle. This interpretation is unfortunate and, more
our science. Indeed, because positive processes
important, untrue, as we hope what we have
occur more often, their impact on long-term
written here already demonstrates. In fact, it is
outcomes may be even greater, despite the more
because psychology (which is mostly neutral,
subtle impact of any single positive process. As but with more negative than positive topics) has
evidence for this claim, we draw your attention been so extraordinarily successful that the im-
to two recent studies on positive emotions, balance, the lack of progress on positive topics,
which until recently (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998) has become so glaring.
have been undertheorized and understudied by A second criticism is that people who study
emotion researchers. In the first, Harker and positive psychology fail to recognize the very
Keltner (2001) coded the emotional expressions real negative sides of life, preferring a Polly-
of women in their college yearbook photos and anna view of the world. However, here we echo
correlated them with outcomes such as marital those who have come before us in articulating
satisfaction and psychological well-being 30 the goals of positive psychology. The aim is not
years later. Women who expressed more posi- to erase or supplant work on pathology, distress,
tive emotion in their photos at 22 years of age and dysfunction. Rather, the aim is to build up
had significantly more favorable outcomes in what we know about human resilience, strength,
their 50s. Similarly, Danner, Snowdon, and and growth to integrate and complement the
Friesen (2001) found that autobiographies of existing knowledge base. A related concern is
Catholic nuns written in their early 20s pre- that the movement has cultlike qualities in
dicted survival in old age. Specifically, nuns which people get together to share their Polly-
whose essays contained positive emotional annaism. Here we invite the reader to peruse a
content lived longer than nuns whose essays list of researchers involved in positive psychol-
lacked such content. Astoundingly, there was ogy conferences, meetings, and publications (a
a 2.5 risk-ratio difference between the lowest comprehensive list can be found at http://www.
and highest quartiles of positive emotional positivepsychology.org/). This list contains the
expression! names of many of the top scholars in each field.
In summary, despite the philosophical, his- Nearly all of us involved in positive psychology
research are housed in traditional psychology
torical, and theoretical underpinnings that led to
departments, and we publish in mainstream
the current imbalance in psychology, we believe
journals. We do not think of ourselves as rebels,
that there is little empirical justification for our and many of us rarely if ever refer to ourselves
predominantly negative view of human nature as “positive psychologists.” We merely find that
and the human condition. Therefore, it is not the positive psychology movement helps us
surprising to us that what has become known as study our topics more effectively.
the positive psychology movement grew so rap- Perhaps some of the most daunting chal-
idly from its beginnings (Seligman & Csik- lenges to positive psychology stem from defin-
szentmihalyi, 2000). Research on positive psy- ing what actually is positive and the ambiguous
chology topics is not new, but the time was right line between describing something as “good”
for a correction and an organized positive psy- and prescribing it as “good” (Held, 2004). An
chology movement. In the past 5 years, many appropriate analogy can be drawn from medical
investigators have been getting on the train and research showing, for example, that exercise
discovering that it is taking them to interesting and leafy green vegetables are “good” for us. In
places and new frontiers. the same way, we believe that findings from
108 GABLE AND HAIDT

positive psychology can and should encourage positive thinking, and to insist that optimism
people to adopt behaviors and mental practices would be good for them would be a disservice.
that are “good” for them. There are likely to be many other circumstances
However, in medicine, what is good is rather in which the three criteria of goodness may not
straightforward: living longer, without illness. converge, or may not converge for everyone. To
In psychology, labeling something as positive meet the challenge of complexity, positive psy-
or good may not be as simple (Held, 2004). chology must move beyond the description of
Diener and Suh (1997) suggested three bases for main effects (optimism, humor, forgiveness,
what is positive or what is valuable. First, the and curiosity are good) and begin to look more
choices people make are one indication of closely at the complex interactions that are the
value. That is, if something is chosen regularly, hallmark of most of psychology, as well as of
the chooser probably believes in its value or medicine.
goodness. Second, people can judge whether or
not something is satisfying: whether an object, The Future of Positive Psychology: Just
event, process, or outcome is pleasant. Third, Plain Psychology
judgments of what is positive or good can be
made with reference to some value system or set The final question is, where does psychology
of cultural norms. Our shared beliefs regarding go from here? We echo Ryff’s (2003) call that
what is wrong or unacceptable and what is right positive psychology needs to properly map “the
or acceptable can guide decisions about what domain of human optimal functioning” (p. 158).
aims to pursue. These three criteria sometimes The future task of positive psychology is to
agree and sometimes do not. For example, sex understand the factors that build strengths, out-
outside the context of a committed relationship line the contexts of resilience, ascertain the role
may be pleasant and enjoyable but may be un- of positive experiences, and delineate the func-
acceptable in terms of one’s religious value tion of positive relationships with others. Posi-
system, and one may not choose to engage in it tive psychology needs to understand how all of
often. Filling up one’s gas tank may be chosen these factors contribute to physical health, sub-
often, but it is neither experientially enjoyable jective well-being, functional groups, and flour-
nor valued by an environmentally conscious ishing institutions. Ultimately, positive psychol-
belief system. Reporting for jury duty may be ogy needs to develop effective interventions to
good as defined by civic values, but it may not increase and sustain these processes.
be pleasant and is rarely chosen freely. Con- In this way, we see a final criticism of, and
versely, the three criteria may also converge, for direction for, positive psychology. The original
instance, in playing with one’s child. “three pillars” of positive psychology (Selig-
In short, the meaning of what is positive or man, 2002) were positive subjective experience,
good is complex and multidimensional, and the positive individual characteristics (strengths
study of positive psychological topics requires and virtues), and positive institutions and com-
recognition of this complexity in theories and munities. So far, positive psychology has pro-
empirical designs. An excellent example of this duced a great deal of new research into the first
complexity unfolding in psychological research two areas but much less into the third. Early
is Norem’s (2001) work on defensive pessi- hopes for linking up with a “positive sociology”
mism. There is a great deal of evidence that and a “positive anthropology” have gone
optimism is associated with good outcomes largely unfulfilled. If such links cannot be
(e.g., health and well-being) and pessimism is forged in the future, then we hope that positive
associated with bad outcomes (e.g., Taylor et psychologists will become more daring in their
al., 2000). This may lead to the prescription theory and their interventions and will try, in
“Think optimistically and you will do better.” the coming years, to actually improve the func-
However, as suggested by Norem and Chang tioning of schools, workplaces, and even
(2002), people are much more complex, and a governments.
“one size fits all” model does not work. Specif- We began this article with a quote from Rob-
ically, Norem’s work shows that for a subgroup ert F. Kennedy, who nearly 40 years ago rec-
of people with a defensive pessimism personal- ognized that the gross national product provides
ity style, there are real costs associated with a woefully incomplete picture of the value of a
SPECIAL ISSUE: WHAT IS POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY? 109

country. It is our contention that the gross aca- ity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Per-
demic product of psychology as it exists today sonality and Social Psychology, 80, 804 – 813.
provides an incomplete picture of human life. Dickerson, S. S., & Kemeny, M. E. (2004). Acute
The recent movement in positive psychology stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical in-
strives toward an understanding of the complete tegration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psy-
chological Bulletin, 130, 1–38.
human condition, an understanding that recog- Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are
nizes human strengths as clearly as it does hu- happy. Psychological Science, 7, 181–185.
man frailties and that specifies how the two are Diener, E., & Suh, E. (1997). Measuring quality of
linked. Only a balanced, empirically grounded, life: Economic, social, and subjective indicators.
and theoretically rich view of human experience Social Indicators Research, 40, 189 –216.
can fulfill the mission of our field, as outlined in Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1988). Coping as a
William James’s (1890/1950) description of mediator of emotion. Journal of Personality and
psychology as “the science of mental Life, both Social Psychology, 54, 466 – 475.
of its phenomena and their conditions” (p. 1). Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive
emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300 –
319.
Gable, S., Reis, H. T., & Elliot, A. (2000). Behavioral
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Reis, H. T., & Gable, S. L. (2003). Toward a positive Received September 25, 2004
psychology of relationships. In C. L. Keyes & J. Accepted September 28, 2004 䡲