Positive Psychology hit the headlines last year with announcement of the launch of ‘happy schools’. At these schools, happiness will be placed at the heart of the curriculum in order to developoptimism and ambition. These happy schools are not based on airy-fairy wishful thinking, but on the empirically researched psychological framework of positive psychology, pioneered by Martin Seligman.  As well as giving pupils the opportunity to thrive in education positive psychology has been used in a sporting context to help athletes flourish.

The ‘urge to grow’, has been of interest to psychologists since the mid-1900s. This premature form of positive psychology is exemplified in Watson’s research on ‘growth of emotional habits’ and Jung’s work on mans’ search for meaning. But, following World War Two, curing mental illness became the focus of psychology, with little funding for research on making the lives of people better. It was not until the 21st Century that positive psychology was formalised by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi and resumed receiving financial support. There has since been a positive psychology boom in the academic world and in pop psychology.

The aim of positive psychology is to build thriving individuals, families and communities by understanding the science of human strength.  Previously, theories on the development of human potential, were not empirically tested and were confined to philosophy, religion, and the ‘scientifically unreliable’ humanistic psychology. Positive psychology provides scientifically informed perspectives on optimal human functioning and fulfilment, evidenced by nearly 1000 articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

Psychometric tests, such as the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS)m have further enhanced the scientific rigour of positive psychology as an evidence-based practice.. The development of a Well-Being Theory Questionnaire to measure the facets of human flourishing will add empirical rigour to the latest theory in positive psychology – Seligman’s work, Flourish.

Unlike mainstream psychology, positive psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive. It studies life at three levels: the subjective (positive experience), the individual (character strengths), and the community level.

Positive psychology distinguishes itself from the ‘disease model’ of psychology. Unlike the behaviourist approach, it does not view individuals as passive vessels but as agentic decision makers. Seligman criticises the cognitive approach for treating people as information processing machines because computers lack self-awareness and do not create their own meanings. Positive psychology also differentiates itself from psychoanalysis and its pathogenic assumption that the pursuit of pleasure is merely avoidance of pain .

Critics argue that positive psychology ignores contextual moderators, but the revolutionary movement continues to flourish with Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi being joined by renowned professionals (e.g. Social Psychologist Roy Baumeister, Psychiatrist Richard Davidson, and Developmental Psychologist Richard Tufts) at the Third World Congress on Positive Psychology later this year.

Positive psychology focuses on amplifying strengths to buffer against psychopathology. Therapeutic methods have been developed to use in positive psychotherapy and to help all individuals to flourish rather than just endure and survive.

Cultivating gratitude is an empirically supported intervention. Writing and delivering a letter of gratitude was found to cause large positive changes, however the increase in happiness only lasted for one month. Gratitude workshops and gratitude diary keeping were found to have more enduring effects in applied settings with adults and children.

The ‘Three good things’ exercise has been found to have a lasting impact on happiness. Seligman’s results were replicated by Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews. finding that happiness levels remained raised in a six month follow up. Both studies utilised the Steen Happiness Index (SHI), which, whilst being empirically valid, reduces the richness of happiness to a quantifiable construct. Although no qualitative research has been conducted specifically on the ‘three good things’ exercise, counting blessings was found to enhance optimism and life satisfaction in an interview study of alcohol-misusing adolescents.

Savouring is used to help treat depression through increasing the intensity and duration of a positive emotion. Psychometrics such as the Emotion Regulation Profile-Revised (ERP-R) have found savouring to be an effective method for promoting positive affect, life satisfaction and wellbeing, supported further by qualitative research.

Using signature strengths in a new way is one of the most effective therapeutic techniques in positive psychology. By identifying their top five signature strengths through the VIA-IS and using them in a new way every day for a week, participants displayed a long term improvement in happiness. This intervention has had a positive impact in various contexts, including workplace wellbeing, physical and mental health, and goal setting.

Other evidence-based therapeutic methods used in positive psychology include recalling positive early memories, integrating activities that promote pleasure, engagement and meaning into each day, and using optimistic explanatory styles. What unites all these interventions is the focus on positive, self-relevant information in order to nurture what is best.

Positive psychology interventions can be used in a sporting context to extend and enrichen sport psychology. Positive emotion is an element of Seligman’s theory of flourishing that is necessary for successful performance in sport, featuring in models of sporting performance such as the Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning.

Physically, positive emotions can reduce the risk of injury in athletes by increasing immune function – particularly important to athletes such as tennis player Venus Williams who suffers from an immune disorder.

Positive emotions increase sporting motivation and commitment, and boost self-belief, concentration and resilience and can also improve team cohesion through emotional contagion. Increasing positive emotions directly (e.g. rewards, listening to music) or indirectly (e.g. self-talk, mental imagery) can therefore be effective in enhancing sport performance– the exception being for sports such as motor racing where athletes are often unduly optimistic already.

Engagement is a key feature of positive psychology, leading to the high performance state of flow. Mindfulness-based psychological skills training (MBCST) can help athletes achieve this flow state. Mindfulness can be increased by athletes identifying their signature strengths which then serves to bolster these strengths in a virtuous circle.  A sense of control can also foster flow, with an internal locus of control correlated with better mental skills in elite athletes.

Kauffman suggests that a combination of external and internal feedback can help athletes achieve this high performance state of flow, supported by applied research on golfers. 

Hope (consisting of flexible thinking and sense of agency) is an element of positive psychology that is related to enhanced athletic performance and is negatively correlated with burnout. Brainstorming, positive self-affirmations and the ‘five pillars’ exercise are all interventions which can foster hope in athletes.

Empirical evidence supports positive psychology interventions in a sporting context but its practical application has so far been limited; many coaches still constrain sport psychology’s use to problem, pain and pathology rather than applying it to nurturing strength, virtues and dreams.

In conclusion positive psychology is a rapidly expanding area of thriving science to help people flourish. As with any psychological framework, positive psychology should not be treated as a cookie-cutter approach, and future research must consider how situation-specific factors interact with positive experiences and character strengths. Interventions such as savouring and use of signature strengths have been effective in increasing wellbeing, motivation and performance in a variety of contexts, including sport. With the mainstream disease model of human functioning negatively affecting human flourishing, positive  psychology provides a revolutionary approach, offering techniques to build thriving athletes within sport, and create flourishing individuals within families, communities and societies.