Many of the
chapters of this book are based on presentations given at the first Summit of
Positive Psychology, held at The Gallup Organization in Lincoln,
Nebraska, September 912, 1999.
Foreword, Martin E.P. Seligman writes that he began to think about positive
psychology shortly after he was elected president of the APA in 1997. He lists
three pillars of positive psychology:
1. Positive subjective experience about the past, present
and futurecontentment, satisfaction
and well-being regarding the past; happiness, flow, ecstasy and sensual
pleasures in the present; and optimism and hope about the future.
2. The investigation of positive individual
characteristicsstrengths and virtues such as future-mindedness, leadership,
kindness, integrity, originality, wisdom and intimacy.
3. The study of
positive institutions and positive communities.
three pillars provide a pattern for a social-engineering project. If we could
just build positive institutions and communities, they would produce positive
individual characteristicsstrengths and virtueswhich would ensure that
individuals would enjoy positive subjective experiencecontentment,
satisfaction, well-being, happiness, flow, ecstasy, sensual pleasures, optimism
and hope. Sir Thomas More and Samuel Butler would undoubtedly have approved of
such a project as it promises even more than Utopia or Erewhon.
two editors collaborate to produce the Introduction. They believe that during
the past four or five decades psychology has focused too narrowly on human
illnesses, problems and weaknesses, and that more work is needed in the
areas of virtues; character strengths; and the social, psychological, and
biological factors that enable human beings to flourish." To flourish is
not only to be free of mental illness, but also to have positive mental
healthto be filled with emotional vitality and to function positively in the
private and social realms of life.
are 13 chapters in the book. The first 12 chapters are divided evenly among
four sections which represent major imperatives about living a good life:
RISE TO LIFES CHALLENGES; ENGAGE AND RELATE; FIND FULFILLMENT IN CREATIVITY
AND PRODUCTIVITY; and LOOK BEYOND ONESELF. The 13th chapter, LOOKING
AHEAD: A CALL TO ACTION was written by one of the editors, Corey L.M. Keyes.
Altogether, there are
23 contributors to this book, including the two editors. They hail from 9
different colleges and universities in the USA;
The Gallup Organization in Lincoln, Nebraska;
and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin,
Germany. The chapters are
all well organized, well written and extensively documented, some with several
pages of references. As would be expected in articles presented at The Gallup
Organization, qualitative and quantitative data and methods are described in
The idea of
positive psychology is not new. For example, M.Scott Pecks monumental The
Road Less Traveled, published in 1978, carries the subtitle: A New
Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. The positive
nature of Doctor Pecks psychology is illustrated by one of the sub-headings of
his book: The Healthiness of Depression. He explains that personal growth
always requires giving up some familiar and loved, but maladaptive, aspect of the character, and since giving
up or loss of the old self is an integral part of the process of spiritual
growth, depression is a normal and basically healthy phenomenon. You cant get
much more positive than that.
In the second chapter, Turning Points as
Opportunities for Psychological Growth, Elaine Wethington expresses much the
same opinion as Dr. Peck in the first paragraph of her Conclusion:
tragedy only reap sorrow? People who report having experienced psychological
turning points, even those that involved extremely stressful situations, also
reported (sic) the experience of positive psychological growth. The major
findings of these analyses is that perceptions of growth and strength are often
born out of suffering and setbacks, as well as accomplishments and
In chapter 13,
Corey L.M. Keyes defines languishing as the absence of mental health. She
says it is more prevalent than major depression disorder, (sic) that
languishers are neither mentally ill nor mentally healthy, and that
languishing is associated with emotional distress and psycho-social impairment
at levels that are comparable to the impairment associated with a major
depressive episode. From these partial definitions I would guess that
languishing could be coded as 313.82, Identity Problem; V62.89, Religious or
Spiritual Problem; or V62.89, Phase of Life Problem, as listed in DSM-IV-TR.
Some examples given of languishing might even qualify for the diagnoses: 300.4,
Dysthymic Disorder; 311, Depressive Disorder, NOS; or even 296.21, Major
Depressive Disorder, Single Episode, Mild.
At the other
end of the mood continuum is the emotion the other editor, Jonathan Haidt,
calls elevation, in chapter 12. He derives the term from a letter written by
Thomas Jefferson which said in part that the physical feelings and motivational
effects experienced by the reader of a good novel may be as powerful as those
resulting from a real episodethat well-written fiction may elevate his
(italicizing is mine).
that the three dimensions of social cognition are solidarity, hierarchy and
Solidarity is a horizontal dimension, in that
some people are closer to the self, and others farther, in terms of affection
and social obligation.
Hierarchy is a vertical dimension, in that
some people are higher than the self, and others lower, in terms of power or
Elevation is also a vertical dimension, with
the idea of pollution or disgust at the lower, or negative end, and
inspiration, peak experience and moral transformation at the upper or positive
Conclusion, Haidt writes: Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push
a mental reset button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them
with feelings of hope, love and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.
glance I thought the elevation-languishing dichotomy was similar to that of
mania and depression. However, although languishing is similar to depression,
elevation seems to be more of a moral rather than a general high and is always
positive, rather than leading to the self-destructive excesses of mania.
This is a
fascinating book to read. I highly recommend it to everyone who has
responsibility for other peopleparents, teachers, ministers, politicians,
doctors, lawyers, mental health practitioners, salesmen, business executives,
husbands, wives, loversthe list goes on indefinitely. The various chapters
raise important issues regarding our responsibilities toward each other and how
we can better honor them.
the other hand, when I think of Kierkegaard and the other existentialists, I
wonder how much we should rely on communities and institutions for our
flourishing. After all, isnt life pretty much what we make it by our own
Existentialism and Positive Psychology are compatible. Perhaps we can
individually decide to build better communities and institutions so that we can
develop the strengths and virtues we need to experience contentment about the
past, happiness in the present and optimism about the future.
of my favorite advocates o positive psychology is Henry David Thoreau, who
the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a
fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, starry, and
immortal, that is your success.
© 2003 Jack R. Anderson
Jack R. Anderson, M.D. is a
retired psychiatrist living in Lincoln, Nebraska.