All we can ever hope to do, Sigmund Freud once wrote, is “to change neurotic misery into common unhappiness.” This pessimistic statement from arguably the most influential psychological theorist of modern times captured the mood that prevailed in psychology through most of the 20th century. That is, most psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts were essentially guided by a model of the patient that was based on what was wrong with people and how to deal with these deficiencies.
It goes without saying that it’s important that the energies of therapists are devoted to addressing the issues that trouble their patients. However, it’s become increasingly apparent that this near-exclusive focus on deficits and disorders doesn’t do justice to the rich potential of human existence. What about the strengths and virtues that make some people so admirable and worth emulating? What about those beautiful aspects of life that give us reason to get up in the morning? What about cherished experiences of love and laughter, hope and happiness? Why isn’t psychology striving to understand and promote these positive aspects of human lives?
This suddenly changed at the end of the 1990s, when the hugely influential professor Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association. Prior to positive psychology’s emergence, clinical psychology would endeavor to move people in distress from the negative scale (experiencing mental health issues) to a notional zero (an absence of such issues). However, the absence of mental health issues is not the same as flourishing. Even if we are free of disorder and distress, this isn’t the same as living life to the fullest and developing to the peak of our capacity. This is how positive psychology has defined its role, in helping people to rise above zero, above a mere absence of pain and into positive territory.
– Tim Lomas