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Samantha Palmisano*  &
Alison Johnson, PsyD

"The aim of Positive Psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life." ~ Martin Seligman


As human beings, it is in our nature to strive to achieve happiness and a sense of well-being. However, it is also in our nature to worry and try to predict negative events!  It’s only human to want to be ahead of everything so that we can dodge life’s bullets. What happens? Our negative thinking wins out!  Most of the time we are worrying about events which will never happen.  To quote Mark Twain, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. Worrying is like paying a debt you don't owe. I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened.”


Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychotherapy, began researching “learned helplessness”, a condition where humans give up trying to change their situation or behaviors in the absence of hope, or in a traumatic event where they feel powerless.  Dr. Seligman thought that if humans can learn helplessness, then the opposite could be true too.  He set about scientifically researching how humans could learn to be positive, happy and live more meaningful lives.  He coined the term “learned optimism,” or the pursuit of authentic happiness.  He stressed the importance of instilling meaning and purpose into our lives, rather than chasing moments of fleeting happiness. 


Often people believe that in order to be happy one must completely resolve their problems.  Positive psychology takes a different approach.  Rather, positive psychologists stress the notion that there is no genuine recovery in trying to eliminate problems altogether.  The focus is on developing and growing skills and personal strengths, not just to weather the storm, but also to create the very best versions of ourselves.


As a type of guide, Dr. Seligman created PERMA.  There are five “components” scientifically proven to help people learn to live and thrive. These five components include Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.  These components were grouped together to make the anacronym “PERMA.”


  • Positive Emotion; emotions such as kindness, gratitude, hope, and compassion are all positive emotions that help people to look back on the past, observe the present, and look into the future with an optimistic outlook.

  • Engagement; becoming involved in the things that we truly enjoy and care about. Being engaged in an activity we enjoy helps us to remain in the moment.


  • Relationships; i.e. positive relationships, connecting with the people around us in an authentic way creates a feeling of overall joy. Giving and receiving support from healthy relationships helps increase resiliency.


  • Meaning; dedicating our time to something greater than ourselves, such as altruism, helps us to achieve a sense of fulfillment.


  • Accomplishment; having ambition and making goals for ourselves of any size, and completing those goals, contributes to our sense of achievement.


As we know, humans differ with their values, personal interests, and lifestyles. Positive Psychologists studied over 24 human characteristics and then grouped them further into 6 groups of virtues (qualities considered to be morally good.)


The organization of the 6 virtues and 24 strengths is as follows:


  1. Wisdom and knowledge: creativitycuriosityopen-mindednesslove of learningperspectiveinnovation

  2. Courage: braverypersistenceintegrityvitalityzest

  3. Humanity: lovekindnesssocial intelligence

  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership

  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercyhumilityprudenceself-control

  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellencegratitudehopehumorspirituality


By identifying our character strengths, Positive Psychologists turned their attention to ways in which these characteristics can be developed and then used to benefit the individual’s well-being.  Being in your “Flow” is described as being in a zone or the “sweet spot,” when a person’s strengths combine with a need or a challenge. 


Positive psychologists took their research findings to apply them to the field of psychotherapy.  Most people are used to walking into a therapist’s office and being asked to talk about the troubling issues that have come up in their life.  The focus of therapy tends to go towards describing what is wrong, finding out what caused it, and then “fixing it.”   Positive Psychotherapy, often abbreviated as PPT, also encourages people to accept those hardships, but without passing over what is good and strong in their lives. Moreover, there does not need to be anything “wrong” with a person to benefit from Positive Psychotherapy.  The focus is on building strengths and satisfaction in life and to move beyond merely surviving to really “flourishing.”  It’s not just about whether you experience the glass half empty or half full.  The goal is to create a life where your cup “runs over!”


“So Positive Psychology takes seriously the bright hope that if you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfillment: meaning and purpose.”


Martin Seligman (2011). “Authentic Happiness”, p.10, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

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* Samantha Palmisano

* Samantha Palmisano is an intern at Summit Psychological Services.  She is a rising senior at The College of New Jersey in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.  She is anticipating completing her Bachelor’s Degree in 2020.

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