History of Positive Psychology

Most psychologists believe that it began in 1998, when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term of president of the American Psychological Association, though the term originates with Maslow, in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. Seligman stressed that clinical psychology had been consumed by only mental illness, echoing Maslow’s comments. Research into positive psychology might be traced back to the 4 P. A. Linley et al. origins of psychology, such as, in William James’ writings on healthy mindedness. In fact, views that reflect humanism can be found in the work of William James, John Dewey, and G. Stanley Hall. William James argued that in order to study optimal human functioning thoroughly, one has to consider the subjective experience of an individual. For that belief, James is considered, by some psychologists, to be America’s first positive psychologist.

In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1906, William James asked why some individuals were able to utilize their resources to their fullest capacity and others were not. Positive psychology has common interests with parts of humanistic psychology, and its emphasis on the fully functioning person, and self-actualization and the study of healthy individuals. Maslow lamented psychology’s preoccupation with disorder and dysfunction. The term first appeared in Maslow’s book Motivation and Personality. In this book, Maslow maintains that psychology itself does not have an accurate understanding of human potential, and that the field tends not to raise the proverbial bar high enough with respect to maximum attainment.

The first summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on it took place in 2002. In 2009, only last year, the First World Congress on it took place. As I mentioned above, this science finds its roots in the humanistic psychology of the 20th century. Earlier influences on it came from philosophical and religious sources. The ancient Greeks had many schools of thought. During the Renaissance, individualism started to be valued. Utilitarian philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill, believed that moral actions are those actions that maximize happiness for the most number of people, and that an empirical science of happiness determine which actions are moral. Thomas Jefferson and other democrats believed that Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights, and that it justifies the overthrow of the government. The Romantics valued individual emotional expression and sought their emotional true selves, which were unhindered by social norms.

To summarize and add more details, most psychologists agree that the advent of it can be traced back to Martin E. P. Seligman’s 1998 Presidential Address to the American Psychological Association. Seligman realized that psychology had neglected two of its three pre-World War II missions: helping all people to lead more productive and fulfilling lives, and identifying and nurturing high talent. The advent of the Veterans Administration in 1946 and the National Institute of Mental Health in 1947 had rendered psychology a healing discipline based upon a disease model and illness ideology. With this realization, Seligman used his APA presidency to initiate a shift in psychology’s focus toward a more positive science.

After his A.P.A. (American Psychology Association) Presidency, Martin Seligman, reminded the field that it has been side-tracked reiterating that psychology is also the study of strength and virtue and that treatment is nurturing what is best within us. Seligman’s presidential initiative was catalyzed by a series of meetings of scholars who could inform the development of positive psychology, and the establishment of the Positive Psychology Steering Committee (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Chris Peterson, and George Vaillant). What segued was a Network, that later became the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the first Positive Psychology Summit, and a special issue of the American psychologist on positive psychology to mark the new millennium.

Since Seligman’s presidential address, there have been numerous positive psychology books, journal special issues, and the establishment of regional positive psychology networks that span the globe. In 2006, the first dedicated journal, The Journal of Positive Psychology, was published. Seligman united the efforts of the scientists who have become key players in the positive psychology movement. These players include the Positive Psychology Steering Committee and the leaders of numerous positive psychology research centers, research pods, and grant holders (Seligman, 2005). C. R. (Rick) Snyder edited the special issue of the Journal of social and clinical psychology in 2000 and the influential Handbook of positive psychology in 2002.

Chris Peterson headed up the Values-in-Action project that led to the VIA classification of strengths and virtues, which I studied in this course’ previous assignment. The winners of the prestigious Templeton Positive Psychology Prizes were: Barbara Fredrickson, for her work on positive emotions in 2000, Jon Haidt, worked on the positive moral emotion of elevation in 2001, and Suzanne Segerstrom, for her work on the beneficial effects of optimism on physical health in 2002. Some of the financial donors are: the Templeton Foundation, The Gallup Organization, the Mayerson Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, and the Atlantic Philanthropies. To conclude, this science also offered excellent opportunities for rapid scientific advances.


Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive Psychology Network 2004 progress report.

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