On the Plus Side

Positive psychology, which explores the strengths and virtues that help people thrive, is one of the hottest fields in the human sciences. In contrast to much of post-World War II psychology--which has focused on problems and how to remedy them--it seeks to understand positive emotions and traits, ranging from hope, courage, and compassion to self-knowledge, creativity, and wisdom.

The field was founded in 1998 by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, but its roots go back to the humanistic psychology movement of the 1950s and, ultimately, to the ancients, who inquired seriously into the question of "the good life."

Where the ancients relied on philosophical reasoning, however, Seligman and others in the field, such as Laura King '86, employ empirical, replicable experiments. That's one thing which distinguishes it from mere "positive thinking." In addition, the positive psychologists don't see their approach as a replacement for traditional psychology; indeed, many are well-versed in studies of depression, anxiety, and other disorders.

But they criticize thinkers like Freud, whose ideas emerged from his experience with patients in distress. "The place where Freud really went wrong," says King, "is that he started with people suffering from psychiatric disorders and based his theory on people who were suffering. But if psychology is the science of human behavior, shouldn't we be interested in all facets, not just when things go wrong but when things go right?"

Hence King's experiments on what people are talking about when they say their lives are "meaningful," on the ways people handle goals and regrets, and on the health benefits of writing about traumatic events or about life goals.

The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania lists some findings by others in the field. Among them: