Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D.
University of Kansas
"Build it and they will come. Build it and they will come." A similar eerie directive echoed in Ray Consella's mind in the popular movie, "Field of Dreams." An epiphany occurred when Consella realized that the building of a baseball field in rural Iowa would open a metaphysical door to his past and his future.
Dr. Martin Seligman experienced a similar epiphany that occurred in his garden and was brought about by the profound words of a child, his daughter Nikki. In a 1999 speech, Dr. Seligman recounted the experience that changed his view of parenting and psychology and he concluded the following:
Raising Nikki would be about taking the strength that she had just shown--I call it seeing into the soul--naming it, nurturing it, reinforcing it, helping her to lead her life around it and let it buffer against the weaknesses and the vicissitudes. The most important thing, the most general thing I learned, was that psychology was half-baked, literally half-baked. We had baked the part about mental illness; we had baked the part about repair of damage...The other side's unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we're good at.
Positive psychology is the other side. It is the scientific pursuit of optimal human functioning and the building of a field focusing on human strength and virtue. It builds on the bench science and research methods that shed light on the "dark side" of human functioning, and it opens the door to understanding prevention and health promotion. Dr. Seligman (1998) noted:
We have discovered that there is a set of human strengths that are the most likely buffers against mental illness: courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty and perseverance. Much of the task of prevention will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to foster these virtues in young people.
In less than three years, since Dr. Seligman kicked off his APA presidency by introducing his positive psychology mission, a field of dreams quickly has taken shape. Positive psychology meetings, summits, and conferences have energized research programs that focus on personal and community flourishing. Recently, the Templeton Prizes for outstanding research in positive psychology were awarded. Upcoming events include the Positive Psychology Summit 2000: Building a Positive Human Future to be held in October in Washington, DC and the 2001 Positive Psychology Summer Institute. A positive psychology book series will be published by APA in upcoming years, and The Handbook of Positive Psychology will be published by Oxford in 2001. Clearly, as suggested by recent scholarly events, a positive social science is in development and positive psychology has emerged. As personality, social, clinical, counseling, and I/O psychologists continue to band together to address complicated issues related to health and well-being, see http://www.psych.upenn.edu/seligman/pospsy.htm#Articles, Columns and Books for synopses of positive psychology articles and events.
"Build it and they will come." Snyder and McCullough (2000) posited that if social scientists built a positive psychology field of dreams, additional researchers would join in the scientific pursuit of optimal human functioning. I propose that positive psychology bench science is already being translated into practice and that therapists and their clients value the shift in focus from a decrease in pathology to an increase in pre-existing strengths and a discovery of hidden talents. Thus, this is a mission that could unite the science and practice communities.
Psychologists have developed the requisite acumen needed to adequately research healthy processes and states and to highlight positive psychological outcome. The socio-economic thriving of the US sets the stage for bold developments in a science of health, rather than focusing on illness and strife. It is time to go beyond our attempts to cure mental illness and devote more energies to preventing sickness and promoting well-being. Positive psychological science and practice can fuel the identification and understanding of human strength and virtue. What a mission!
This article first appeared in the Summer 2000 Edition of the APAGS Newsletter, Vol. 12(2)
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