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Positive Psychology:
The Study of ‘That Which Makes Life Worthwhile’
Corey L. M. Keyes
Jonathan Haidt
March 4, 2002
Introductory chapter of: Keyes, C. L. M., & Haidt, J. (Eds.) (2003). Flourishing: Positive
psychology and the life well lived. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” – Oscar Wilde.
Positive psychology aims to help people live and flourish, rather than merely to exist. The
term “positive psychology” may seem to imply that all other psychology is in some way
negative, but that implication is unintended and untrue. However the term “positive psychology”
contains a softer indictment, namely, that psychology has become unbalanced. In the years since
World War II psychology, guided by its funding agencies and the rising social conscience of its
practitioners, has focused on helping people and society solve serious problems. Clinical
psychology has focused on mental illness, social psychology has focused on prejudice, racism,
and aggression, and cognitive psychology has focused on diagnosing the errors and biases that
lead to bad decisions. There are good reasons to spend more time and money on illness and
problems than on health and strengths. Utilitarianism, compassion, and a concern for equality
suggest that people in great pain should be helped before those who are not suffering. But there
are at least two costs to focusing on illness, problems, and weaknesses.
The first cost is an inappropriately negative view of human nature and the human
condition. We teach students about the many ways the mind can go wrong, and about the
frightening prevalence rates of depression, child abuse, and eating disorders. We teach students
that people are fundamentally selfish creatures whose occasional good deeds are accidental
products of self-esteem management. Is such cynicism and pessimism really justified?
Positive psychology is realistic. It does not claim that human nature is all sweetness and
light, but it does offer a more balanced view. Most people are doing reasonably well in life, and
have the capacity to thrive and flourish, even when -- or especially when -- confronted with
challenges, setbacks, and suffering (see Ryff & Singer, this volume; Wethington, this volume).
Most people have experienced powerful feelings of moral elevation and inspiration that are
unconnected to any need for self-esteem (see Haidt, this volume). Positive psychology aims to
balance out the overly negative picture painted by psychology to date.
The second cost of focusing on illness, problems, and weaknesses is that psychology
restricts its focus and forgoes the possibility of making rapid scientific progress in unexplored
fields. It may be more important to understand the causes of depression than the causes of
happiness, and it may be more important to understand the causes of delinquency than the causes
of good citizenship. But is it infinitely more important? It cannot be wise for psychology to
encourage all of its best young researchers to tackle illnesses, problems, and weaknesses, leaving
Positive Psychology - 2
untouched many scientifically interesting and important questions. Even if one is primarily
concerned will alleviating suffering, the chapters in this volume show that a full understanding of
optimism, hope, well-being, vital engagement, goals, satisfactions of work and play, and
community involvement may lead to therapies and interventions that reduce psychological
suffering where Prozac and psychotherapies have failed.
In short, positive psychology is a view within scientific psychology that aims to achieve a
balanced and empirically grounded body of research on human nature and social relations. In
particular, positive psychology says that more work is needed in the areas of virtues, character
strengths, and the social, psychological, and biological factors that enable human beings to
It is Time for Positive Psychology
The story of the 20th century in the behavioral and social sciences was “two steps
forward, one step back.” There were many steps forward: increased life expectancy, reduced
infant mortality, reduced high school dropout rates, and reduced poverty among the elderly. Yet
despite progress in many fields, other social indicators have gotten worse. Rates of depression
are high in adults and rising among our youth (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
1999). There are more effective talk and drug therapies available now for depression than ever
before, yet the benefits of these treatments are short-lived or partial. In their review, Keyes and
Lopez (2002) argued that decades of mental illness research have made it possible to better treat
more broken down people, but it has not made it possible to prevent more people from breaking
While the Gross Domestic Product increased steadily during the last half of the 20th
century, the U.S. took several steps backwards socially (see Miringoff & Miringoff, 1999).
There were steady increases between 1970 and 1996 in rates of child abuse, child poverty, and
adolescent suicide. During that same period, the number uninsured for health care increased,
rates of many violent crimes increased, and real wages diminished. Fewer individuals belonged
to civic organizations and volunteering declined, while the disparity between the wealthiest and
poorest Americans increased. In polls, most Americans grant that something is wrong with, and
missing in, life in the U.S.: life has become too materialistic, morality has waned, and the sense
of community and social responsibility have faded (Myers, 2001; Putnam, 2000; Schorr, 1997).
Yet people aspire to a more meaningful and fulfilling life. The percent of high school
seniors who say that “making a contribution to society” is an “extremely important” life goal has
increased steadily from 18% in 1976 to 24% in 1996 (Council of Economic Advisers, 1998). In
the New York Times Magazine survey, adults were asked what they would do with 3 extra hours
in a day that would make them more satisfied. Almost two-third would spend time with family
and another 11% with friends (Egan, 2000). While people cannot create a 27 hour day, they can
cut back to create more time in the 24 hour day. Thus, there are an increasing number of
voluntary downsizers -- adults who cutback on work in terms of position, time or pay. Schor
(1998) found that downsizers are motivated by a desire to create a life that is more healthy,
meaningful, and balanced, with more time for loved ones and less focus on material wealth.
It is time for mainstream psychology to catch up with the struggles of the majority of
humanity that is searching for ways to make life meaningful. Almost 40 years ago, Abraham
Maslow (1965) proclaimed that “Psychology ought to become more positive and less negative.
It should have higher ceilings, and not be afraid of the loftier possibilities of the human being”
(p. 27). Maslow and others created humanistic psychology, clearly a forerunner of positive
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psychology in its goals and concerns, and people flocked to its call. Over time, however, too
many people with non-scientific agendas joined the humanists, and after 1969 the movement was
taken over by the psychotherapeutic counterculture (Taylor, 2001). The mission of making
mainstream psychology more positive and less negative was never accomplished.
Psychology remains today ill equipped to help individuals to live healthier and more
meaningful lives. It has a full box of tools to work on stress, disease and dysfunction, but
preventing the worst from happening does not equal promoting the best in people. Ryff and
Singer (1998) argued that psychology needs to move beyond its status as a “repair shop” if it is
to become a science that assists people in their pursuit of better, healthier, more meaningful lives.
Senator Robert Kennedy issued a similar challenge to the entire nation in 1968, shortly before his
assassination, with these words:
“The gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of
their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or
the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our
public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our
learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures
everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” (Guthman & Allen, 1993,
p. 330, emphasis added)
The purpose of this volume is to begin to study “that which makes life worthwhile”, and to
investigate some possible mechanisms for promoting the ranks of healthy, productive, happy,
and flourishing individuals.
Flourishing: Toward a Life Well-Lived
Flourishing, for Keyes (2002; this volume), exemplifies mental health. Not only are
flourishing individuals free of mental illness, they also are filled with emotional vitality and they
are functioning positively in the private and social realms of their lives. Far from being
"supermen" or "superwomen," flourishing individuals are truly living rather than merely existing.
Positive psychology is not self-help, but it is research that is meant to help people.
Similarly, this book is not a manual on “How to Flourish,” but it offers empirically grounded
advice for getting more out of life. We, the editors, often felt inspired to make changes in our
lives as we read these chapters and we hope that you will too. The chapters fit into four
categories representing major imperatives about living a good life: 1) Rise to life’s challenges,
making the most out of your setbacks and adversities; 2) engage with and relate to other people;
3) find fulfillment in creativity and productivity; and 4) look beyond yourself and help others to
find lasting meaning, satisfaction, and wisdom in life.
Rise to Life’s Challenges. Positive Psychology aims to better understand how individuals
can negotiate, resolve, and grow in the face of life's stressors and challenges. Ryff and Singer's
chapter, aptly entitled "Flourishing Under Fire," reviews the large and still growing literature on
human resilience, which has become a central construct in research on human development. The
authors examine how individuals remain or become healthy despite risk and adversity,
illustrating the relevance of resilience throughout the human lifespan, and they simultaneously
stress the importance of integrating the biological substrate of resilience with extant paradigms
that emphasize the psychological aspects of resilience.
In her chapter on turning points and personal growth, Wethington merges two important
literatures. First, she draws on John Clausen's seminal work on psychological turning points to
place individuals within the ongoing challenge of life course transitions and changes. Second,
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she focuses on an important marker of human health -- personal growth -- which originates with
Aristotle's conception of Eudaimonia and has been operationalized by Carol Ryff. Wethington
provides us with a better understanding of how and when individuals are likely to learn
important lessons about life, about themselves, and about other people as they experience
psychological turning points, which are major transformations in views about the self, identity,
or the meaning of life.
Last, Peterson and Chang review the large literature on optimism and its connections to
human flourishing. The motivating question behind this research has been how individuals
respond to adversity and setbacks as well as success and achievement. Using dispositional and
cognitive (i.e., explanatory styles) conceptions of optimism and pessimism, Peterson and Chang
illustrate how optimism is a protective factor and how pessimism is a risk factor for physical and
mental disease. However, in an important message for Positive Psychology, Peterson and Chang
also show how culture and context may moderate the relationship of optimism and pessimism
with health outcomes. They review research showing that the usual connections of optimism and
pessimism with health outcomes may be inverted in collectivistic cultures, where pessimism may
act as a protective factor and optimism may operate more like a risk factor.
Engage and Relate
When John Donne said “no man is an island” he was foreshadowing one of the major
ingredients of flourishing: reaching out and engaging with others, and with one’s environment.
The three chapters in this section work together to show how people create lives that feel rich
and meaningful.
Theorists from Aristotle (“man is a social animal”) through Freud (“love and work”)
have stressed the importance of social relationships for human happiness. But Reis and Gable’s
chapter goes further, making the valuable distinction between positive and negative
psychological processes at work in close relationships. Based on a wide ranging review, Reis and
Gable argue that positive processes (based on appetitive systems in the brain) should be seen and
studied as functionally independent of negative processes (based on aversive systems). Yet as in
so much of psychology, researchers have focused on the negative -- on conflict, and on the role
of relationships as buffers against stress -- and assumed that the positive aspects of relationships
were due to the absence of negatives. Reis and Gable show us what a “positive psychology of
relationships” would look like, a psychology that explores the active ingredients of such things
as intimacy, affection, and shared fun.
While Donne’s island metaphor clearly refers to relationships with other people, the
chapters by Emmons and by Nakamura and Czikszentmihalyi show us that flourishing requires
another kind of reaching out: the setting of goals, followed by active and energetic engagement
with those goals. Emmons reviews research on the kinds of personal goals or “strivings” that
people pursue, and on the relationships between goal pursuit and subjective well-being
(happiness). He tells us that goal pursuit is not uniformly good; the costs and benefits of striving
vary with the kind of goal pursued, and he offers an intriguing taxonomy of the “big four”
domains of striving. Emmons’ work has important clinical applications, as can be seen in his
description of his recent work with people suffering from degenerative neuromuscular diseases.
In a group of people whose objective well-being is clearly declining, the manner in which
individuals set goals and strive to reach them turns out to be a major determinant of subjective
Positive Psychology - 5
Nakamura and Czikszentmihalyi build on Emmons’ work to tell us how people can enter
a state of “vital engagement” with the tasks they undertake. They tackle the big question of
meaning in life directly, asking how a sense of meaning emerges in daily life. They begin with
an analysis of the psychological state of flow, a state of full absorption in an activity that
challenges one’s abilities and reduces one’s sense of self-consciousness. Flow is deeply
pleasurable, but Nakamura and Czikszentmihalyi point out that flourishing must entail more than
just stringing together periods of deep pleasure. The great contribution of this chapter is to put
forth a theory of flow-derived emergent meaning. Building on classic social interactionist
theorists (e.g., John Dewey and G. H. Mead), they illustrate how a sense of meaning emerges
over time as people experience flow in activities that link them to larger pursuits and to other
Find fulfillment in creativity and productivity. As Seligman reminded us during his APA
presidency, one of the original missions of psychology was to promote creativity and fulfillment.
Somewhere this mission was lost. The authors in this section seek to reclaim that mission for
Hence, this section begins with Cassandro and Simonton's chapter on creativity and
genius. These authors review a rich literature describing the nature, kinds, and measures of
creativity and genius. While the chapter draws on historical exemplars of creativity and genius,
it challenges Positive Psychology to discover how these cultural goods can be nurtured in more
members of successive generations. Cassandro and Simonton show us how the products of
creators have enabled flourishing for the rest of us, and how the process of creativity may also
promote flourishing in the creator.
Wrzesniewski and Rozin’s chapter focuses on the concept of fulfillment in daily life. The
authors point out that most of our lives are taken up with work, leisure and eating, and it is
therefore here that we should think about how to get more out of each moment of our lives. The
chapter then inquires into the mechanisms whereby individuals might gain such fulfillment by
looking at how orientations toward work, play, and food affect what people get out of those
activities. For example, Wrzesniewski and colleagues reviews research showing that individuals
have distinct orientations toward employment: People may view work as a calling, as a career, or
as a paycheck (instrumentally). Rather than argue that more people need to view work as a
calling in order to gain more satisfaction from work, these authors suggest that a Positive
Psychology of work should seek to better understand how contexts may be shaped to provide
satisfaction for all people. Thus, rather than simply shape the person to the situation, these
authors remind us that a positive psychology also should shape the situation to fit the individual.
Last, the chapter by Harter and colleagues poses a central question for Positive
Psychology: What is the utility of promoting workplace well-being? As Wrzesniewski and
Rozin point out, work takes up the largest share of an adult’s waking life. The challenge for
Positive Psychology is show that the promotion of positive things in employees and in the
workplace can add to the "bottom line" of a business. First, this chapter reviews models of
employee well-being, a central component of which is employee's growth and development.
Based on a meta analysis of numerous studies, this chapter then shows that profits, productivity,
employee retention, and customer satisfaction all increase as the level of workplace well-being,
particularly employee personal growth, increases. In short, bottom-line outcomes are linked with
the promotion of well-being in the workplace.
Positive Psychology - 6
Look beyond yourself. The ancient Greeks were very concerned with the question: why be
virtuous, in cases where it is not good for you? In the dialogue “Protagoras” Plato argued that
people are naturally drawn to the good, once it is clear to them. The three chapters in this section
support Plato’s hopes. People benefit from helping others (Piliavin); as they gain in wisdom they
integrate ethical concerns into their practical deliberations (Baltes & Freund); and people
experience the positive emotion of elevation when they witness acts of moral beauty (Haidt).
Piliavin gives us a magnificent review of a large and complicated literature: the effects of
volunteering on the volunteer. American society in the 1990’s has experimented widely with a
variety of service learning and volunteer programs for children and adolescents, as well as for the
elderly. Do such programs really work? A clear empirical answer to this question is critical, as
large sums of money are spent on them. The answer Piliavin give us is an emphatic “yes,” but with
just the sorts of qualifiers that we need to design intelligent programs. Piliavin shows us what kinds
of benefits have been studied (emotional benefits, reductions in dropout rates and antisocial
activity, increased learning), and points out that different kinds of activities lead to different
patterns of benefits at different ages. Most of the research so far has been correlational, and
Piliavin is always cautious about extracting causal claims from such studies. However since a few
of the studies reviewed used random assignment to helping versus non-helping conditions, Piliavin
is able to guide us to the conclusion that people really can “do well by doing good.”
Baltes and Freund tackle one of the hardest problems in the human sciences: what is
wisdom? Their article begins by summarizing the pioneering research of Baltes’ group in Berlin on
this question (wisdom is a metaheuristic “aimed at organizing and guiding the overall conduct of
life towards excellence…” but that’s just a foreshadowing of their approach). They then do
something completely new: they link up their research on wisdom with more recent work on the
“Selective Optimization with Compensation” (SOC) model, a model derived from lifespan
developmental psychology of how people pursue goals in any domain. This "marriage" of models
gives us a comprehensive way of thinking about how people choose ends (integrating ethical and
practical concerns) and the means to achieve those ends.
Lastly, Haidt introduces a potentially new moral emotion – elevation. Elevation is triggered
by witnessing displays of compassion, courage, loyalty, or almost any other moral virtue. Elevation
typically involves warm or open feelings in the chest, and it motivates people to want to rise to
their own moral potential. The mere existence of elevation pushes us towards a more positive view
of human nature, a view in which people are built to respond to moral beauty. Of course elevation
is not a “new” emotion; it is well known in many religious traditions and on daytime talk shows
that aim to inspire their audiences. Haidt raises the question: why then has Western emotion theory
not noticed this positive moral emotion? The answer appears to be in part that psychology has
spent too much time focusing on the negative emotions. Haidt ends his article with suggestions for
a positive psychology of morality, including focusing on the positive emotions, looking to other
cultures for guidance, and examining peak experiences and moral transformations.
Looking ahead. The stated mission of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is to
promote the mental health of the U.S. population. Its modus operandi, since its inception in 1946,
has been the study, treatment, and prevention of mental illnesses. However, Keyes' research shows
that measures of common mental illness (e.g., depression) are correlated with, but form a separate
factor from, the measures he and colleagues have developed to measure and diagnose mental
health. Thus, even if we could treat all known cases of mental illness and prevent the onset of any
Positive Psychology - 7
new cases, there is no reason to believe that this would result in more mentally healthy people in
the population; it does result in fewer mentally unhealthy people in the population.
In addition to offering a diagnosis for mental health, this chapter reveals that the absence of
mental health -- languishing in life -- is more prevalent than depression in any given year.
Languishing adults are neither mentally ill nor mental healthy; instead, they are "running on
empty" and living lives of quiet despair. Moreover, adults who are flourishing -- filled with
emotional, psychological, and social well-being and free if mental illness -- have better
psychosocial profiles than languishing or depressed adults. To achieve the goal of widespread
mental health, therefore, NIMH and psychology as a whole should think about flourishing and
languishing. We must work together to study and promote “that which makes life worthwhile.”
That is the call to action that Positive Psychology issues at the dawn of the 21st century.
Council of Economic Advisers. (1998). Changing America: Indicators of social and
economic well-being by race and hispanic origin. [On-line] Available:
Egan, J. (2000, May 7). Walking toward mindfulness. The New York Times Magazine,
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Keyes, C. L. M., & Lopez, S. J. (2002). Toward a science of mental health: Positive
directions in diagnosis and interventions. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of
positive psychology (pp. 45-59). New York: Oxford University Press.
Keyes, C. L. M. (in press). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing
in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Maslow, A. H. (1965). A philosophy of psychology: The need for a mature science of
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York: McGraw-Hill.
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is really doing. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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New York: Simon and Schuster.
Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (1998). The contours of positive human health. Psychological
Inquiry, 9, 1-28.
Schor, J. B. (1998). The overspent American: Upscaling, downshifting, and the new
consumer. New York: Basic Books.
Schorr, L. B. (1997). Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to
rebuild America. New York: Anchor Books.
Taylor, E. (2001). Positive psychology and humanistic psychology: A reply
to Seligman. The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41, 13-29.
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