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Positive psychology: the good and the bad (part I)

What is positive psychology? Is just a fancy name for positive thinking and happiology? Is it possible to study happiness in a scientific manner? And if yes, which is the most appropriate method? Is positive psychology (PP) only about happiness and positivity? Is PP a different kind of psychology or is it simply psychology? Or is it just a self-help tool with scientific pretentions? These are some questions that would be addressed in a series of articles together with what PP is really about, the sceptical voices and how criticism can be tackled. This will be done in three main parts: 1) short introduction about PP, 2) the main criticism addressed to PP and finally 3) presenting evidence that will cover defence of positive psychology movement.

So what is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is a new approach in the psychology arena being initiated in 1998 by Martin Seligman as an alternative movement to the mainstream psychology. Initially psychology had three major interests in the field of understanding human mind and behaviour: (1) the study of mental illness and development of different treatments, (2) the study of success factors and (3) the study of exceptional people like geniuses or mnemonics. For historical reasons, especially because of the two world wars more then half a century of research was dedicated mainly to the first subject (Seligman, 2002). PP came with the idea to balance the status quo and consider also what goes well, what makes people happier or successful.Even if the ideas stated at the beginning of this movement were not new in themselves, the approach of PP differentiated itself by bringing scientific research into the study and applicationof different factors allowing individuals and communities to improve their lives, to flourish and live a life beyond simple survival, offering alternatives to languishing lives. As Seligman explained, it is addressing “how to go from plus two to plus seven in your life, not just how to go from minus five to minus three and fell a little less miserable”(Seligman, 2002, pg.IX). Positive psychology looks through scientific lens at topics like happiness, optimism, positive emotions, strengths, resilience, flow etc, areas that have been little or just exceptionally explored in psychology, trying to make a coherent reflection as well as a theoretical framework and applications around the question of how to live a good life and flourish.

When saying the ideas are not new is intended the fact that on one side humanity reflected on the above subjects from the beginning of times as we can see in philosophy. On the other side, the humanistic movement in psychology definitely touched some of the themes gathered today under the positive psychology movement but without backing it up with scientific research. Consequently, in the realm of more and more scientific approaches in modern psychology, humanistic ideas fade away in a certain manner. Also mental health or health psychology moved from a medical model towards a more holistic, health oriented model relating very well with PP movement.

Many times positive psychology was associated or confounded with movements less scientific, esoteric activities and gurus of happiness mainly because of the lack of information and misunderstandings. A reason for this could be because it touched an area dominated by self help. Furthermore, from very early stages, positive psychology has been criticised by fellow psychologists and researchers as being just another fad that promises too much and won’t deliver (Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011, pg. 222) or being just a by product of US culture, concentrating only on individualistic views and simply ignoring the disasters and the problems of our world in general. But let’s take a look of the main criticism of PP.

The sceptical voices outline

Even if positive psychology started as an alternative movement, it was not spared of criticism. On the contrary, it was sceptically viewed being assessed on many levels related to originality of its ideas, scientific basis, consistency, methodology or usefulness (Pérez-Alvarez, 2016).

From the very beginning positive psychology was pointed out to acknowledge more and to be aware of the work and ideas from precedent or related fields (Cowen & Kilmer, 2002). This is not only about ancient Greeks, philosophers or humanistic psychology but also the work from health psychology and mental health in general. Cowen and Kilmer came out with a list of 24 publications from the area of prevention and wellness enhancement that were not cited in initial works of positive psychology but which were significant in the field. Moreover, the initiator of the movement, Martin Seligman, dismissed for example the relation between PP and humanistic psychology on the bases of the difference in approach. The distinction being that PP is a movement based on quantitative and empirical research, while humanistic psychology did not consider these aspects.

More intriguing critics are to be found attacking the very core of positive psychology movement like its usefulness or underlining values(Lazarus, 2003). Other critics can be categorised in methodological issues related to modelling but also to generalisations of correlation studies; one-sidedness and reductionisms related to splitting positive from negative and concentrating only on the positive ignoring the other side of the coin that could have positive outcomes too; dogmatism imposing positive attitude more as an ideology then as an option (Lazarus, 2003) and implying expectation of positive attitude in any situation up to ignoring reality and become cruel (Held, 2004), lack of cohesive theory(Cowen & Kilmer, 2002) and offering quick and easy fixes more related to self help then scientific approach.

Stay tuned to read the second part where we will go into details of each criticism!


Cowen, E. L., & Kilmer, R. P. (2002). Positive psychology: Some plusses and some open

issues. Journal of Community Psychology, 30(4), 449-460. doi:10.1002/jcop.10014

Hefferon, K., & Boniwell, I. (2011). Positive psychology: Theory, research and

applications. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Lazarus, R. S. (2003). TARGET ARTICLE: Does the Positive Psychology Movement Have

Legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 93-109. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli1402_02

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to

realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

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