People are often startled when I tell them I’m a psychologist. During my study years I often heard, “Oh, I better watch what I say because you will be analysing me.” There is still this popular perception that psychologists only help people who are not doing well, people with a psychological disorder. This is, in fact, also reflected in the research literature. In a review article looking at the psychological research conducted between 1887 and 2001, David Meyers concludes that more than 79,000 articles were written on the topic of depression compared to just short of 8,000 on life satisfaction and happiness.
Rather than replacing the topics covered by psychology, positive psychology aims to expand the range of topics. Its core topics are, for example, a person’s virtues, character strengths and positive characteristics. It aims to study these in an empirically sound way. Positive psychology just recently became an independent discipline. The US American Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychology Association, coined the term as late as 1998 and called for more focus to be placed on a person’s character strengths.
Happiness does not equal luck
This delineation means that positive psychology, at least in the German-speaking countries, is often described as “Glücksforschung” (i.e., the study of luck). However, this term falls short. Luck encompasses a lot of important aspects of daily life, but also coincidences and fate. This proves to be difficult to study. Moreover, positive psychology also looks at other character traits, like creativity, curiosity and playfulness.
Unlike several of its predecessors – over the course of time there were repeated tendencies to stress a person’s positive characteristics – positive psychology works in a strictly empirically sound way. For example, certain variables are defined and researched in the context of intervention studies. That means, for instance, that we ask our study participants to note down nine beautiful things that they observe around them every day for a week. We measure the subjective satisfaction of the test subjects before and after the intervention and compare these results with a placebo group that had not undergone the intervention.
There are no simple solutions
Another area of research includes the underlying mechanisms that make people more content and the consequences of these. Earlier studies have shown that positive emotions enable us to see more courses of action in certain situations. A funny remark can help lighten a stressful, deadlocked situation and can result in a wider repertoire of actions when faced with similar situations in the future. This, in turn, can have a motivating effect. Ideally, the result is a type of upwards spiral that contributes to positive personal development. Such considerations can be transferred to the classroom, too. For instance, pupils can be guided to help one another or to master tricky situations together. This surely does not require there to be an entire class on “happiness”. Instead the interventions need to become a part of regular school lessons.
Many therapists and consultants hope to derive practical, prescriptive norms from our scientific studies. “Do this and you will be happy.” As a scientist, this strikes me as problematic. My research is about collecting, describing and interpreting data. There are no simple solutions despite what self-help books might say. These are only dubious promises of cures. Psychology has long neglected to provide this field with enough reliable information, though people want to develop themselves. They want to know how they can become more content with their life.
Positive psychology is also not about turning everyone into permanently smiling “happiness robots” that are forced to think positively and to deny having negative experiences, crises and problems. That would be naïve and would not conform to my Viennese temperament, which is known to be grumpy now and again. (Laughs.) Unlike traditional psychologists, we look at how people cope in negative situations and come out of crises stronger. The field of “positive therapies” is just one area that needs a lot of attention from positive psychology. As a discipline, positive psychology is still in its infancy.
This article appeared in print as part of the series "Context", in which researchers of Martin Luther University explain recent topics in their respective fields, providing background and contextual information.
Dr René Proyer currently holds the interim Chair of Psychological Assessment at the University of Halle. The Austrian received his PhD from the University of Zurich where he wrote his habilitation thesis on positive psychology. His research interests include well-being, playfulness and laughter.
Contact: PD Dr. René Proyer
Telephone: +49 345 55-24362