What Does Positive Psychology Mean by “Positive”?

I met a woman last week who asked me what I do.  When I told her I work in positive psychology, she laughed and said, “As opposed to negative psychology?”  Since those of us in positive psychology hear this response frequently, I wasn’t too surprised.  I laughed along with her, and then responded with my standard positive psychology elevator speech:  Traditional psychology (not negative psychology) focuses on what’s wrong with people and how to fix it; positive psychology focuses on what’s right with people and how to cultivate it.”  I think this is a decent quick description of positive psychology, and it satisfied the person I was talking with.  But I believe her reaction points to a deeper issue that we can address only when we ask the question, What does positive psychology mean by “positive”?


Trying to determine the meaning of “positive” in positive psychology reminds me of Augustine.  At the beginning of his analysis of the concept of time, he wrote:  “What then is time?  If no one asks me, I know.  But if I want to explain it to someone, I don’t know” (Confessions, XI, xiv, my translation).  Similarly, I know what positive means, of course.  But the more I try to explain it, the more I realize I actually don’t know what it means.


So I must confess that I don’t actually know what positive psychology means by “positive.”  Furthermore, by the time you finish reading this, I hope you don’t either.  Why?  Because it is only in seeing this term as problematic that we can begin an inquiry that may yield fruitful results.  What does positive psychology mean by “positive”?  As I share with you some of my struggles with this question, my hope is that it will inspire similar struggles of your own.


“Positive” is a word with many different meanings.  In fact, it’s hard to use this word without saying more than you mean.  One definition that positive psychologists don’t mean is “marked by or indicating acceptance, approval, or affirmation” (Webster’s Dictionary).  The claim is not that positive psychology is the right way of doing psychology, and that all other ways are wrong.  The claim, rather, is that positive psychology emphasizes some important perspectives that have long been under-emphasized and neglected in psychology.


Fair enough.  But why did the woman I met last week immediately think of “negative” when I said “positive psychology”?  I don’t, after all, get the same kind of reaction when I talk about humanistic psychology.  People don’t laugh, and say, “As opposed to animalistic psychology?”  Nor do I get the same kind of response when I talk about cognitive psychology, or developmental psychology.  Why is this?


I got the reaction I did because “positive” and “negative” are polar concepts.  The philosopher Simon Blackburn defines polar concepts as “concepts that gain their identity in part through their contrast with one another” (The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy).  We often think of polar concepts as opposites.  Consider the following pairs of words: male/female, light/dark.  Male/female are binary opposites.  If you are one, you are not the other; and if you are not the one, you are definitely the other.  Light/dark are continuum opposites.  You can have both, to varying degrees.  But if you get more of one, you automatically have less of the other; and if you get less of one, you automatically have more of the other.  This is because one term actually means the absence of the other.  Dark means “devoid of light.”


The irony here is that, while we often think of “positive” and “negative” as polar opposites, the foundational claim of positive psychology is that they are not.  According to positive psychology, happiness is not the polar opposite of unhappiness.  In fact, I identify the Fundamental Principle of Positive Psychology as


Happiness ≠ Absence of Unhappiness


According to positive psychology, getting rid of unhappiness is not the same thing as achieving happiness.  Getting rid of anger, fear, and depression will not automatically fill you with peace, love, and joy.  Getting rid of weaknesses will not automatically maximize your strengths.  Getting rid of angst will not automatically fill your life with a sense of meaning and purpose.


According to positive psychology, happiness and unhappiness are not on the same continuum.  While it may be true that the processes by which we can minimize anger, fear, weakness, and angst are related to the processes by which we can maximize peace, joy, strength, and meaning, they are not identical.  Nor are they simply the reverse of each other.


To illustrate this point, think of Ed Diener’s subjective well-being construct.  For Diener, subjective well-being is a function of three different factors: high positive affect, low negative affect, and high life satisfaction.  For Diener, positive and negative affect are not just two ends of the same continuum; they are on different continua.


Think also of Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions.  Fredrickson argues that a key to emotional flourishing is having a high positive-to-negative emotion ratio.  We can improve our state, either by increasing positive emotions or by decreasing negative emotions (or both, of course), and these are different processes with different metrics.


So why does this matter?  Why should we care that “positive” and “negative” are not polar opposites?  One reason is so that positive psychologists don’t make the same mistakes that traditional psychologists have.  While many traditional psychologists seemed to think that taking away negatives would automatically create positives, positive psychologists need to avoid the trap of thinking that creating positives will automatically take away the negatives.  If it is true that the positive and the negative are on two separate (albeit related) continua, then it is crucial that we pay attention both to processes for cultivating the positive and to processes for mitigating the negative.


On this view, traditional interventions and positive interventions are both important.  Here are my definitions for these two terms.


            Traditional interventions – evidence-based, intentional acts meant to increase

                                                             well-being by diminishing that which impedes or destroys

                                                             human flourishing.


            Positive interventions – evidence-based, intentional acts meant to increase well-being

                                                        by augmenting that which causes or constitutes human



If positive psychology is a psychology for everyone, then it must allow room for the application of traditional interventions, even while studying and emphasizing the application of positive interventions.


One key question that remains to be answered has to do with the relation between the positive and the negative.  While I have argued that they are not polar opposites (like male/female and light/dark), it is clear that they are not completely separate.  Diminishing that which impedes or destroys human flourishing does have some effect on those things which cause or constitute it.  And augmenting that which causes or constitutes human flourishing does have some effect on those things which impede or destroy it.  How do these effects work?  And are they equally powerful?  Or is the effect in one direction more powerful?


I hope these reflections have helped shed a little light on what positive psychology means by “positive.”  While no one has yet sorted out all of what we mean—and don’t mean—by this term, getting clearer about this fundamental concept will help positive psychology develop a more solid theoretical foundation, which is necessary for the support and stimulation of continued empirical research and application.  Of that, I am positive!