Positive Psychology: The Underpinning Notions

Positive psychology, which has recently enjoyed a burgeoning base of research support, is “the scientific study of optimal functioning, performance, and wellbeing” (Langley & Francis, 2016). It asks not what is broken and needing to be fixed, but what is working, what is good in people and life. It wants to know what the positive experiences, characteristics, and practices are that enable individuals, institutions, and communities to live happy, productive, fulfilling lives. It is about flourishing and thriving, not merely surviving.

Accordingly, it gives pride of place to the characteristics of abundance, a focus on virtues and strengths, embracing positive deviance, and flourishing rather than languishing (Langley & Francis, 2016). We look at these in more detail below.


Viewing people as competent, creative, and resourceful, positive psychology looks through an abundance lens to help people, organisations, and communities thrive and excel. Positive outcomes and performance can be facilitated, it says, as people access their inner resources and create the outcomes to which they aspire, rather than seeing themselves as victims (Langley & Francis, 2016).

Focus on strengths and virtues

This assumption says that everyone has strengths and deserves to be respected for them. At the heart of positive psychology is the idea that effort is better directed to strengthen what is working well than to try to “fix” what is “broken”. Concentrating on talents, positive characteristics, and special abilities allows people to deal with growing edges, or weaknesses. The corollary idea is that positive psychology itself is an ethical approach in suggesting that human beings and their systems possess a latent desire and capacity to improve themselves, and that this should be activated (Langley & Francis, 2016).

Embracing positive deviance

When positive psychologists talk about adopting a stance of positive deviance, they are acknowledging an evolutionary bias toward the negative: negative emotions, interpretations, and thoughts are often stronger and more numerous than positive ones. Human beings tend to respond more intensely – and automatically – to negative events. While that has been appropriately self-protective, especially at some earlier stages of human evolution, it now means that we are kept from devoting time, energy, and other resources to those projects and concerns which would move us toward greater wellbeing and success. Positive psychology proposes that we amplify our positive emotions, thus re-setting the bias from negative to positive. When we act from positive deviance, we go against the grain, thinking “outside the box” and suddenly gaining access to solutions that aren’t apparent with a deficit focus (Langley & Francis, 2016).

Flourishing and languishing

Hot and cold, night and day, and dark and light are all polar opposites, but – in the paradigm of positive psychology – mental illness and mental health are not. Langley cites the work of Corey Keyes, whose work studying the relationship between mental health and mental illness has shown that, rather than being at opposite ends of the same spectrum, they lie on different continua. Thus, the absence of mental illness does not mean the presence of mental health, and treating the former does not ensure the latter (Keyes, 2005, in Langley & Francis, 2016). A person can be lacking any identifiable mental illness, yet be languishing if she has poor social networks, is chronically distressed, and/or is leading a very unfulfilling life.

Authentic happiness: What do we mean and why do we care?

Although philosophers such as Aristotle and Epicurus advocated leading the “good life”, they defined that as “pleasure-seeking”. Few people in the middle of a delicious meal, with a favourite beverage and good friends to share it all with, would say that they were not having a happy time. However, in his book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman (2004) explained that there is much more to a happy life than good times filled with pleasure.  He distinguished several levels of happiness.

1) The Pleasurable or Pleasant Life. This sort of happiness is also referred to as subjective wellbeing and consists of hedonic experience: sensual delights, high life satisfaction, low levels of negative emotion, and high levels of positive emotion (Langley & Francis, 2016). It is a life that successfully pursues the positive emotions about the present, past, and future (Pursuit of Happiness, 2016a). It is this level or type of happiness that figured in the work of Aristotle and Epicurus. The question for this level may be: “How do I feel? What emotions do I experience in the moment?” (Langley, 2017)

2) The Engaged or Good Life. As we satisfy the need for pleasure, we want more. We want to be engaged in a mindful way, as we come to realise the satisfaction possible through concentrating intensely on a task or activity which we are using our strengths to perform and which takes us out of our ordinary consciousness, perhaps into a state of flow, as that was explained by Csikszentmihalyi (1990). At this level, people use their signature strengths (Seligman and his colleague identified 24) to obtain abundant gratification, through enjoyed activities, in the main realms of their lives (Pursuit of Happiness, 2016a). “Doing” happiness at this level engages us in more of our wholeness than mere pleasure-seeking, but it is still not all that it is possible to attain.

3) The Meaningful Life. At the highest levels of happiness delineated by Seligman, we see a person imbued with meaning and purpose. Called eudaemonic or psychological wellbeing, the meaningful life involves personal growth, self-acceptance, autonomy, positive relationships, environmental mastery, and a strong sense of purpose in life. It happens when people use their signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than themselves (Pursuit of Happiness, 2016a). The relevant question for this level of happiness is: “How do I feel about my life? Am I satisfied with my life generally?” (Langley, 2017; Positive Psychology Institute, 2012).

“Side effects” of wellbeing

The answer to that question seems obvious: we want to be happy because it feels good! Yet there is more. Research shows that higher levels of wellbeing are correlated with:

  • Being healthier (including recovering more quickly when one does get sick)Having a stronger immune system
  • Living longer, with a better quality of life
  • Being more tolerant of pain
  • Achieving greater success in all areas of life (including the workplace)Having higher levels of caring and altruism
  • Being more resilient
  • Being more socially engaged
  • Having better quality relationships (that is, more satisfied in relationships and less likely to experience problems, but more likely to deal with any problems effectively)
  • Performing better academically
  • Considering oneself to be luckier (Langley, 2017; Sharp, 2014).

This article was adapted from Mental Health Academy’s upcoming professional development course, “Positive Psychology: The Basics”.


  • Langley, S., & Francis, S. (2016). White paper: The science and practice of positive psychology: Promoting human happiness, performance, and wellbeing. Australia: Langley Group. Retrieved on 28 October, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • Langley, S. (2017). Lecture for Masterclass day on positive psychology topics for Mental Health Academy. Langley Group: Australia.
  • Positive Psychology Institute. (2012). Key terms. Positive Psychology Institute. Retrieved on 24 October, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • Pursuit of Happiness. (2016b). William James. The pursuit of happiness.  Retrieved on 29 October, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • Sharp, T. (2014). Get happy: Using the powerful principles of positive psychology to live your best life!  Positive Times. Retrieved on 24 October, 2017, from: hyperlink.