Review article
Volume 2, No. 2, 2010, 21-30
UDC 159.913
Vesna Petrovi„
Faculty of Law and Business Studies, Novi Sad
Department of Business Psychology
Positive psychology represents a
21st century movement in psychology. It is a
psychology aimed at researching optimal human functioning that empirically studies, first and
foremost, the concept of happiness, in addition to life satisfaction, optimism, virtues and suchlike
notions, which are used to measure the growth and development of human potential and
subjective well-being. This line of conceptualization and research is based on the disease model
and opens up new perspectives for both psychology as a science as well as the people it is
intended for. This paper elaborates the basic ideas and results of certain explorations relative to
positive psychology and positive orientation which comprises optimism, self-esteem and life
Keywords: positive psychology, positive orientation, happiness, health
Approximately 30% of people in the US claim to lead a ìvery happyì life and these
figures have not changed over the past 60 years even though the value of after-tax personal
income, taken as a constant scale, with inflation rate calculated, has since doubled or even
tripled. We still get the same results, namely, that after a certain point is reached, which equals
more or less to earning a few thousand dollars above the poverty level, an increase in material
well-being does not have a significant effect on peopleís happiness. As a matter of fact, we can
always observe that a lack of fundamental, material resources affects the level of dissatisfaction
whereas a rise in material resources, on the other hand, does not bring more satisfaction
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).
What actually contributes to peopleís feeling of real satisfaction and happiness in their
everyday lives?
Over the last few years, from 2000 to date, there has been a rapid rise in the number of
studies focusing on human strengths and individual optimal functioning. The results reveal the
Corresponding author. Faculty of Low and Business Study, Department of Business Psychology, 21000 Novi Sad,
Ul. GrËkoökolska 2, e-mail: vesnapet@eunet.rs
© Faculty of Sport and Physical Education, University of Novi Sad, Serbia
V. Petrovi
key role which oneís estimate of oneself, oneís own life and future plays in oneís perspective on
oneís well-being and success in various areas of functioning (Diener & Suh, 2000; Kahneman,
Diener, & Schwartz, 1999).
Positive psychology or the positive psychology movement constitutes an important field
of the aforementioned research whose most famous proponents are Martin Seligman,
Christopher Peterson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Edward Diener and their associates.
Positive psychology and happiness
Professor Martin Seligman, a distinguished psychologist, psychotherapist of cognitive-
behavioral orientation, one of the founders of, what is now nothing short of a movement, known
as positive psychology, replies to the question about the state of psychology today by saying that
psychology was good, then not good, while today it is not good enough.
Why was psychology good?
For more than 60 years psychology worked within the disease model. To illustrate this, the
professor mentions that ten years ago he introduced himself to a man sitting next to him on the
plane, told him what he did for a living and the man moved away from him. Quite rightly,
because rumor had it that psychology was only searching for what was wrong with people.îSpot
the lunaticsî. While now, Seligman continues, when he states his profession, people move
toward him.
What was good about psychology, about the 30 billion dollars worth of investment made
by the National Institute of Mental Health, and about the existing ìdisease modelî, was the fact
that 60 years ago none of the mental disorders were treatable ñ things were ill-defined and fuzzy.
Nowadays, fourteen disorders are treatable, while two are curable.
Another good thing that happened was the development of science pertaining to mental
disorders. Psychologists managed to measure indeterminate concepts, such as depression and
alcoholism, with rigorous precision. A classification of mental illnesses was created and it
became possible to understand their origins. We can now observe the same people over a period
of time, people who are, for instance, genetically susceptible to schizophrenia, and ask ourselves
how much influence the environment or genetics exert, and then isolate the third variable by
conducting an experimental study of the mental illnesses.
And the best thing of all is that we have succeeded, in the past 50 years, in inventing
psychological and drug treatments, which we could subsequently put to test in randomly
assigned placebo-controlled groups.
In conclusion, psychology and psychiatry have made miserable people less miserable in the
course of the last 60 years, which is brilliant; an achievement we can be very proud of. However,
the downside of it was the consequences, that is, three things, explains professor Seligman.
Firstly, the moral. Psychologists and psychiatrists became both victim and pathology
oriented; our view of human nature was such that if someone had a problem, this probably
implied that the problem was externally induced. We forgot that people made choices and
decisions. We forgot about responsibility. And that was the first price we had to pay.
Secondly, we forgot about people. We forgot that normal lives needed to be improved too.
We forgot about our mission ñ that we should make people who are relatively untroubled even
happier, more fulfilled, more productive, and the words such as ìgeniusì or ìhuge talentì
became ìdirtyì words. Few people are working on this.
Positive psychology and positive orientation
Thirdly, in relation to the ìdisease modelì, we rushed to help the troubled people and try to
repair the damage done, while it never occurred to us to develop interventions which could make
people happier - the positive interventions. This was not good.
Seligman further adds:
ìAnd so thatís what led people like Nancy Etcoff, Dan Gilbert, Mike Csikszentmihalyi and
myself to work in something I call positive psychology, which has three aims. The first is that
psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness. It should be
just as concerned about building strength as with repairing damage. It should be interested in the
best things in life, and it should be just as concerned with making the lives of normal people
fulfilling and concerned with genius, and with nurturing high-talent.î (Seligman, 2010).
In the past 10 years, and hopefully in the future too, we have had the chance to witness the
birth of a science of positive psychology: the science that explores what makes life really worth
Now we know that the manifold forms of happiness can be measured. Anyone who is
http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/questionnaires.aspx and fill in a number of
questionnaires which measure happiness, free of charge. You can compare your score on positive
emotions, or for example, your flow (a kind of emotion ñ supreme pleasure), with those provided
by tens of thousands of other people. A counterpart to the diagnostic manual of mental illnesses
has been created as a categorization of strengths and virtues. We have established that we can
identify the causation of positive states - the links between the activities of the left hemisphere
and those of the right as a cause of happiness. So, positive psychology operates in terms of
human virtues, growth and development of human potentials. The goal is human happiness not
the loss of disease symptoms.
Positive psychology emphasizes optimism and the positive sides of human functioning
instead of focusing on psychopathology and the difficulties in functioning. Out of a quest to
understand positive human experience, there emerged a positive correlation between emotional
competence and constructs, such as happiness, self-esteem, self-efficacy, optimism, hope, life
satisfaction, locus of control and many more (Taköi„, Mohori„, & Munjas, 2006).
Seligman and his associates claim that the ultimate aim of the positive psychology
movement is the creation of interventions and institutions dedicated to increasing the level of
happiness since happiness is not merely an irrelevant epiphenomenon ñ it is related to several
positive outcomes, such as health, success and interpersonal satisfaction (Seligman, Steen, Park,
& Peterson, 2005).
Seligman maintains that the concept of happiness should be used so as to denote the
whole field of research pertaining to positive psychology. Just as the notion of cognition is used
to denote cognitive psychologistsí field of interest, positive psychologists employ the concept of
happiness to define various modes contributing to human happiness which are also accessible to
scientific investigations (Mihi„, 2009).
One of the first definitions of happiness that can be found in ancient philosophy explains
it as an equivalent of pleasure, sensory gratifications included. This viewpoint was first openly
expressed in the philosophy of hedonism, in the conviction that pleasure should be maximized,
whereas pain should be minimized. In other words, according to this doctrine, a happy life is a
life of pleasure (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005).
A belief contrary to hedonism that can be discerned even in Aristotle defines happiness
as a result of living in harmony with oneís inner self, that is, a life path characterized by
discovering inner values and living accordingly. Maslowís concept of a self-actualized man
exemplifies a modern variation of this ancient tradition. The common aspect of all these
V. Petrovi
conceptions is the belief that man should recognize the best in him and dedicate his qualities and
talents to a greater cause, especially if it contributes to other peopleís well-being. Therefore, a
happy life is a life of meaning (Peterson et al., 2005).
There is also a third path which positive psychologists emphasize in their writing, the
engagement in what we are doing. Engagement is characterized by the loss of boundaries
between self and object, it is a complete immersion into an activity, when time seems to have
stopped. When we are in the engagement zone, we do not find this state to be particularly
pleasant or unpleasant. Only later on, when we reflect upon these moments, do we relate the
moments of dedication to pleasantness, even though their essential quality is not the pleasantness
itself, but a wholehearted engagement. According to positive psychologists, people who often
experience these moments lead a life of engagement (Peterson et al., 2005). Csikszentmihalyi
(»iksentmihalji, 1999) introduced the term flow to denote a mental state in which a man who
leads a life of engagement is performing an activity he is absorbed in and fulfilled by.
Life of pleasure, life of meaning and life of engagement represent three orientations to
happiness and can be measured by a scale devised by Peterson, Park, and Seligman (2005) called
ìOrientations to happinessì. Psychologists are nowadays actively searching for the response to
the following question: Are there any interventions or other methods that can permanently be
steered in a positive direction by these orientations to happiness? Apparently, the answer is
affirmative. Tests are now being conducted under placebo-controlled conditions, besides
longitudinal studies of different interventions. For instance, an intervention that turned out to be
an effective one, teaching people how to maximize life satisfaction, comprised a task which
demanded of the participants to use their best skills and design one beautiful day. As positive
psychology experts propose designing one beautiful day through a personís mental capacities,
virtues and advantages, enhances the level of satisfaction. These psychologists have confirmed
that those participants who completed the task experienced an increase in life satisfaction.
Health, life skills, physical activity and exercise
Psychological interventions that boost happiness can be combined with or complemented
by traditional interventions, as well as physical activities, thus leading to a permanent growth of
individual happiness, followed by plentiful positive effects on health and optimal functioning.
In his book entitled ìEnjoy life: healing with happinessì Johnson
(2009) provides
copious ways which can raise the level of happiness and, by extension, our general good health.
The author includes an entire program whose fundamental elements are gratitude, development
of personal strengths, multiplication of personal virtues, increase in optimism, physical exercise,
relationships with others and life skills.
Salmon (2001) and Hansen et al. (2001) stress the importance of physical activity,
stating that its effect corresponds approximately to that of antidepressants or anxiety relief
medications - ten minutes a day produces this effect while half an hour of physical activity a day
is the optimum.
Balkin et al. (2007) assert that depression is a prevalent issue with girls on university
campuses in the US. Their research report pertains to three groups of undergraduates: the first
group of participants did aerobic exercises, the second attended weight-lifting classes and the
third, the control group, underwent mental health counseling at the university. The aerobic
exercise group exhibited a statistically significant decrease in depressive symptoms compared to
two other groups of undergraduates. The authors of the study believe that the implications of
these results are noteworthy for general good health and that mental health counselors should
take into consideration all aspects of health when working with the clients. Young adult women
Positive psychology and positive orientation
will probably develop a stronger feeling of well-being if they adopt a life style that is consistent
with the wellness model (Hermon & Hazler, 1999). According to these two researchers, mental
health counselors should give recommendations which can affect various aspects of mental
health and wellness, including those on aerobic exercises as an efficient intervention which
reduces depressive symptoms.
Another investigation carried out by Teychenne et al. (2010) on a large sample of
women, totaling 3645 participants, demonstrated that a far lower risk of depression was present
in women who spent some free time doing physical exercises in comparison with women who
spent their free time sitting behind the computer or watching television.
In view of these findings, it is more than evident that there is a link between physical
exercise and positive psychology, i.e. orientation to happiness.
Nevertheless, apart from orientation to happiness, the exploration of positive human
functioning and experience expands to many other related concepts, areas of life and human
traits, such as, for example, optimism, self-esteem and life satisfaction.
Life satisfaction, self-esteem and optimism
In other words, self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism seem to be distinctly related to
numerous outcomes that confirm individual optimal functioning, such as health, business success
and interpersonal positive relations
(Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener
2005; Psyzczynski,
Greenberg, Solomon, Arnt, & Schimel, 2004; Scheier & Carver, 2001). All three constructs
correspond to a lasting structure of knowledge about oneself and the world. They have a serious
impact on personal feelings and actions, shaping the present and predisposing future experiences
(Caprara, 2009).
Life satisfaction refers to a personís general evaluation of various activities and
relationships that make someoneís life worth living
1984). This overall estimate
summarizes the degree of satisfaction one gets from multitudinous activities and relationships
which have marked oneís life.
Self-esteem denotes an individualís general self-regard and the level of self-acceptance
(Harter, 1999). This overall appraisal reflects the ongoing transactions between a person and the
situations which define his/her course of life, given that people draw appreciation from what they
have accomplished with others over time and through life circumstances of every description.
Although neither the price at which self-esteem is gained under harsh and unpredictable life
contingencies (Crocker & Park, 2004) nor the risky consequences of an extremely high or low
opinion of oneself (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003) should be underestimated,
there is certainly no doubt that self-esteem has a beneficial effect on the whole life span in
various domains of life. People whose self-esteem is at a high level adopt more efficient
strategies in pursuing their goals, are less likely to quit in the face of obstacles or troubles, feel
more in control over events, have a lower risk of developing symptoms of depression or anxiety
and are more healthy (Baumeister, 1993; Greenberg, et al. 1992; Kernis, 2003).
Optimism refers to oneís perspective on future personal and social events, in which there
will be an abundance of good things and a scarcity of bad things (Carver & Scheier, 2002). The
positive effects of this view have been extensively documented in diverse settings and life
circumstances. It is worth noting that research findings indicate that optimism is positively
correlated to physical health, effective coping strategies, successful recuperation and longevity
(Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, & Offord, 2000; Scheier & Carver, 1985, 2001; Segerstrom,
Taylor, Kemeny, & Fahey, 1998).
V. Petrovi
A high degree of inter-correlation between life satisfaction, self-esteem and optimism
prompts us to focus on the identification of what they have in common. This, eventually, leads to
the hypothesis that what they have in common is a latent factor, that is, an outlook on the world
and reality which impacts the way people construe their experiences and predispositions for
certain actions (Caprara, Delle Fratte, & Steca, 2002; Caprara, Steca, Alessandri, Abela, &
McWhinnie, 2009).
What do self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism have in common?
A few thousand respondents, equally distributed by sex and age between 20 and 80
(Alessandri, 2008; Caprara, Alessandri, Tisak, & Steca, 2009), participated in studies exploring
life satisfaction, self-esteem and optimism (Caprara, 2009) by filling out questionnaires.
The results of these studies have shown that life satisfaction, self-esteem and optimism
are positively and highly interrelated. Furthermore, confirmatory factor analyses have
demonstrated that life satisfaction, self-esteem and optimism represent indicators of a common
latent factor and exhibit strong and statistically significant positive loadings on common factors
(Caprara, Alessandri et al.,
2009). Additionally, the explained variances for all the three
indicators were uniformly high besides being sound indicators that the conceptual model and the
analyzed data were in accord (Alessandri, 2008; Caprara, Alessandri et al., 2009; Caprara et al.,
2002). The ensuing explorations confirmed the generalizability of these findings in assorted
linguistic and cultural contexts, namely, in Japan, Germany, Spain and Canada
Alessandri, Gunzenhauser, PeirÚ, Trommsdorff, & Yamaguchi 2009; Caprara, Steca, et al.,
Stability and predictive value of positive orientation
The results of longitudinal studies confirm the high stability of positive orientation in
adolescence (Alessandri, 2008; Caprara, Alessandri, et al., 2009). Moreover, positive orientation
was a reliable predictor of depression, positive and negative affectivity, quality of friendship and
health, as well as other indicators of individual optimal functioning in school and at work
(Alessandri, 2008; Caprara, Alessandri, et al., 2009).
Genetic basis of positive orientation
A study conducted on twins which examined self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism,
was aimed at discovering the genetic and environmental structure of these three characteristics
(Caprara, Fagnani, et al.,
2009). Multivariate genetic analysis revealed that the model
presupposing genetic and unshared environmental effect as partly common to self-esteem, life
satisfaction and optimism which is partially specific to each of the aforesaid traits clearly depicts
the genetic structure of positive orientation. Heritability (defined as a proportion relating to
genetic variation within a total variance) for the three (first order) components of positive
orientation was: 73% for self-esteem, 59% for life satisfaction and 28% for optimism. Genetic
correlation (measuring the extent to which the two traits are influenced by the same gene) was
estimated at .80 for self-esteem and life satisfaction, .83 for self-esteem and optimism, and .87
for life satisfaction and optimism.
Positive psychology and positive orientation
Turning potential into optimal functioning: challenges and future directions of research
The results of the aforementioned studies converge in laying stress on positive orientation
as a fundamental predisposition which can, to a considerable extent, account for oneís
adjustments and achievements. In the light of these data, however, we might wonder about the
possibility of any changes, but at the same time, the development of interventions which could
empower and strengthen an individualís view of himself, his own life and his future, poses a
challenge for researchers, clinicians and health psychologists alike. Even though genes determine
our average points for positive orientation, they are probably not responsible for our position
within our personal range of variation at any given time.
The influential role of unique experience deserves special attention so that proper
strategies for promoting individual growth and flourish could be identified. In this regard, the
foregoing findings can be related to contributions that self-efficacy beliefs give to positive
orientation, within the frame of social cognitive theory; this theory places the self-efficacy
beliefs at the heart of human motivating force. Self-efficacy defines the direction towards a goal,
by providing suitable processes and mechanisms that enable people to exert control over their
lives and actively contribute to their happiness (Bandura, 1997; Caprara, 2002).
Attention should also be called to the fact that the earlier findings underscore a
conceptual model in which an individualís perceived efficacy in affect management influences
his perceived efficacy in managing interpersonal relationships while both of them, jointly,
contribute to positive orientation (Caprara & Steca, 2005; 2006a, 2006b). Present-day findings
reveal the contribution of positive psychology to perceived efficacy and further illuminate the
contribution of perceived efficacy to positive orientation in the course of time. It is worth
pointing out that the perceived emotional and social efficacy contributes to positive orientation
components, namely, to self-esteem and life satisfaction, over a high stability of positive
orientation over time.
Although these are only preliminary results (Caprara, 2009), they are very encouraging
since they show that self-efficacy pertinent to affect and social relations can contribute
significantly to the reinforcement of positive orientation. In this respect, social cognitive theory
proves that successful experiences are an efficient means of promoting self-efficacy beliefs and
supplying directions for the creation and implementation of appropriate interventions that will
enable people to become more efficient in affect regulation and interpersonal relations.
Over the last decade there has been a sparked interest in positive traits of individual
functioning, due to or in accordance with the theoretical and empirical development of the
movement called positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
The research program of this movement is directed at human strengths and the discovery
of new ways of enhancing an individualís potentials. Positive orientation is a term which
embodies life satisfaction, self-esteem and optimism
2009). It represents an
omnipresent method of facing reality, reflecting on experience, framing events and processing
personal and interpersonal experiences across time and life circumstances.
Studies which we summarized in this paper attest to positive orientation being a far-
reaching predisposition which can have a tremendous impact on oneís outlook and the use of
oneís potentials. Recent findings verify the key role which self-efficacy beliefs in the field of
affect regulation and interpersonal relationships can play in promoting an individualís positive
V. Petrovi
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Submitted October 2, 2010
Accepted December 1, 2010