Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology History

The roots of inquiry into what is good about human nature and optimal human functioning can be traced back to Aristotle. Indeed, the initial impetus of modern psychology was to gain an understanding of transcendent experience. This objective was echoed in humanistic psychology’s interest in the self-actualizing potential of human beings. However, following World War II psychology’s emphasis shifted to a predominant attention to pathology, prevention, and human malfunctioning. In 1998 the president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Martin Seligman, made the clarion call for a new psychological emphasis that he termed positive psychology.

Positive psychology was aimed at redirecting the focus of psychology to positive individual traits and subjective experience. The purpose of positive psychology is to shift the focus away from human weakness, vulnerability, and pathology to an emphasis on strengths, resilience, and wellness. However, unlike other trends in popular psychology, positive psychology insists on the application of sound scientific theory and research to provide a social and behavioral scientific understanding of optimal functioning. The field has many levels of analysis including individual subjective experience, for example, well-being, happiness, optimal experience, hope, and optimism; positive individual traits, such as courage, forgiveness, spirituality, the capacity for love, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, and wisdom; and beneficial group and institutional characteristics, including civic virtues that inspire good citizenship, altruism, civility, tolerance, responsibility, and transcendent performance.

Most of the processes and states that are the scholarly focus of positive psychology are not new. However, positive psychology does provide new ways of looking at old phenomena. It offers a broad conceptual framework for linking theories in several psychological fields. It is based on the assumption that happiness, goodness, and excellence are authentic states that can be analyzed by science and achieved in practice. Over the last 10 years positive psychology has generated a significant literature in the areas of clinical, counseling, community, educational, social, health, and industrial-organizational psychology.

Positive Organizational Psychology

Industrial/organizational psychology has always been interested in the relationship between worker well-being, such as satisfaction, and performance. However, more than 40 years of research has shown that happy workers are not necessarily productive workers. By redefining what is meant by well-being, positive psychology has influenced the debate concerning the relationship between satisfaction and productivity. Subjective well-being is typically measured by two variables: happiness and satisfaction. Happiness refers to an emotional state and indicates how people feel (pleasant moods and emotions) about their work, their life, and themselves in reaction to their lives. Satisfaction consists of more global evaluative and judgmental processes about the acceptability of various aspects of work and life and as such is a more cognitive process. I/O psychology has tended to exclusively focus on judgments (satisfaction) in determining worker well-being, and ignored the affective component (happiness). Yet each is an important, but separate, characteristic of subjective well-being.

Positive organizational psychology can be defined as the application of psychological theory and research to understanding the positive, adaptive, and emotionally fulfilling elements of work. It focuses on studying both the statelike characteristics of work and how they affect subjective well-being, engagement, and transcendent performance. The emphasis on statelike characteristics is an important distinction between positive organizational psychology and positive psychology. Fred Luthans, one of the main proponents of positive organizational scholarship, believes that the field should emphasize three basic characteristics:

  1. The positive constructs studied should be measurable.
  2. The focus should be on statelike concepts that can be developed, as opposed to traitlike or dispositional characteristics.
  3. Psychological capacities can be effectively managed to optimize performance in the workplace.

Positive Subjective States

Positive organizational psychology studies positive constructs such as confidence or self-efficacy, hope, optimism, resiliency, and subjective well-being (or happiness). Research on these characteristics has shown that they are capable of being measured and are related to effective leadership, high performance, goal attainment, perceived control, effective functioning, and positive affect. Developing people’s talents has been linked to increases in employee engagement, performance, and subjective well-being.

One important subjective state that has emerged from the positive psychology literature on work is flow. Flow was a term first coined by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to denote an optimal experience of intense engagement and effortless action, where personal skills match required challenges. Research on the experience of flow in athletes, popularly referred to as being in the zone, has also indicated that flow is associated with transcendent or optimal performance. Flow has several conceptual sources. For example, flow is seen as a state of intrinsic motivation where the individual is engaging in some activity for its own sake without any regard for external rewards. Flow is also a form of work engagement. Engagement is defined as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. Although engagement and flow appear to be similar, they are treated as distinct constructs in the literature. Flow refers to a more acute, short-term experience specifically associated with a particular task or activity, whereas engagement is a more stable and persistent state of mind that is associated with work in general. Research on flow indicates that many work tasks provide opportunities for experiencing a state of well-being.

Positive Institutions

Positive organizational psychology also focuses on characteristics of positive organizations. It addresses issues such as the development of virtuous organizations and the creation of healthy work environments. Specifically positive organizational scholarship has begun to investigate how organizations can effectively support and nurture both their employees and the customers they serve. This line of research emphasizes organizational virtuousness. Virtuous organizations (organizations that express virtues such as compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude) have a positive effect on personal improvement and experienced meaningfulness. Work that allows for the expression of positive emotions and the exercise of individual strengths is associated with knowledge creation and higher levels of organizational functioning. Positive psychology has also broadened the concept of transformational leadership to include authentic leadership. Authentic leaders transcend their own self-interest and are guided by end values that primarily benefit the interests of their constituency. They rely more on moral power than on coercion or rational persuasion. Characteristics associated with authentic leaders include optimism, integrity, honesty, high personal efficacy, future orientation, and resilience. Such leaders give priority to empowering followers and fostering positive deviance. There is also some theoretical and empirical evidence to suggest that transformational leadership influences employee well-being by increasing worker self-efficacy, trust in management, the meaningfulness of work, and occupational and organizational identity.

Both the individual and organizational levels of analysis have provided insights into designing optimum work environments. The aim of redesigning the workplace is to increase worker involvement, improve individual happiness, and promote optimal performance. Research on work design has identified several features of the work environment that maximize subjective well-being at work and encourage active engagement in the job. The elements associated with positive workplaces include the following:

  • Variety: the degree to which the job requires a variety of different activities. People like to learn new skills and appreciate opportunities to challenge themselves and personally grow.
  • Significance: the degree to which the job has a substantial impact on the lives or work of other people. Work from which people can derive a sense of purpose and meaning generates higher levels of satisfaction.
  • Autonomy: the degree to which the job provides an opportunity for control and substantial discretion in scheduling the work and determining the procedures to be used in carrying it out. The opportunity to make decisions about the process and outcomes of a person’s job is associated with the development of a sense of competence.
  • Realistic goals: specific and difficult goals with feedback lead to optimal performance. Both flow and satisfaction are associated with having clear, challenging goals that provide opportunities to use skills.
  • Feedback: the degree to which the activities of the job provide the individual with direct and clear information about the effectiveness of the worker’s performance. Feedback is a crucial component of engagement in learning.
  • Social networks: the opportunity to work in groups or teams and establish interpersonal contacts. Research in a variety of contexts has shown that group work is associated with better individual well-being. Social networks on the job provide the worker with companionship and social support.
  • Transformational leadership: a form of positive leadership that contributes to individual well-being. Transformational leadership has been shown to facilitate followers’ commitment to organizational goals, enhance workers’ feelings of self-efficacy, nurture personal growth, and produce superior levels of performance.


Positive organizational psychology is an area of scholarship and scientific study that is influenced by positive psychology’s emphasis on strengths and virtues. Its aim is to identify those measurable characteristics of individuals, organizations, and work environments that can be developed and promote active engagement, enhance subjective well-being, facilitate transcendent performance, and lead to positive organizational outcomes.


  1. Cameron, K. S., Dutton, J. E., & Quinn, R. E. (Eds.). (2003) . Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Luthans, F. (2002). The need for and meaning of positive organizational behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 695-706.
  4. Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology:  An  American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
  5. Sivinathan, N., Arnold, K. A., Turner, N., & Barling, J. (2004). Leading well: Transformational leadership and well-being. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 241-255). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  6. Turner, N., Barling, J., & Zacharatos, A. (2002). Positive psychology at work. In C. R. Snyder & S. L. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 715-728). New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. Warr, P. (1999). Well-being and the workplace. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 392412). New York: Russell Sage.

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