Arguments for and Against Positive Psychology

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By Sarah Stevenson, MA- The Tini Yogini

The term positive psychology was brought onto the therapeutic scene by Abraham Maslow in 1954 when he introduced his ideas around a self-actualized person through his theory of human motivation (Trivedi & Mehta, 2019). Maslow’s theory suggested that each person has a hierarchy of needs built in five sections, including physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. All behavior is motivated by these needs. When each basic need is met, the individual evolves into the next higher section, eventually reaching a point of flourishment and full potential, also known as the self-actualized person (Maslow, 1943).

In 1998, Martin Seligman, former American Psychological Association president, addressed his audience on the first day of his term by explaining that the field of psychology had strayed away from the primary goal of helping clients reach productivity and fulfillment by focusing too heavily on curing mental illness (Seligman, 2002). At this time, Seligman introduced the theory of positive psychology, the practice of identifying a person’s character strengths to focus on what is working in one’s life to increase subjective well-being and flourishment. The theory can be explained with the acronym PERMA, which stands for positive emotions, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose, and achievements (Milton H. Erickson Foundation, 2013).

Seligman’s positive psychology theory has become incredibly popular throughout the years and used by therapists, life coaches, teachers, and motivational speakers to help individuals reach their highest potential. This theory has not gone without disapproval, though, and many critics suggest that Seligman’s approach focuses more on one’s ability to think right thoughts and less on the science of psychology and human behavior (Ciarrochi et al., 2016). Here is a look at the arguments for and against positive psychology.

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Arguments For Positive Psychology

  • Knowing one’s character strengths gives individuals insight into how they show up in the world and what they have to offer themselves and others. People who know their strengths have an increase in self-reflection and self-awareness. According to research, this increases satisfaction in interpersonal relations boosts self-esteem, self-confidence, and the value and benefit of others being different (Ardelt & Grunwald, 2018). 
  • Positive psychology encourages individuals to come from a place of gratitude or be thankful for the things in one’s life, be it a romantic partner or even the gift of having a heater on a snowy day (Seligman, 2004). Gratefulness is associated with pro-social behavior, stress relief, resiliency, and physical and mental health (Bono & Sender, 2018). 
  • According to research, when individuals come from a positive perspective, it enhances intimate relationships, increases student engagement, increases productivity in the workplace, and improves health outcomes in patients (Walton, 2014). When individuals utilize their character strengths and show up as their best selves, their world begins to change dramatically.
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Arguments Against Positive Psychology

  • In her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Barbara Ehrenreich suggests a lack of quantifiable, applicable scientific research to support Seligman’s theory of positive psychology (Ehrenreich, 2010). For example, past research has shown that happy people live longer (Steptoe & Wardle, 2011) and revealed conflicting data that happiness has no direct effect on a person’s length of life (DPhil et al., 2016). Ehrenreich posits that positive psychology theory often gets ahead of the quantifiable research it needs to support its claims. Internal validity in a study shows a clear cause and effect relationship between independent and dependent variables, which is necessary for applied psychology, or it will begin to have ethical issues (Patino & Ferreira, 2018).
  • Critics suggest that positive psychology turns a blind eye to individuals with severe traumatic experiences (Coyne, 2014). A diagnosis of cancer or emotional struggles like the death of a child cannot be fixed with positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and achievement (Lyubomirsky et al., 2006). People who struggle with real-life psychological and emotional issues are left to feel self-blame and shame for not fixing their problems with solutions given to them from the theory of positive psychology (Coyne, 2014).
  • Positive psychology focuses on binary emotions of positive or negative. Any person with a human experience can attest to emotions fitting in more categories than good and bad. Researchers have found the benefits of negative emotions (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2015) and detriments of positive emotions (Forgas, 2014). Humans need a psychology that integrates the whole human experience, not just the good side (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
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A Grounded Look at The Good Life

There is value in negative experiences. One can learn the skills to persevere and adapt during hard times. Individuals gain strengths like fortitude and resiliency, gain new perspectives, and create strong social support systems to help a person carry the weight of difficult episodes (Settersten & McClelland, 2018). Ignoring or repressing the negative and focusing only on the positive can be a dangerous and careless way of managing one’s life. Positive psychology must continue to evolve in research and application to stay relevant within the current age (Compton & Hoffman, 2013).

In the case of the Kingdom of Bhutan in Southeast Asia, public policy is centered on increasing gross national happiness in each person, specifically by targeting activities that focus on meaning and purpose instead of material happiness and gain (Mason & Chakrabarti, 2016). However, Bhutan’s policy has failed to support all its people, turning a blind eye to minority groups. Suppose Bhutan seeks to promote happiness and well-being in all of their people. In that case, they must first focus on providing for everyone’s physiological needs (clean air, food, safe housing, proper clothing), safety needs (healthcare, jobs, protection from violence), the needs for love and belonging (community, family, friends), and esteem needs (respect, honor, freedom, self-esteem, value) before they can focus on genuine happiness (Maslow, 1943).  According to Maslow, if the basic needs of Bhutan people are not met, they have no chance at obtaining a good life.


Ardelt, M., & Grunwald, S. (2018). The importance of self-reflection and awareness for human development in hard times. Research in Human Development, 15(3-4), 187-199.

Bono, G., & Sender, J. T. (2018). How gratitude connects humans to the best in themselves and in others. Research in Human Development, 15(3–4), 224–237.

Ciarrochi, J., Atkins, P. W. B., Hayes, L. L., Sahdra, B. K., & Parker, P. (2016). Contextual positive psychology: Policy recommendations for implementing positive psychology into schools. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. ttps://

Compton, W. C., & Hoffman, E. (2013). Positive psychology: The science of happiness and flourishing. Erscheinungsort nicht emittelbar: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Coyne, J. C. (2014, October 28). Positive psychology interventions for depressive symptoms. PLOS Blogs.

DPhil, B. L., Floud, S. F., Pirie, K., DPhil, J. G., Peto, R., & Beral, V. (2016). Does happiness itself directly affect mortality? The prospective UK million women study. The Lancet, 387, 874-871.

Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America. New York: Picador.

Forgas, J. P. (2014). On the downside of feeling good. In Gruber, J., & Moskowitz, J. T., (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 301–322). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015). The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. New York, NY: Plume.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111–131.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., & Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life’s triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 692–708.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Milton H. Erickson Foundation (Producer). (2013). Positive Psychology: New Developments [Video file]. Academic Video Online: Premium database.

Patino, C. M., & Ferreira, J. C. (2018). Internal and external validity: can you apply research study results to your patients? Jornal Brasileiro de Pneumologia : Publicacao Oficial da Sociedade Brasileira de Pneumologia e Tisilogia44(3), 183.

Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Settersten, R. A. & McClelland M. M. (2018). Being human in hard times. Research in Human Development, 15(3), 182-186.

Steptoe, A., & Wardle, J. (2011). Positive affect measured using ecological momentary assessment and survival in older men and women. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, 108(45), 18244-18248.

Trivedi, A. J., & Mehta, A. (2019). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Theory of human motivation. International Journal of Research in All Subjects in Multi Languages, (7)6, 38-41.

Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 73–82.

By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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