12.1 The History of Positive Psychology

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe what positive psychology is, who started it, and why it came into existence.
  2. Identify some of the most important findings from the science of positive psychology with respect to forgiveness, gratitude, and humility.
  3. Explore how positive psychology might make a difference in how you think about your own life, the nature of human nature, and what is really important to you.

In this section, a brief history of the positive psychology movement is presented, and key themes within positive psychology are identified. Ten key findings within the field of positive psychology are put forth, and the most important empirical findings regarding gratitude, forgiveness, and humility — three important positive psychology topics — are discussed. Assessment techniques for these three strengths are described, and interventions for increasing gratitude, developing forgiveness, and becoming more humble are briefly considered.

Positive psychology

Positive psychology is a popular movement that began in the late 1990’s. It is the branch of psychology that has as its primary focus on the strengths, virtues, and talents that contribute to successful functioning and enable individuals and communities to flourish. Core topics include happiness, resiliency, wellbeing, and states of flow and engagement. It was spearheaded by a former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman.



This picture shows a smiling elderly couple looking into each other's eyes while their foreheads touch.
Figure 12.2. Martin Seligman, who is credited with starting the positive psychology movement, attributes the inspiration to his prior work on learned helplessness. New research prompted him to instead focus on the good in people’s lives.

Throughout most of its history, psychology was concerned with identifying and remedying human ills. It has largely focused on decreasing maladaptive emotions and behaviours, while generally ignoring positive and optimal functioning. In contrast, the goal of positive psychology is to identify and enhance the human strengths and virtues that make life worth living. Unlike the positive thinking or New Thought movements that are associated with Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking or Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 self-help book The Secret, positive psychology pursues scientifically informed perspectives on what makes life worth living. It is empirically based. It focuses on measuring aspects of the human condition that lead to happiness, fulfillment, and flourishing. Key findings from the science of positive psychology are summarized in the table below.


Table 12.1. What the science of positive psychology can teach us
Ten Key Findings from the Science of Positive Psychology
1.   Most people are happy.
2.   Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply a result of success or good outcomes. Happy people make good things happen.
3.   Political conservatives are happier than political liberals.
4.   Most people are resilient. They bounce back from adversity, both large and small.
5.   Happiness, strengths of character, and good social relationships are buffers against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks.
6.   Religious faith matters. People for whom religion is important are happier and cope better with stress compared to non-believers.
7.   Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to wellbeing, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people.
8.   As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia (i.e., a life of meaning) trumps hedonism (i.e., a life of pleasure).
9.   Good days have common features: feeling autonomous, competent, and connected to others.
10.  The good life can be taught.

Moving from an exclusive focus on distress, disorder, and dysfunction, positive psychology shifts the scientific lens to a concentration on wellbeing, health, and optimal functioning. Positive psychology provides a different vantage point through which to understand human experience. Recent developments have produced a common framework that locates the study of positive states, strengths, and virtues in relation to each other and links them to important life outcomes. Recent developments suggest that problems in psychological functioning may be more profitably dealt with as the absence, excess, or opposite of these strengths rather than traditional diagnostic categories of mental illness. The principal claim of positive psychology is that the study of health, fulfillment, and wellbeing is as deserving of study as illness, dysfunction, and distress. This has resonated well with both the academic community and the general public.

As a relatively new field of research, positive psychology lacked a common vocabulary for discussing measurable positive traits before 2004. Traditional psychology benefited from the creation of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which provided researchers and clinicians with the same set of language from which they could talk about the negative. As a first step in remedying this disparity between traditional and positive psychology, Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman set out to identify, organize, and measure character. The Values in Action (VIA) classification of strengths was an important initial step toward specifying important positive traits (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Peterson and Seligman examined ancient cultures — including their religions, politics, education, and philosophies — for information about how people in the past construed human virtue. The researchers looked for virtues that were present across cultures and time. Six core virtues emerged from their analysis: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, transcendence, and wisdom. The VIA is the positive psychology counterpart to the DSM used in traditional psychology and psychiatry. Unlike the DSM, which scientifically categorizes human deficits and disorders, the VIA classifies positive human strengths. This approach vastly departs from the medical model of traditional psychology, which focuses on fixing deficits. In contrast, positive psychologists emphasize that people should focus and build upon on what they are doing well.

The VIA is a tool by which people can identify their own character strengths and learn how to capitalize on them. It consists of 240 questions that ask respondents to report the degree to which statements reflecting each of the strengths apply to themselves. For example, the character strength of hope is measured with items that include ‘‘I know that I will succeed with the goals I set for myself.’’ The strength of gratitude is measured with such items as ‘‘At least once a day, I stop and count my blessings.’’

Within the United States, the most commonly endorsed strengths are kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, and judgment (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2006). Worldwide, the following strengths were most associated with positive life satisfaction: hope, zest, gratitude, and love. The researchers called these strengths of the heart. Moreover, strengths associated with knowledge, such as love of learning and curiosity, were least correlated with life satisfaction (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Three key strengths

Forgiveness, gratitude, and humility are three key strengths that have been the focus of sustained research programs within positive psychology. What have we learned about each of these, and why do these matter for human flourishing?


Forgiveness is essential to harmonious long-term relationships between individuals, whether between spouses or nations, dyads or collectives. At the level of the individual, forgiveness of self can help one achieve an inner peace as well as peace with others and with God. Wrongdoing against others can result in guilt and self-loathing. Resentment can give away to hate and intolerance. Both perpetrator and victim suffer. Conversely, forgiveness can be an avenue to healing. It is the basic building block of loving relationships with others. When one person or nation does something to hurt another, the relationship between the two can be irrevocably damaged. Because the potential for conflict is seemingly built into human nature, the prospects for long-term peace may seem faint. Forgiveness offers another way. If the victim can forgive the perpetrator, the relationship may be restored and possibly even saved from termination. The essence of forgiveness is that it creates a possibility for a relationship to recover from the damage caused by the offending party’s offense. Forgiveness is thus a powerful pro-social process. It can benefit human social life by helping relationships to heal. On the social level, forgiveness may be the critical element needed for world peace. Kevin Culligan (2002) notes that “forgiveness may ultimately be the most powerful weapon for breaking the dreadful cycle of violence” (p. 86).



This picture shows a young girl with eyes closed hugging her friend.
Figure 12.3. There is a famous quotation of unknown origins that does a good job of illustrating the importance of forgiveness: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Research is answering fundamental questions about what forgiveness is and isn’t, how it develops, what are its physiological correlates and physical effects, whether it is always beneficial, and how people — if they are so motivated — might be helped to forgive. Forgiveness is not excusing, condoning, tolerating, or forgetting that one has been hurt because of the actions of another. Forgiveness is letting go of negative thoughts (e.g., wishing the offender harm), negative behaviours (e.g., a desire to retaliate), and negative feelings (e.g., resentment) toward the offender (McCullough, Root, & Cohen, 2006).

There have been numerous studies looking at forgiveness interventions. The interventions involved counselling and exercises that were used to help people move from anger and resentment towards forgiveness. In one study, incest survivors who experienced the forgiveness intervention had at the end of the intervention increased abilities to forgive others, increased hopefulness, and decreased levels of anxiety and depression. In another study, college students were randomized to a group that received a forgiveness education program and another group who studied human relations. The group that received the forgiveness education program showed higher levels of hope and an increased willingness to forgive others. This greater self-forgiveness was associated with increased self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety, lower levels of depression, and a more positive view of their patient. In many of these studies, it was shown that people who are able to forgive are more likely to have better interpersonal functioning and, therefore, social support. The act of forgiveness can result in less anxiety and depression, better health outcomes, increased coping with stress, and increased closeness to God and others (Enright, 2001).


Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation or thankfulness in response to receiving a benefit. The emerging science of gratitude has produced some important findings. From childhood to old age, accumulating evidence documents the wide array of psychological, physical, and relational benefits associated with gratitude (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Gratitude is important, not only because it helps us feel good, but also because it inspires us to do good. Gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives in a myriad of ways consistent with the notion that virtue is both its own reward and produces other rewards (Emmons, 2007).



This picture shows a man with eyes closed holding his palms together in front of his heart as a symbol of gratitude.
Figure 12.4. It is hard to feel sad when you are feeling grateful. Try to practise giving thanks, even for something small, every day.

To give a flavour of these research findings, dispositional gratitude has been found to be positively associated qualities such as empathy, forgiveness, and the willingness to help others. For example, people who rated themselves as having a grateful disposition perceived themselves as having more socially helpful characteristics, expressed by their empathetic behaviour, and emotional support for friends within the last month (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002). When people report feeling grateful, thankful, and appreciative in their daily lives, they also feel more loving, forgiving, joyful, and enthusiastic. Notably, the family, friends, partners, and others who surround them consistently report that people who practise gratitude are viewed as more helpful, more outgoing, more optimistic, and more trustworthy (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

Expressing gratitude for life’s blessings — that is, a sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation — is likely to elevate happiness for a number of reasons. Grateful thinking fosters the savoring of positive life experiences and situations, so that people can extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from their circumstances. Counting one’s blessings may directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation, which is the process by which our happiness level returns, again and again, to its set range by preventing people from taking the good things in their lives for granted. If we consciously remind ourselves of our blessings, it should become harder to take them for granted and adapt to them. The very act of viewing good things as gifts itself is likely to be beneficial for mood. How much does it matter? Consider these eye-popping statistics. People are 25% happier if they keep gratitude journals, sleep 30 minutes more per evening, and exercise 33% more each week compared to people who are not keeping journals. They achieve up to a 10% reduction in systolic blood pressure and decrease their dietary fat intake by up to 20%. Lives marked by frequent positive emotions of joy, love, and gratitude are up to seven years longer than lives bereft of these pleasant feelings.

The science of gratitude has also revealed some surprising findings. For example, students who practise gratitude increase their grade point average. Occasional gratitude journaling boosts wellbeing more than the regular practice of counting blessings. Remembering one’s sorrows, failures, and other painful experiences is more beneficial to happiness than recalling only successes. Becoming aware that a very pleasant experience is about to end enhances feelings of gratitude for it. Thinking about the absence of something positive in your life produces more gratitude and happiness than imagining its presence.

To assess your own level of gratitude, refer to the “Gratitude Quiz” (n.d.) by the Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.


What is humility and why does it matter? Although the etymological roots of humility are in lowliness and self-abasement — from the Latin term humilis meaning “lowly, humble,” or literally “on the ground,” and from the Latin term humus meaning “earth” — the emerging consensus among scholars is that humility is a psychological and intellectual virtue, or a character strength. There is no simple definition, but it seems to involve the following elements: A clear and accurate, not underestimated, sense of one’s abilities and achievements; the ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations, often with reference to a “higher power”; an openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice keeping one’s abilities and accomplishments in perspective; relatively low self-focus or an ability to “forget the self”; and appreciation of the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world. In contemporary society, it is easy to overlook the merits of humility. In politics, business, and sports, the egoists command our attention. “Show me someone without an ego,” said Donald Trump on Twitter, “and I’ll show you a loser” (2012). In reality, the unassuming virtue of humility, rather than representing weakness or inferiority, as is commonly assumed, is a strength of character that produces positive, beneficial results for self and society. Successful people are humble people. They are more likely to flourish in life, in more domains, than are people who are less humble (Exline & Hill, 2012).



This picture shows a woman standing in the middle of a country road at night and reaching toward the star-filled sky above.
Figure 12.5. One aspect of humility is an awareness of the relatively little that one can really know about the world.

Do you think you are you a humble person? For obvious reasons, you cannot rate your own level of humility. It is an elusive concept to get at scientifically. “I am very humble” is self-contradictory. This has not discouraged personality psychologists from developing questionnaires to get at it, albeit indirectly. For example, to what extent do you identify with each of the following statements:

  • I generally have a good idea about the things I do well or do poorly.
  • I have difficulty accepting advice from other people.
  • I try my best in things, but I realize that I have a lot of work to do in many areas.
  • I am keenly aware of what little I know about the world.

Questions such as these tap various facets of the humble personality, including an appreciation and recognition of one’s limitations, and an accurate assessment of oneself.

Humble people are more likely to flourish in life, in more domains, than are people who are less humble. Consider a handful of findings from recent research studies and surveys:

  • People who say they feel humble when they are praised report that the experience made them want to be nice to people, increase their efforts, and challenge themselves.
  • Humble people are more admired, and the trait of humility is viewed positively by most.
  • Humble teachers are rated as more effective, and humble lawyers as more likeable by jurors.
  • Leaders of corporations who possessed a rare combination of extreme humility and strong professional will were catalysts for transforming a good company into a great one.
  • Over 80% of adults surveyed indicated that it is important that professionals demonstrate modesty and humility in their work.
  • Humility is positively associated with academic success in the form of higher grades (Exline & Hill, 2012).

The science of positive psychology has grown remarkably quickly since it first appeared on the scene in the late 1990’s. Already, considerable progress has been made in understanding empirically the foundations of a good life. Knowledge from basic research in positive psychology is being applied in a number of settings, from psychotherapy to workplace settings to schools and even to the military (Biswas-Diener, 2011). Ultimately, a proper blend of science and practice will be required in order for positive psychology to fully realize its potential in dealing with the future challenges that we face as humans.

Source: Adapted from Emmons (2020).


Key Takeaways

  • Positive psychology began to develop in the 1990s with a focus on the strengths, virtues, and talents that contribute to successful functioning and enable individuals and communities to flourish.
  • Positive psychology has identified six core positive traits (i.e., virtues): courage, justice, humanity, temperance, transcendence, and wisdom.
  • The scientific study of positive psychology has resulted in ten key findings.
  • Forgiveness, gratitude, and humility are three key strengths that contribute to happiness and wellbeing.
  • Positive psychology is now a flourishing field of research that provides evidence for how people can achieve the greatest sense of happiness, purpose, and wellbeing.



Critical Thinking Exercises

  1. Can you think of people in your life who are very humble? What do they do or say that expresses their humility? To what extent do you think it would be good if you were more humble? To what extent do you think it would be good if you were less humble?
  2. How can thinking gratefully about an unpleasant event from your past help you to deal positively with it? As the result of this event, what kinds of things do you now feel thankful or grateful for? How has this event benefited you as a person? How have you grown? Were there personal strengths that grew out of your experience?
  3. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” (1931/1966, p. 521–522). What do you think he meant by this? Do you agree or disagree? What are some of the obstacles you have faced in your own life when trying to forgive others?

Image Attributions

Figure 12.2. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Figure 12.3. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Figure 12.4. Thanks at the Buddhist Temple by Trey Ratcliff is used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Figure 12.5. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.


Biswas-Diener, R. (2011). Applied positive psychology: Progress and challenges. European Health Psychologist, 13, 24–26.

Culligan, K. (2002). Prayer and forgiveness: Can psychology help? Spiritual Life, 48, 78–87.

Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston. MA: Houghton-Mifflin.

Emmons, R. A. (2020). Positive psychology. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds.), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF. Retrieved from http://noba.to/9z4jf5xe

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377–389.

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Exline, J. J., & Hill, P. C. (2012). Humility: A consistent and robust predictor of generosity. Journal of Positive Psychology, 7, 208–218.

Gandhi, M. (1931/1966). The gospel of love. In R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao (Eds.), The mind of Mahatma Gandhi: Encyclopedia of Gandhi’s thoughts (pp. 516–525). Ahmedabad, India: Navjeen Trust. (Original work published in 1931)

Greater Good Magazine. (n.d.). Gratitude quiz. Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/gratitude

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112–127.

McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., & Cohen A. D. (2006). Writing about the benefits of an interpersonal transgression facilitates forgiveness. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 887–897.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being: A closer look at hope and modesty. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603–619.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 118–129.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Trump, D. J. [realDonaldTrump]. (2012, July 19). “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.” –How To Get Rich [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/225949765324636160?lang=en

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890–905.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Psychology - 1st Canadian Edition Copyright © 2020 by Sally Walters is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book