Who were the people who “paved the way” for the modern movement of positive psychology? Who helped turn the focus of psychology from the negative to the positive?
KEYWORDS: Abraham-Hicks, Abraham H. Maslow, Alfred Adler, Carl Rogers, Christopher Peterson, Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychology, Seth, Sigmund Freud, William James.
Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of academic psychology, which started at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead of focusing on diseases and psychological problems (i.e., psychopathology), this new discipline focuses on the positive aspects of life, and what really makes life worth living.
Its “formal” beginning can be traced back to 1998, when Martin Seligman used “Positive Psychology” as the theme for his inaugural speech when becoming President of the American Psychological Association (cf. Seligman 1999; Grenville-Cleave 2016, p. 3).
But even before then, a converging stream of thought from various directions were gradually manifesting, thus leading up to Seligman’s APA inauguration address. But who were those thinkers that paved the way for positive psychology in modern times?
A man commonly referred to as an important figure in the history of psychology and philosophy, William James (1842-1910) is also one of the forerunners in terms of the idea of a positive psychology.
When I mention William James in the context of psychology, some of you may be thinking of his well-received two-volume work Principles of Psychology. But, as I see it, that work is not as important in relation to positive psychology as one of his other works, The Will to Believe.
For in The Will to Believe we find an essay called “Is Life Worth Living?”, which was originally a lecture delivered to the Harvard Young Men’s Christian Association [see notes 1, 2, and 3].
In this eminent essay James does many things, but to me, three things stand out. The first important thing he does is that he, at all, formulated the important question “Is Life Worth Living?”, and did so in a (semi-)academic environment, to a group of Christian university students [see note 4]. So posing that question was very important, even if nothing else would have been done.
But, of course, something more was done: James also answered that question. Thus, in the end paragraph of the essay “Is Life Worth Living?”, he says (1931, p. 62):
“These then are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
So in answering that important question, I see this: First of all I see a general hope and optimism about the project of human life. But I also see an rough sketch of the Law of Attraction in the making: the idea that thoughts and beliefs create our reality.
In other words, James here points us to the idea that our psychological state is a causal factor which determines how things turn out for us. Thus, if we adopt a very positive mood, then we will essentially be creating the circumstances for a much healthier and happier life.
And the third important thing that I see in that essay is found in the immediately preceding paragraph (1931, p. 62):
“. . . and to quote my friend William Salter, of the Philadelphia Ethical Society, ‘as the essence of courage is to stake one’s life on a possibility, so the essence of faith is to believe that the possibility exists’.”
This passage, to me, indicates that human life is about “possibilities”. And only those who really believe that they are free enough to be eligible for those “possibilities”, and thus embrace them fully, are the ones that will truly live.
In other words, one has to believe not only in the general idea of a “free will”, but also in the idea that “free will” is practically applicable to oneself. And that one is worthy enough to “cash in on” those possibilities, so that one can truly flourish.
Alfred Adler (1870-1937) had always wanted to become a physician, after having experienced a serious case of pneumonia at the age of 5, and after having lost his infant brother (Stewart 2000, p. 37b).
After completing his training at the Medical School at the University of Vienna in 1895, and after having published his Health Book for the Tailor Trade in 1898, he was invited by Sigmund Freud in 1902 to participate in weekly gatherings to discuss various psychological disorders [see note 5] (Hanks and Stratton 1997, p. 2).
But Freud’s and Adler’s perspectives developed quite differently (Hanks and Stratton 1997, p. 2):
“Adler argued that behaviour is determined by expectations about what we hope to achieve in the future, not by what we have done in the past, or what others have done to us.”
This divergence culminated in Adler’s resignation from the Psychoanalytical Society in 1911, and the start of his own school, the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research, which in 1913 was rebranded as the Society for Individual Psychology [see note 6] (Roeckelein 1998, p. 13; Stewart 2000, p. 38a).
Divorced from the association of Freud and his essentially pessimistic idea of humanity (Compton 2005, p. 158a), Adler now went on to formulate several concepts and ideas, which, after having experienced World War I, were, to a great deal, focusing on two things: the individual’s inner creative force, and the importance of the individual’s connection and integration into society.
So there is, for Adler, a very individual creative force at play in our lives, where we create our personalities ourselves from our raw abilities and our experiences. Thus, Roeckelein says (1998, p. 13):
“the creative self is the ‘active’ principle of human life and is not unlike the older concept of the soul.”
Humans main motivation is power, and they are, by nature, “superiority hunters”, driven to compensate for any perceived feeling of inferiority. This drives the individual to develop a certain “style of life” that he or she then, throughout his or her life, adjusts and refines, with the help of their creative force. This “style of life” can be detected by Adlerian psychotherapy (Misiak and Sexton 1966, p. 397).
And by participating in social projects that are “morally approved” by the community, individuals can achieve such compensation. But they may also, in some cases, achieve a state of overcompensation, or a “retreat into illness” (Roeckelein 1998, p. 13; Misiak and Sexton 1966, p. 397).
Adler’s idea that humans main motivation is power was initially termed an “aggression drive”, because of the frustration an individual feels when their desires are not met. However, in another rebranding move, Adler later was talking about the more soft-sounding idea called “the strive for perfection”, which was quite similar to Abraham Maslow’s idea of “self-actualization” (Salamone 2003, p. 34).
Carl Rogers (1902-1987) is probably best known for creating the “non-directive” (or “person-centered”) type of phychotherapy. But using his clinical experience, he also developed various theories concerning the development of a person (Sheehy 1997, p. 484b).
Unlike the pessimism of the standard Freudian approach to psychoanalysis, Rogers basically goes with Adler and Maslow in having an optimistic humanistic perspective, where humans are depicted as having a “self-actualizing tendency”, with innate capabilities and potentialities for creating a healthy and fulfilling life for themselves (Compton 2005, p. 159a; Roeckelein 1998, pp. 413-414).
In his theory of the self, he highlights the importance of the self-concept (i.e., the self-image) of an individual, and the individual’s ongoing evaluation of the world around him, and the necessity to either ignore the perceived data, or, alternatively, to update one’s self-conception [see note 7] (Roeckelein 1998, p. 414).
The importance of a well-defined and flexible self-concept for Rogers cannot be overstated. A “fully functional life” really depends on the management and the development of one’s self-image. To be successful in one’s self-actualization, one’s self-image must be “stable” enough in order for the individual not to be overwhelmed by emotions (Compton 2005, p. 159b).
Along with Maslow, Rogers also wanted a new type of psychology for the future. In his 1964 article “Toward a science of the person” he was talking about the trend which (as quoted in Misiak and Sexton 1966, p. 466):
“. . . will attempt to face up to all of the realities in the psychological realm. Instead of being restrictive and inhibiting, it will throw open the whole range of human experiencing to scientific study.”
One of the early proponents of a new type of psychology was Abraham Maslow (1908-1970).
In his 1954 book Motivation and Personality Maslow had a chapter called “Toward a Positive Psychology”. That particular chapter, however, was removed in the second edition of that book, since “what was 98 percent true in 1954 is only two-thirds true today ” (Maslow 1970, p. xxiii; my square brackets).
Maslow’s reasoning was that the situation had changed considerably since 1954. For in 1970 his estimation was that “a positive psychology is at least available today though not very widely” (Maslow 1970, p. xxiii).
And what did Maslow refer to? He mentions the humanistic psychologies (which, of course, includes his own works), the new “transcendental psychologies”, the existentialist philosophies [see note 8], the Carl Rogers school of psychology, etc.
So there is a movement toward the positive, toward the constructive. But, as Maslow himself admits (Maslow 1970, p. xxiii; my square brackets):
“all [of these schools of thought] are thriving and available, at least in the United States, though unfortunately not yet in most departments of psychology.”
That, however, was an exaggerated statement, in my view. For at that time, just a few months after Neil Armstrong had taken his first steps on the surface of the moon, there was, to my knowledge, no formal academic psychology program at any accredited academic institution in the United States (or elsewhere, I suppose) that fully embraced positive psychology or anything like it.
But perhaps there were some select colleges and universities that began inserting a course here and there in their curriculum, which perhaps is what Maslow is referring to. And that would fit well with his statement that “the interested student must seek them [i.e., the psychological theories, or the courses containing such theories] out or just stumble across them” (Maslow 1970, p. xxiii; my square brackets).
In any case, Maslow’s main contribution to positive psychology might be said to be his theory of self-actualization, which, in its original statement in the first edition of Motivation and Personality was described as using one’s talents and potentialities in the most complete way (Compton 2005, p. 160b; Wolfe 1997, p. 384).
One important thing to note was that Maslow’s theory was not based on studies of individuals who were dysfunctional in various ways (as the theories of some of his colleagues were), but on observations of healthy, creative, and “self-actualized” persons (Roeckelein 1998, p. 318).
Thus, Maslow clearly indicated that the future of psychology was the move in perspective from contemplating symptoms and diseases and childhood trauma to the positive, life-enhancing perspective of possibilities, potential, and self-fulfillment.
The Law of Attraction Authors
One factor that, in my opinion, has influenced the development of positive psychology to a large degree is the rise of the philosophy of Law of Attraction.
The school of Law of Attraction, we might say, started with Phineas Quimby (1802-1866), Prentis Mulford (1834-1891), and other early authors. The interest for the Law of Attraction only grew with time, with its promise of a more positive, happy, and fulfilling life.
Thus, in the 1960s and onward we saw authors such as Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Maxwell Maltz (Psycho-Cybernetics; see my book review of it), and Rhonda Byrne (The Secret) sell enormous amounts of books, thus inspiring millions of people to live a better life, by reminding them of the innate creative power of their own minds.
As this movement of Law of Attraction went on, with “ordinary” writers theorizing and expounding on the things that other authors had said before, while adding their own realizations and experiences, two extraordinary sources of the Law of Attraction appeared that radically increased the interest, not only for “normal” people, but also for those who were more academically and scholarly minded.
First out was the non-physical personality named Seth. He was “channeled” by Jane Roberts (1929-1984), beginning in September 1963 (Roberts 1994, p. vii). Seth outlined not only how the Law of Attraction works, but also explained in great detail, like a professor of quantum physics, the architecture and functionality of the physical and non-physical worlds. Seth has inspired many intelligent and creative people, such as Deepak Chopra (Seven Spiritual Laws of Success), Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), Louise Hay (You Can Heal Your Life), and Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love).
The second wave came when the non-physical personality named Abraham appeared. He was, and still is, “channeled” by Esther Hicks (1948-), beginning in November 1985, right before Thanksgiving (Hicks 2004, p. xxvi). Abraham’s way of teaching is less academic and more “immediate and practical” than Seth’s, and thus attracts a larger audience.
Abraham focuses mostly on the many practical aspects of how the Law of Attraction works, and how manifestations come about. But Abraham’s focus is not primarily the manifestations themselves (e.g., money, cars, condos, etc.), but the mood of the person who wants to manifest. Only by attaining positivity and happiness first, will the desired manifestations follow. Thus, there is a very strong focus on managing one’s own psychology, in order to (slowly) build a thoroughly positive personality.
My idea is thus that these two sources, Seth and Abraham-Hicks, together with all the other “ordinary” authors of the Law of Attraction, has changed the emotional atmosphere of the Western world. By injecting hope, happiness, and optimism not only in ordinary people, but also in new authors, the message of positivity and happiness has exponentially spread throughout human society, including to some (academic) psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts.
So here we are in the nineties. Now the positive psychology movement really starts taking off.
Here we have Christopher Peterson and Lisa M. Bossio writing about the virtue of optimism in regard to good health in Health and Optimism (1991). In this important book, Peterson and Bossio touch on some very interesting topics, such as “Optimistic and Pessimistic Thinking” (p. 12), “Becoming an Optimist” (p. 135), and “Optimism and Society” (p. 169).
Another main original contributor to the field of positive psychology is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who in 1992 wrote Flow: The Psychology of Happiness (new edition: 2002). In that classic work the concept of “flow” is introduced as “the process of total involvement with life” (2002, p. xi). This book contains lots of positive psychology-type research about joy, creativity and the happy life.
To round off this article, let us quickly consider the title of Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi’s 2006 book A Life Worth Living. Although the authors do not even list William James in the Authors Index of their book, their work, as I see it, is a reply to William James’s 1895 speech to the Harvard Young Men’s Christian Association. And that reply is: Life is, indeed, worth living.
There are, naturally, many important persons and concepts missing from this article, since I decided to make this text relatively compact.
But I do think that it still performs nicely, as a quick outline of some of the more important theories and developments in relation to the emergence of that new, optimistic, and exciting academic field of study named positive psychology.
- There was, to my knowledge, no formal Harvard-specific YMCA association at the time of James’s lecture (although it would have been a natural development, since YMCA has been categorized as one of the “student evangelical organizations”; Sack 1998, p. 704b). According to the footnote on the first page of “Is Life Worth Living?”, the essay was first published in October 1895 (in the International Journal of Ethics), which means that (most probably) the lecture itself must have been delivered before that date. But the only “stationary” YMCA organization that existed in that area at that time, to my knowledge, was the regular Boston YMCA, which was originally founded on 29 December 1851 (Doggett 1901, p. 12).
- However, 1895 and 1896 were really the years for the creation of the six YMCA college Associations. But it seems that the first one was not officially founded until in December 1895, after which five others followed: “In December [of 1895] a college Association was organized in the Harvard Medical School, and later one in the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy” and “[in 1896] College Associations were established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the College of Liberal Arts, the University Law School and the University Medical School” (Doggett 1901, p. 94; my square brackets).
- The solution to this conundrum is, I suppose, to be flexible in regard to the interpretation of the word “association”. For if we grant the idea that an “association” might be just an occasional, one-time gathering of people (or perhaps a recurring one, but in any case of a somewhat informal “philosophy club” character, as alluded to in James’s Preface; 1931, p. vii) then we may conclude that the lecture was most probably held at Harvard Medical School sometime during 1895, most likely not in the summer semester, but either in the spring or in the early fall. And that is confirmed by The Crimson (Harvard’s own daily newspaper), which, in a review of William James’s “Is Life Worth Living”, wrote: “originally an address given before the Young Men’s Christian Association of Harvard University in May, 1895” (The Crimson, 27 May 1896).
- By stating that the meeting was (semi-)academic, I simply mean that it was not a lecture as part of a formal course at Harvard University. Rather it was a lecture in a more relaxed “philosophy club” kind of setting, with Harvard (Medical School only?) students attending.
- These weekly gatherings later morphed into what would be known as the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (Stewart 2000, p. 38a).
- Stewart says that the Society for Free Psychoanalysis was rebranded in 1913 to Society for Individual Psychology (Stewart 2000, p. 38a). But Salamone states that this name-change was done in 1912 (Salamone 2003, p. 34a).
- The idea of a “self-image” (i.e. “self-concept”) was popularized by writers such as Maxwell Maltz, who published his bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960. Carl Rogers published one version of his theory of self in his Client-Centered Therapy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951).
- When Maslow talks about “the existential [philosophies]” (1970, p. xxiii; my square brackets) as an example of a positive psychology, he does not mention that he already had written about that school of thought. For in the second edition of Toward a Psychology of Being he talks more about the existential movement. So in the second chapter, called “What Psychology Can Learn from the Existentialists” he essentially says that their study of “the authentic person” and “authentic living” has helped in the sense of a shifted focus onto well-being instead of on sickness, pain, and other negative states (Maslow 1968, pp. 8-17).
Compton, William C. (2005), An Introduction to Positive Psychology. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. [Link to book]
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2002), Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness. With a New Introduction by the Author. London: Rider. First published in the USA by Harper & Row. [Link to book]
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi (2006), A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]
Doggett, L. L. (1901) History of the Boston Young Men’s Christian Association. Boston: The Young Men’s Christian Association. [Link to book]
Grenville-Cleave, Bridget (2016), Positive Psychology: A Toolkit for Happiness, Purpose and Well-Being. London: Icon Books Ltd. [Link to book]
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Hicks, Esther and Jerry Hicks (2004), Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc. [Link to book]
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Roberts, Jane (1994), Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul. A Seth Book. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing; and Novato, CA: New World Library. [Link to book]
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Sack, Daniel (1998), “Social Gospel” in Robert Wuthnow, ed., The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. London: Routledge. [Link to book]
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First published: Thu 21 Apr 2022
Last revised: Mon 18 Jul 2022