Research Paper: Developmental History of Positive Psychology

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Positive Psychology

The History and Development of Positive Psychology: An Overview of Perspectives and Theories

As the medical and even the human sciences go, psychology is still a relative newcomer to the real of academic scholarship and real-world practice. Surgeries and other investigations into the workings of the human body -- methods of determining the sources of illnesses and attempts at treating these illnesses, as well as simply understanding the functioning of a body and its organs in a state of health -- are older than civilization itself, and were in many ways quite refined before the concept of psychology had solidified. Other somewhat subjective "soft" or human sciences developed quite rapidly in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth centuries, with sociology, economics, and political science emerging in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. All of these sciences attempt to explain the ways in which large groups of human beings interact both create and surmount certain problems. This development is somewhat understandable given the historical events and trends of the time; as society become larger and more interdependent -- and as social ills such as poverty became more rampant and apparent -- the need to understand such group dynamics was more pressing for pragmatic as well as humanitarian and academic reasons.

This potentially explains why the other human sciences were so rapid to develop, and the necessities as well as intrigue inherent to medical investigations is self-evident. This does not explain, however, why these sciences developed to the exclusion of psychology.

History will never really reveal the reasons behind what didn't happen, of course, so today we can only guess at the slow progress -- or actually, the complete delay in the start of progress -- that psychology made during the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. Religious dogma certainly had something to do with it, as psychological issues were and are often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as issues of morality both in choice and in inherent "goodness;" as much as many people evinced a desire to dismiss these beliefs, the fact that they existed and were in many cases features of law as well as religion made psychology at best impractical for the times and at worst a means of assuring one's doom. Only after industrialization had been successful where reason had not and religion's power had begun to erode did psychology begin to emerge.

It was not until the nineteenth century was drawing to a close that psychology began to solidify in any real sense, and even then it was primarily the work of one man that propelled this budding science for its first decade or so. Unlike the sets of different-minded individuals like Weber and Durkheim that drove the development of sociology, or the highly disparate theories of Marx and Adam Smith when it came to economics, Sigmund Freud toiled in relative isolation in the development of his psychoanalytic theories. Though many of Freud's specific conclusions have now been almost universally rejected, much of his theory regarding the workings of the human psyche in general have been preserved, and its was Freud's investigations that brought a real sense of scientific exploration and examination to the issue of the human mind, and that founded the science of psychology.

Despite this slow and isolated beginning for psychology as a science, however, the twentieth century saw a major explosion in the number of individuals and institutions that dedicated themselves to a study of psychology. This also led to an exponential growth in the diversity of different theoretical approaches that were brought to bear on an examination of the mind's inner workings, and psychology became not just one standardized science but rather an array of competing disciplines. This has led to the existence of several distinct schools of psychology in the current era, and though all of these theoretical schools hold different beliefs and explanations for how things like memory, cognition, decision making, and goal seeking operate, they all have essentially studied the same basic features from very different angles. A somewhat novel approach that has been developing in the past decade is known as positive psychology, a school of thought that focuses on optimizing the human potential and tries to identify the means of establishing long-lasting psychological happiness despite the adversity and struggle associated with life.

Early Beginnings

Though positive psychology has only recently been codified as such, certain key strains of thought that appear in the theory are quite old. Several Eastern philosophical and religious traditions emphasize the pursuit of happiness and the escape of suffering -- this is the fundamental pursuit of Buddhism and several other related religions (Levine 2006; Engler 2009). Practices such as yoga were actually developed specifically to increase psychological as well as physical well-being (Levine 2006).

It is not only in their grand pursuit of happiness that several Eastern religions can be seen evoked in the theories and actions of positive psychology and its proponents and practitioners, but the position of man in relation to the world that all of these perspectives imply is also quite similar. Rather than seeing all of the negative features and events that can and do befall individuals, positive psychology, Buddhism, and other systems of belief and/or thought emphasize the ability for people to overcome such adversity and even to find joy in many things in life (Seligman 2000; Fiske et al. 2010; Sandage & Hill 2001). This is not true only of specifically "Eastern" religions, but is a strain of thought that can be found in many older and/or "non-Western" traditions, including certain indigenous African and South American religions (Sandage & Hill 2001). Man's place in the world is as a working part of it in these philosophies, not opposed to it as in traditional Western modes of thinking (Seligman 2000).

This is not to say that there is not early Western precedent for the development of positive psychology, however, and in fact similar philosophical and quasi-religious sentiments can be seen throughout the development and progression of Western civilization. Aristotle saw the pursuit of the happy life as equivalent to the pursuit of a good life (with certain other moral caveats that helped to define happiness), there is an expectation as well as a divine imperative to be happy in the Jewish religion, and even certain early Church leaders such as St. Augustine saw a place for happiness in the fulfilled and devout life (Sandage & Hill 2001; Fiske et al. 2010; Seligman 2000). Such thinking persisted even into and beyond the Enlightenment.

Scientific rationalism has in many ways been poised to define human misery; it is a perspective that sees problems and cannot really function without attempting to address negatives (Seligman 2000). Perhaps as a reaction to this trend during the Enlightenment period, when rational and scientific inquiry began to take place in a truly meaningful way, thinkers like Thomas Jefferson envisioned an inalienable human right to "pursue happiness," John Stuart Mill developed his framework of utilitarian ethics whereby that which made the most people happy was deemed to be a moral good (with certain other caveats, it should be noted), and other humanist philosophies that also had a strong rational basis also began to emerge (Hill 1996; Sandage & Hill 2001). All of these thinkers and their theories essentially laid the groundwork for what would become known as positive psychology.

Humanist Psychology

The humanist philosophies that began to develop as a response to scientific rationalism during the Enlightenment did not simply leap to positive psychology, but rather this psychology developed out of earlier related psychologies that took a very humanist approach. Carl Rogers is considered by many to be the founder of humanist psychology, believing that psychology should be involved in and focused on helping every individual achieve their highest level of potential and satisfaction as human beings, rather than fitting them into a mold of "normal" psychology or behavior (Rogers 2003; Rogers 1956). Essentially, Rogers was concerned with being to help every patient of his to become happy and developing tools that could help all individuals in this endeavor (Rogers 1956).

Abraham Maslow was a contemporary of Rogers that developed a psychological theory and framework along very similar lines. Maslow gave his framework a more specific bent, however, focusing on human motivation and need as a means of determining how to help people (Maslow 1946; Maslow & Frager 1970). Through his research, Maslow built a hierarchy of needs that he theorized every human being tried to satisfy in order, building from the bottom up (Maslow 1946). At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic physiological needs, and at the peak of the hierarchy is the need for what Maslow termed self-actualization -- essentially becoming the best and most fulfilled person that one could become (Maslow 1946; Maslow & Frager 1970). Maslow saw the role of psychology as helping people to identify and achieve these levels of need in their life, moving towards self-actualization, which is very much like the basic focus of positive psychology (Maslow &… [END OF PREVIEW]

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