Why so serious?

Psychology is a serious discipline. Is it not? I am absolutely sure that it is. I suspect that most individuals would agree that Psychology is serious; so much so, that it can help with changing lives. It can even save lives. Can it not?

I am a firm believer that Psychology can greatly contribute to our society. The American Psychological Association postulates:

“The science of psychology benefits society and enhances our lives. Psychologists examine the relationships between brain function and behaviour, and the environment and behaviour, applying what they learn to illuminate our understanding and improve the world around us”

(APA, http://www.apa.org/action/science/ , last viewed 8th August 2017).

Whilst Psychology is generally used to improve the world around us, I suspect that there is a tendency amongst us humans to neglect or ignore this positive contribution. This tendency is not a result of a malicious conspiracy. Rather, I suspect that humans across history could have been overly captivated with the “darker side” of the human psyche. i.e. we could have been focusing too much on what we perceived as being abnormal. My feeling is that this is not only an issue which is endemic to the science of Psychology. Rather, it could be related to our (human) need and desire to learn about what we define as being atypical. Some could find the “atypical” to be scary, others fascinating, and others interesting.

This “obsession” with psychopathology has led to great breakthroughs in terms of understanding genetic, biological, psychological, and social causes of mental health difficulties. It also led towards providing effective treatments that greatly enhanced our quality of life. This focus on psychopathology has also led us to challenge the “stereotypic” notion of what is “atypical” and towards a more helpful conceptualization of what constitutes mental health.

Whilst this focus on the more “serious” aspect of the human condition is warranted, many argue that this has come at the cost of overlooking other facets of the science. More than 50 years ago, Abraham Maslow (1954) bemoaned psychology’s obsession with disorder and dysfunction and called for psychologists to study the positive aspect of the distribution. Maslow (1954) recognized that psychology had been incredibly successful at uncovering the negative aspects of the human psyche. However, he questioned psychology’s disinterest in mans’ virtues and potentialities.

Martin Seligman, a pioneer of Positive Psychology, states:

“Use your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” (Seligman, 2002, p. 263)

Seligman strived to focus on answering a fundamental question: “why are happy people happy?” He also produced a great deal of literature regarding the “science of happiness”.

Seligman’s Presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1999 seemed to echo Maslow’s exasperation with the apparent disregard of ‘the other side of coin’.  Seligman criticized the state of psychological research and argued that it was neglecting the latter two of its three pre-world War II missions: curing mental illness, helping all people to lead more productive lives, and identifying and nurturing high talent (Liney & Kauffman, 2007). His address challenged the psychological society at the time by claiming that psychology was only half a discipline, as research and treatment in the field had focused solely on pathology and on answering the question: what is wrong with people? As mentioned previously, while this emphasis led to significant advances in the understanding and treatment of various psychopathologies, it did little to provide insight into various other human experiences (Biswar-Dieber & Dean, 2007).

Seligman’s (1999) address instigated professional inquiry on the matter of personal strengths and happiness, and managed to arouse interest in the understanding of human flourishing. This ‘new’ Positive Psychology phenomenon could be described as being the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues (Sheldon & King, 2001). In other words, it is concerned with the study of the conditions and processes that contribute towards optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions (Gable & Haidt, 2005).

Positive Psychology

According to Seligman (2002), positive psychology can best be studied through three pillars: the study of positive emotion, the study of positive individual traits, and the study of positive institutions. The first two pillars have attracted considerable interest, with Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) contributing towards producing evidence that indicates how the experience of positive emotion could contribute towards wellbeing. Furthermore, evidence seems to be suggesting that experiencing positive emotion amplifies people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, which in turn serves to build their enduring physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources (Fredrickson, 2001). Thus, Positive Psychology proactively encourages an individual’s development through building strengths and shaping environments that support adjustment and brings out the best from an individual (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

positive psy 2

Apart from the study of positive emotion, Seligman (2002) gave considerable importance and consideration to the third pillar; the positive institutions that support the promotion of strength building. He argues that without such institutions, the potential for positive psychology within the individual would not be fully realized.

Positive Psychology in school

Baker, Dilly, Aupperlee, & Patil (2003) suggest school as a potential key factor that could be conducive towards the fostering of positive emotions and positive individual traits. Schools can be seen as a key “positive institution” that can provide important contexts for growth. Schools can also aid with the propagation of positive traits; this because of the time an individual spends there, and the degree to which it influences the individual’s experiences and self-perceptions. Implications of Baker et. al’s (2003) suggestion regarding the proliferation of positive psychology in schools are vast. As early as 1964, Psychologist Cyril Burt stated:

“The ultimate aim of psychology is, after all, not merely the welfare of the psychologist or the educational service, but of the individual child and of the community as a whole which, when all is said, it is nothing but an organization of individual children who have grown up”. (Burt, 1964, p.1).

Burt’s statement directs attention towards an important question: Can Positive Psychology inform practices in schools and aid professionals in better catering for the child’s welfare? Furthermore, can Psychology move from a deficit model and shift its focus from pathology and dysfunction to more positive and preventative models? The knowledge is there! The motivation is also there!

positive psy 3

So, what is stopping us, you may ask?

I do not have an answer to this question.

“Then what is your point?”, you may ask!

My point is, that by focusing solely on certain aspects of mental health, we may be missing out on a fantastic opportunity to foster positive emotions and positive individual traits. Also, by focusing solely on what makes people sad, we could be failing to appreciate what makes us happy.

On second thought, this could be what is stopping us!

Could it be that we are asking the wrong questions? In fact, Positive Psychology encourages us to stop asking what makes people unhappy. Positive Psychology encourages us to ask “how?!”…how can we be more content? How can we develop to our fullest? How can we foster more positive emotions?

Thus, to answer the first question posed in this article, “why so serious?”…maybe its because we are asking the wrong questions?



Baker, J. A., Dilly, L. J., Aupperlee, J. L. & Patil, S. A. (2003). The Developmental Context of School Satisfaction: Schools as Psychologically Healthy Environments. School Psychology Quarterly, 18, 2, 206–221.

Biswar-Dieber, R., & Dean. B. (2007). Positive Psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for your Clients. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Burt, C. (1964). A message from Sir Cyril Burt. Association of Educational Psychologists’ Newsletter, 1, 1. p. 1.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Gable, S. L. & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9, 103-110.

Liney, A., & Kauffman, C. (2007). Positive coaching psychology: integrating the science of positive psychology with the practice of coaching psychology. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2, 1, 5-9.

Maslow, A. H., (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Towards a Psychology of Being. New York: Wiley.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism. New York: Pocket Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1999). The President’s Address. American Psychologist, 54, 559-562.

Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness, New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2003). The past and future of positive psychology. In Keyes, C. L. M., & Haidt, J. (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. xi – xx). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5 – 14.

Sheldon, K. M. & King, L. (2001). Why positive psychology is necessary. American Psychologist, 56, 216-217.


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