A Fine Mess

Positive Psychology is a theoretical mess. For example, it has no consensus definition. Most scientific disciplines can be characterized in terms of identifiable categories in nature that are their objects of study. Cytology is the study of cells. Kinematics is a branch of mechanics that studies motion. The way experts characterize Positive Psychology is nothing like this. Sometimes they characterize it in fuzzy normative terms.

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what goes right in life, from birth to death and at all stops in between (Peterson 2006, 4).

Positive Psychology aims to help people live and flourish rather than merely to exist (Keyes & Haidt 2003, 3).

The label of Positive Psychology represents those efforts of professionals to help people optimize human functioning by acknowledging strengths as well as deficiencies, and environmental resources in addition to stressors (Wright and Lopez 2005, 42).

These descriptions give us an intuitive grasp of Positive Psychology. But they should be backed somewhere by a clear, accurate account of the field. And they’re not.

Other characterizations are framed in terms of real psychological categories. But they’re long, non-exhaustive laundry lists. For example, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000, 5) characterize Positive Psychology in terms of 26 items it studies, including satisfaction, courage, aesthetic sensibility, wisdom, nurturance and moderation. Why do spirituality and work ethic make their list but not pleasure? They don’t say.


Positive Psychology has normative aspirations – it offers advice about how to promote happiness and well-being. Positive Psychology is asking for trouble if it offers advice but isn’t clear about what that advice is promoting. 

One danger is that charlatans will fill the gap with New Age mumbo-jumbo, cloak themselves in scientific respectability, and make Positive Psychology look bad.

Another danger is that serious critics who see Positive Psychology making recommendations will infer correctly that it must be in the business of promoting something. If the psychology itself isn’t clear about what it’s promoting, these critics might fill the gap uncharitably. They might argue that Positive Psychology is promoting deeply flawed or even dangerous values – a provincial, moralistic conception of the good life, a delusional optimism-at-all-costs attitude, or a superficial “smiley face” hedonism.

I raise these dangers only to drop them. My goal here is not to answer critics of Positive Psychology. My goal is to articulate what Positive Psychology is about and what its recommendations, when they’re right, seek to promote.


We now face two demands for the same thing. To implement the inclusive approach, we need to figure out what psychologists who study well-being are studying. And to fill the hole at the heart of Positive Psychology, we need to do the same thing. So let’s get to it. (I must warn you: What comes next is a bit terse. For more details and citations, I recommend chapter 4 of TGL.)


Positive Psychology is full of studies identifying correlations and causal connections among positive feelings (e.g., positive affect, happiness, cheerfulness), positive attitudes (e.g., optimism, hope), positive traits (e.g., extraversion, curiosity, perseverance), and objective facts, especially accomplishments (e.g., strong relationships, professional or academic accomplishment).

Some studies show that these states can form positive cycles or “upward spirals”:

optimism <—> success

happiness <—> stronger friendships

curiosity <—> greater knowledge

good relationship skills <—> good relationships

positive affect <—> volunteer work.

A number of longitudinal studies show that people high in one of these states tend to be high in others years or even decades later (e.g., Cheerfulness Study; Nun Study; Yearbook Study).

So here’s a hypothesis that explains these three families of findings (connections among positive feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments; “upward spirals” involving these states; and long-term correlations among those states). 

H1: There exist reasonably stable, self-maintaining causal networks, and these networks are made up of feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments that people tend to find pleasant or valuable.

The idea that such networks exist is not one I’m imposing on the scientific literature. Psychologists have identified, described and theorized about these sorts of networks, though they describe them differently (e.g., Barbara Fredrickson; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener).

These networks need a name. I call them ‘Positive Causal Networks’ (or PCNs). The name is unfortunate because it almost demands that you ask “What makes them positive?” This question is premature. H1 is an empirical claim about the existence of a certain condition. I could have, and maybe should have, called it something normatively neutral. But don’t worry. We’ll get to normativity worries soon enough. 


Here’s a second hypothesis.

H2: Positive Psychology is the study of the structure and dynamics of PCNs.

As already noted, scientific disciplines are often characterized in terms of categories in nature that are their objects of study. H2 does this for Positive Psychology.


So far this post has focused only on how to make sense of Positive Psychology. Now let’s turn to well-being. Recall that the inclusive approach says that the correct theory of well-being will imply that psychologists studying well-being are actually studying well-being. I’ll introduce my theory tomorrow. To foreshadow: If you grant that the psychological study of well-being is the study of PCNs, that’s going to be a pretty weighty piece of evidence in favor of my theory.



  1. I’m a neurophysiologist by training, and this is not an area I would normally know much about, but as it happens my brother-in-law, Kennon Sheldon, is one of the leaders of the Positive Psychology movement. The following comments should be viewed as coming from a bemused and somewhat skeptical outsider who has read a substantial amount of Positive Psychology literature and had many intense discussions with participants.

    I think that your definitions, although useful, are too restrictive. Positive psychologists themselves struggle to define their field. However there are some points of broad agreement, including:

    (1) The rationale for Positive Psychology was formulated by Martin Seligman in a book called Learned Optimism published in 1998, and the framework was set by the Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000) volume cited in the post, especially the chapter written by the editors; also by a pair of meetings that took place in Akumal in the late 1990s.

    (2) Positive Psychology is intended to be a complement to Clinical Psychology. Clinical Psychology tries to cure mental illness; Positive Psychology tries to promote mental well-being.

    The activities that Positive Psychologists carry out in their daily work can be divided into two parts, descriptive and prescriptive. The descriptive part aims at a theoretical understanding of the laws and mechanisms that govern happiness and satisfaction. The prescriptive part uses that theoretical understanding as a basis for advice and interventions.

    “Positive Causal Networks” certainly come into play, but much of the descriptive literature operates at a more basic level, studying the correlation of various factors with various measures of well-being without making assumptions about the underlying dynamics. For example a typical study might examine whether gaining a friend or getting a job lead to greater changes in self-reported satisfaction. There is no necessary assumption that these events modulate satisfaction by activating feedback loops.

    I doubt that this invalidates your overall message, but I thought that the point ought to be raised.

    Best regards, Bill

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  3. Michael Bishop

    Thanks for your great comments, Bill. I think that we have a lot of agreement here. Let me focus on three points you make.

    1. You’re right that a lot of Positive Psychology studies correlations. For example, folks like Ed Diener do a lot of great work identifying correlations among measures of “subjective well-being” and various factors (e.g., income, length of commute, personality measures). As you know, what these SWB instruments measure is a matter of some controversy. (I consider this issue in chapter 6 of TGL.) Diener, Scollon and Lucas argue that SWB includes (among other things) joy, contentment, happiness, love, life satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning, and success (2003, 192). All potential elements of PCNs.

    I take it that to investigate the correlations among these sorts of factors *is* to be studying PCNs. Correlation doesn’t establish causation, of course. But I take it that these correlations are one line of evidence that (together with other lines of evidence) start to tell us something about the structure PCNs.

    2. I interpret what you call the “descriptive and prescriptive” parts of Positive Psychology slightly differently. There are studies of the structure of PCNs (which includes the parts of Positive Psychology that aim “at a theoretical understanding of the laws and mechanisms that govern happiness and satisfaction”). And there are studies of the dynamics of PCNs – what tends to establish, promote or strengthen PCNs (which includes some of the “laws and mechanisms” research as well as using “that theoretical understanding as a basis for advice and interventions”).

    So I think we’re seeing the same things in the science. But I’m framing the science in terms of the study of PCNs. Ultimately, whether framing the science in this way is correct is going to depend on the gory details: Does it usefully organize and make sense of Positive Psychology? Insofar as I haven’t given you the gory details, I think your gimlet-eyed skepticism is warranted. But that’s why making this case takes up almost 1/4 of the book.

    3. You say the “descriptive” side of Positive Psychology “aims at a theoretical understanding of the laws and mechanisms that govern happiness and satisfaction.” I think this is how a lot of experts would characterize Positive Psychology. But in order to compare my proposal with this one, I’m afraid I have to ask a mean question:

    What do you mean by “happiness” and “satisfaction”?

    If you try to answer this question, you’re going to soon find yourself bogged down in a lot of tricky philosophy.

    So don’t answer the question. I’m offering you an alternative. Don’t be tormented by philosophers who are going to pick apart your account of “happiness” and “satisfaction.” Embrace Positive Causal Networks. That’s what Positive Psychologists are studying when they seek correlations and causal relationships among positive feelings, attitudes, traits and objective factors (such as accomplishments). And when Positive Psychologists offer you advice, they’re suggesting ways you can establish, maintain or strengthen your PCNs.

    So, Bill, come with me into the light. Avoid the darkness, for that way lies madness.

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