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Waves of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology Origins

The development and evolution of PP over the past 20 years aims to understand and support people to flourish in response to and through the challenges of modern life and was originally developed as a counterweight to the traditional primary focus of psychology on the alleviation of problems alone as opposed to what goes right (Joseph, 2015). The original goal of PP was to complement and extend psychology’s problem-focused approach that had dominated previously (Peterson & Park, 2014). Therefore, focusing on mental health as opposed to mental illness (Seligman, 2002).

This original or ‘first wave’ of PP, was devised by the father of PP, Martin Seligman, who offered a rebalancing perspective away from simply alleviating and focusing on suffering in proposing that his new model was:

“as focused on strength as on weakness, as interested in building the
best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as concerned with fulfilling
the lives of normal people as with healing the wounds of the distressed.”
(Seligman, 2002 in Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

PP assumes that human beings generally are motivated to fulfil our potential, function at optimal levels and live pleasurable and meaningful lives (Joseph, 2015) and could be described, in the simplest of terms, to be the study of human happiness and the “the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups and institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p.104). Ultimately, PP is focused on what makes individuals and communities flourish, which has been defined as “a state of positive mental health; to thrive, to prosper and to fare well in endeavours free of mental illness, filled with emotional vitality and function positively in private and social realms’ (Michalec et al., 2009, p. 391). As Seligman contends (2003), PP “tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents in all its complexity”.

A particular emphasis has been placed on moral virtues and character strengths in PP, in line with Aristotlean and Stoic philosophy, that promote a positive and meaningful experience of life (Kristjansson, 2016). Virtue as it is known in PP generally refers to character traits, strengths and values identified through the six core virtues—wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Seligman (2011) promoted virtue as underpinning all the elements in a PP theory of well-being, with some also suggesting that PP is simply the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues (Sheldon & King, 2001).

It had been the general focus on what makes the good, pleasurable and meaningful life (Seligman, 2003) being expressed in terms such as ‘thriving’, ‘flourishing’ and ‘happiness’ (Joseph, 2015), that aroused criticism of PP’s overly positive approach without an equal emphasis on understanding and working through the existential anxieties of human life (See Jacob, 2012; Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006; Wong, 2010; 2016; 2020).

Originally, PP had been developed with a focus on “valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present)” (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s, 2000, p. 5). However, this definition has been countered by Yakushko (2019), who correctly argues that suffering and harm inherent in human existence, cannot necessarily be eradicated by focusing on positive experiences and hopeful futures alone as had been originally suggested. Wong (2020) advises that the research agenda of PP publications in the formative years needed re-balancing as they “rarely tested the possibility that human suffering can be a portal for happiness and strength” (p. 109) and any approach that exists without addressing people’s inner demons and the dark side of life, is limited in its potential (Wong, 2010).

A more nuanced PP was required, including a dualistic emphasis that included the entire spectrum of human experience and how both negative and positive aspects can produce thriving individuals and communities. Ultimately, a full-spectrum approach that helps transform negative experiences into life-affirming ones and reinforces that great joy and growth can be uncovered from the anxiety provoking, challenging and often traumatic experiences of human existence was called for (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon & Worth, 2016; Wong, 2010; 2016; 2020). The Second Wave had broken.

The Second Wave of Positive Psychology (PP2.0)

The advent of Existential Positive Psychology (EPP), also known as ‘Second Wave Positive Psychology’ and Positive Psychology 2.0, is a meaning-centred and full-spectrum iteration of PP that encourages exposure to all experiences of being human, including both what is called positive and negative (Wong, 2010) involving a complex and dynamic interplay of positive and negative experiences (Lomas, Waters, Williams, Oades, & Kern, 2020). It is a deeply meaning driven approach, as suffering without meaning is likely to bring despair, however suffering with positive attitudes (meaning) is likely to bring fulfilment (Frankl, 1988). We don’t live simply to pass on genes or seek out pleasure and commodities, we are complex beings who thrive through meaning in our lives, overcoming obstacles, challenges and existential anxieties through “taking risks to overcome ourselves and our situations” (Cleary & Pigliucci, 2018, p. 4).

PP2.0 emphasizes a balance of losses and opportunities and the dynamic and complex interaction of the positive and the negative (Wissing, et al., 2019). This dialectic practice of Yin-Yang constitutes the core, whereby our joy grows out of our suffering and our strength grows out of our weakness (Wong, 2019). Where PP may originally have been seen as antithesis to the focus on the negative, PP2.0 may well be seen as a synthesis of the negative and positive aspects of life (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2015) and how “the good life cannot be found by just eschewing negative emotions, or pursuing positive ones, but involves appreciating the nuances of the whole spectrum of our emotional experience” (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon & Worth, 2016, p. 7). The realisation that much light comes through the examination of deep darkness illustrates that to be human is to live in ambiguity through a perpetuating tension between the facts (facticity) of our lives and the will to overcome them (Cleary & Pigliucci, 2018).

Experiences and themes around finding light through darkness, strength through adversity and a reframing of the full-spectrum of human experience into a meaningful process of change, growth, hope and flourishing in-spite of and often because of adversity and trauma is at the core of PP2.0. Wong (2011, 2012) counters and extends the original PP approach through the promotion of survival and flourishing in spite of suffering and death, along with living an authentic life and the courage and responsibility of confronting existential anxieties within the human drama. Deeply looking at the source of people’s anxieties and questions “stemming from a confrontation with their existential, unchangeable givens and unsolvable dilemmas resulting from simply being alive” (Jacob, 2011, p. 4), as well as emphasizing choice, freedom and responsibility as possibilities for living a meaningful and authentic life (Murguia & Diaz, 2015) are core tenets.

This second wave of PP demonstrates how the path of personal development can lead to growth, insight, healing and transformation in spite of and because of the challenging and dark side of human existence (Wong, 2011). PP2.0 takes suffering as the starting point or the foundation, and then explores how we can transform suffering and brokenness into wellbeing and character strengths (Wong, 2010; 2020). It is the archetypal story of adaptation and evolution in the face of change and challenge (Schultz, 2012).

PP2.0 as a POL promotes hope, healing and authentic happiness through its emphasis on integrating negative experiences with positive ones, confronting the dark side of human existence and, ultimately, pursuing self-transcendence—going beyond oneself to serve something greater (Frankl, 1988; Wong 2016). Through struggle and fortitude, Wong (2016) argues that we grow psychologically and spiritually as we embrace life in its totality, whilst wrestling with ultimate concerns that we can uplift humanity and improve the human condition. After all, our happiness and well-being extends only to how well we are able to cope effectively with the stresses and challenges of this human existence and, therefore, understanding, embracing and managing the dark side of this human life is considered to be the precondition for understanding human flourishing (Wong, 2020).