Positive psychology is defined as a “science of positive subjective experiences, positive traits, and positive institutions” and it focuses on such topics as “hope, wisdom, creativity … courage, spirituality” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Although this definition seems to be broad enough, the current research on positive psychology consists of primarily quantitative studies of cognitive and affective variables within a particular experimental paradigm. It has not paid much attention to topics of humanistic concerns; such as meaning, values, courage, and spirituality.
Research is beginning to accumulate around the concept of positive psychology, or moving away from a focus on psychopathology to one of building positive qualities.
The popular song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy, ” expressed in a nutshell a key concept in positive psychology, to develop a sense of optimism. Optimism and other human strengths, such as courage, interpersonal skill, future mindedness, faith, hope, work ethic, perseverance, honesty, and the capacity to achieve flow and insight, can act as buffers against malaise, dysfunction, and mental illness.
Human strengths such as optimism are not enough, of course.
A positive psychology seems to depend also on cultivating positive experiences that are associated with happiness and subjective well-being, on the capacity to adapt and organize to successfully meet changing conditions, and to interactions that occur within positive social contexts (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).Positive psychology is understood as “the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues” (Sheldon & King, 2001, p. 216).
Resilience, a very important skill, illustrates (among other things) the importance of the ordinary. For instance, Masten (2001), in discussing resilience in children, emphasized “the power of the ordinary” (p. 235). Based on a review of resilience studies involving children, Masten observed:
“Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.” (Masten, 2001, p. 235)
In another look at resilience in terms of its ordinary nature, the American Psychological Association’s Practice Directorate developed a public education campaign following the September 11, 2001, attacks. Called the Road to Resilience, the campaign set out the following principles: (a) resilience is a set of learned behaviors that are not automatic, (b) it is a personal journey that is involved with others, (c) it is an ordinary, not an extraordinary, experience, and (d) it demands that improvement be accomplished through small, persistent steps (Murray, 2003).
This perspective of positive psychology that focuses on ordinary and everyday circumstances leads us to think in terms of a kind of “everyday prevention” that is within the reach of people and that counselors and other practitioners can intentionally bring to their work with clients and client systems. Everyday prevention should infuse and guide the work of all preventionists.
The American population has moved beyond being passive recipients of expert-provided care to assume a much more personal responsibility for their own health and mental healthcare needs.
People, including children, are viewed as active decision makers, selecting from available choices and preferences and shaping their environment, with the possibility of masterful and efficacious living. Many have begun to assume greater initiative and responsibility for the direction of education and schools; the rise in home schooling, the spread of e-educational programs, and the charter school movement are just three examples. This active involvement in health care and education will become a dominant theme for the twentyfirst century.
Professionals and professional training programs are beginning to respond to this significant change in personal orientation and responsibility. For instance, training programs in integrative medicine are developing (e.g., at Duke University and University of Arizona), where the primary goal is to assist people to experience optimal vitality and wellness, integrating mind, body, and spirit as well as allopathic, alternative, and complementary medical approaches. Counseling and counseling psychology programs are beginning to address prevention more directly through coursework and training experiences. Healthcare plans are being created that are comprehensive and dynamic, geared to promoting optimal well-being.
But, of course, millions of Americans are not waiting for the healthcare and education establishments to alter themselves in the direction of increased integration and variety. Instead, many are experimenting with their own choices.
They research, read, surf the Internet, learn from one another, and test out various combinations of exercise, diet, herbs and vitamins, spiritual practice, social support, and alternative treatments to find what works for them. Much of this experimentation is proceeding without external expert monitoring and may be risky to health, in some degree. Conversely, countless millions are organizing for themselves what they view as healthy practices that seem to be yielding improved vitality and more satisfying lifestyles.
All of this activity is a virtual wellspring of prevention, occurring at all ecological levels in our society. Our “cultural blueprint” is being rewritten at the macro level and is being put into practice by individuals and groups to say, in effect: “We are empowered.” Organizations are slower to adapt because they have traditions, regulations, policies, revenue streams, and other forces and elements that require longer to turn around-sort of like turning around the Titanic. But organizations are beginning to revise and reinvent themselves, too; witness the increasing number of programs and initiatives that take a health-promoting orientation.
Where does the professional practice of prevention by counselors and other helpers fit with this paradigm shift toward a more autonomous and experiencing style of health care and education? Right now a gap exists, as prevention is still tied closely to disorder-reduction, population-based models under the control of “preventionists” who work conscientiously, and often effectively, to help avert dysfunction.
Within the context of positive psychology, Seligman (1999) and others wonder about the following question: “What is the ‘good life’?” He is quick to indicate that what he means by the good life is not a “Porsche, champagne, and a suntan.”
Seligman suggests that what positive psychology needs is a taxonomy for the good life, the main purpose of which would be to guide the formulation and building of the “good life.” He observes that psychological science has been able to produce an exhaustive (and exhausting) compendium to describe and diagnose human dysfunction and psychopathology (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) and its editions), but that there is no companion product to describe and prescribe human health and positive functioning. There is a concerted effort under way to develop a taxonomy of the “good life.”
The positive psychology perspective is based on a particular assumption of what is the best way to promote mental health, a way that is 180 degrees different from that which has been in effect within psychology and psychiatry (Maddux, Snyder, & Feldman, 2003).
This previous way is to correct dysfunction and to prevent any of the hundreds of clinical syndromes contained in the DSM. Instead, positive psychology alters the focus from the reduction and prevention of human psychological disabilities and disturbances to the enhancement of human strengths and abilities. This focus centers on authentic happiness (Seligman, 2002) from the eudaemonic approach-that is, happiness that is centered on meaning and self-realization (Ryan & Deci, 2001), as well as the choices people make about their lives and how they construe what occurs (Maddux et al. 2003).
For example, authentic happiness (Seligman, 2002) is an area within positive psychology that is being intensely studied and that is addressing issues surrounding the “good life.” Interestingly, with regard to the concept of “everyday prevention, ” the work related to positive psychology-and authentic happiness-appears frequently in the popular press as well as in professional/scientific outlets; “The Happiest Guy” (McCafferty, 2003), an article on Seligman’s authentic happiness, in the USA Weekend Sunday newspaper insert, is a case in point. This work is becoming part of mainstream America, increasingly available to people on an everyday basis.
Of course, authentic happiness is not the same as “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”, although it could be said that both glee and fun are relevant. In his book on authentic happiness (Seligman, 2002), Seligman presents a “happiness formula:” H = S + C + V. That is, an enduring level of Happiness (H) is a function of one’s biological Set (S) range, plus Circumstances (C) to which people are subjected (both generally positive in relation to enduring happiness, such as marriage and sociability, and those that are generally negatively related, such as money and race), plus Voluntary control (V), the choices one makes in life, such as a range of positive emotions like optimism, hope, faith, trust, and confidence.
Although a large component of authentic, enduring happiness seems to be set by biology, it is the voluntary choices over which people can exert control that serves as the bellwether test of positive psychology. People can learn how to enhance their capacity to make positive choices on a daily basis. The VIA (Values in Action) Signature Strengths seeks to assess twenty-four “signature strengths” that are associated with authentic happiness. The VIA Questionnaire was developed by the Values-In-Action (VIA) Institute, which is directed by Peterson and Seligman, and funded by the Mayerson Foundation (http://www.authentichappiness.org/)The twenty-four signature strengths are organized within the broader categories of:
- Wisdom and Knowledge-five cognitive strengths involving the acquisition and use of knowledge. These strengths include creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective taking.
- Courage-four emotional strengths involving the will toward goal accomplishment even when there is internal or external opposition. These strengths include bravery, industry/perseverance, authenticity, and zest.
- Love-three interpersonal strengths that include supporting and caring for others. These strengths include intimacy, kindness, and social intelligence
- Justice-three strengths that undergird healthy communities. These strengths include citizenship/teamwork, fairness, and leadership.
- Temperance-four strengths that moderate and protect against excessiveness. These strengths include forgiveness/mercy, modesty/ humility, prudence, and self-control/self-regulation.
- Transcendence-five strengths that help to connect with the universe and provide meaning. These strengths include awe/appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, playfulness, and spirituality.
Seligman (2002) indicates that everyone possesses many signature strengths. He suggests that individuals complete and score the VIA, examine their top strengths, and apply a set of nine criteria to each one of the top strengths. As examples, three of these nine criteria are as follows: a strength engenders a sense of ownership and authenticity, a feeling of excitement while displaying it, and a rapid learning curve as it is first practiced.
If a strength is matched by one or more of these criteria, he suggests that it is a signature strength and should be used frequently and across many settings and situations. Seligman provides examples in the areas of work, love, raising children, and finding general meaning and purpose in life. In sum, he (2002) holds the following with regard to the good life:
Use your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring about abundant gratification and authentic happiness. (p. 161)
Long before work began in positive psychology to examine the good life, Socrates (born 470 B.C.E.) had given it some thought! Gross (2002) reviewed Socrates’ seven principles, which are often thought to be associated with the good life, and how they can be used on a daily basis. These are:
- Know Thyself. This one, we hear most frequently. To know thyself means to be self-aware, to review and reflect on actions, and to develop and revise plans to fit personal values within the community context.
- Ask Great Questions. Be inquisitive. Seek to actively learn all the time, everywhere, from everyone.
- Think for Yourself. Monitor what you say and what you do. Ask if these actions are reflective of you and your values and thoughts. Make up your own mind after weighing evidence.
- Challenge Conventional Wisdom. Resist getting caught up in the currents running around you. Don’t blindly do what everyone else does. Develop the capacity to act consistent with personal conviction.
- Grow with Friends. Connect with others and seek appropriately to interact at genuine and deep levels.
- Speak the Truth. Avoid lying, shading the truth, or faking it. Spot these behaviors around you, and those where truthful behaviors occur, and allow both to guide you.
- Strengthen Your Soul. Build into each day opportunities and experiences that are restful, bring joy, and are kind.
Socrates provided a good start on defining the good life.
Subjective Well-Being (SWB) is a condition that reflects a “preponderance of positive thoughts and feelings about one’s life” (Myers & Diener, 1995, p. 11). It is defined by three distinct factors that are also correlated: (a) relative presence of positive affect, (b) absence of negative affect, and (c) life satisfaction. Associating happiness with SWB, Myers and Diener have pondered the question:Who is happy? They and others (e.g., Little, 2000; Willi, 1999) have found that happy and effective people (i.e., those with high SWB) tend to:
- Possess particular inner fixed or natural traits: self-esteem and acceptance, personal control/autonomy, optimism, and extraversion
- Exhibit free, or adaptive, traits that are culturally scripted patterns enacted within one’s goals and projects, and are independent of fixed traits
- Have warm, positive, trusting, and satisfying interpersonal relationships
- Find “flow” in work and in leisure (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), where engagement in mindful challenge, with adequate support, is realizable
- Possess a religious or spiritual faith
- Adapt positively to change and show environmental mastery
- Find or create personal niches that enrich their lives
- Live within a cultural worldview that is generally positive
- Have a purpose and find meaning in life
- Have personal goals that guide personal growth
Thus, happiness can be thought of as a side effect of other main effects and their interaction. Happiness can also be viewed as the dessert and not the main course.
Positive Youth Development (PYD) is an approach to prevention that emphasizes the development of youth in context rather than attempting to prevent separate problems faced by youths (Pittman & Fleming, 1991). Many youth outcomes are affected by the same protective and risk factors, making interventions that address several personal-social and setting domains important.
A set of PYD constructs has been developed in an effort to operationally define positive youth development. These constructs are relevant to our discussion of everyday prevention. Positive Youth Development programs and strategies seek generally to achieve one or more of the following objectives (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2002):
- Promote bonding: developing a child’s relationship with a healthy adult, positive peers, school, community, or culture
- Foster resilience: developing adaptive coping strategies to stress and change, and enhancing flexibility and overall capacity
- Promote social competence: developing appropriate interpersonal skills in such areas as communication and conflict resolution
- Promote emotional competence: developing skills in identifying and managing feelings and emotional reactions, such as in empathy and frustration tolerance
- Promote cognitive competence: developing ability to use logic, analytic thinking, abstract reasoning, problem solving, goal setting, and related skills
- Promote behavioral competence: developing skills in nonverbal and verbal communication and in taking prosocial action
- Promote moral competence: developing empathy, a sense of right and wrong, what is moral and just, and a respect for rules and standards
- Foster self-determination: developing the ability to think for oneself, to take action that matches the thought, to be autonomous, and to be able to chart one’s own course
- Foster spirituality: developing a belief in a higher power, a belief system, or a sense of spiritual identity/meaning/practice
- Foster self-efficacy: developing a sense that one can accomplish goals through one’s own action, involving personal goal setting, mastery skills, and ways to reverse self-defeating thoughts
- Foster clear and positive identity: developing a coherent sense of self, including positive identification with a supportive social or cultural subgroup
- Foster belief in the future: developing a belief about the future that is based on optimism about possibilities
- Provide recognition for positive behavior: developing ways to reward positive behaviors
- Provide opportunities for pro-social involvement: developing strategies for becoming actively involved in pro-social activities, making a contribution, and experiencing healthy interactions with others
- Foster pro-social norms: developing understanding of accurate normative behavior (e.g., the number of contemporaries who actually use drugs), mentoring to assist others (and oneself) with forward movement, creating clear expectations for minimizing health risks, and enhancing social support (pp. 15-22)
These 15 PYD objectives provide a robust direction not only for professionals to pursue but also for everyday prevention efforts. Relatedly, Lopez and McKnight (2002) discussed what they termed “light-handed interventions” in PYD. Light-handed interventions are everyday occurrences that can make a difference in peoples’ lives (also known as experiences that enhance competency). These authors proposed that an efficient approach to PYD might be facilitated by what they termed “everyday luxuries” in which all youth do not have opportunities to indulge, such as attending a sporting event or a musical, relaxing, playing, and writing about life events.