An Intellectual Movement for the Masses
10 years after its founding, positive psychology struggles with its own success
Many scholars labor in obscurity, but the researchers presenting their work this summer at a meeting of the International Positive Psychology Association had no such problem: More than 1,500 people from 52 countries came to listen. They packed the ballroom of the Philadelphia Sheraton for the keynote speakers, Martin E.P. Seligman and Philip G. Zimbardo, whose talks were projected onto four giant video screens. They filled the aisles for a lecture by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, until hotel security arrived to dislodge them. Between panel sessions, they lined up to ask scholars like Barbara L. Fredrickson to sign books and pose for photos.
"To see this number of people here 10 years after Marty [Seligman] founded positive psychology is a remarkable achievement," Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the association, told the enthusiastic crowd. "We've made huge inroads."
No question about that. In the past decade, positive-psychology research has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in grants. Studies of emotional well-being and its many facets, once next to impossible to find, are now routinely presented at meetings of the Association for Psychological Science and published in the discipline's leading journals. Dozens of colleges offer courses in positive psychology, and in 2007, Csikszentmihalyi founded a Ph.D. program in the specialty at Claremont Graduate University.
But the success of positive psychology has a flip side. The research has advanced alongside the mushrooming of a hungry popular market for guidance on what "happiness" really is and the tools—called "happiness interventions" in the lingo—that help people achieve it. Guides to happiness, many of them written by scholars, fill bookstore shelves. Membership in the International Coach Federation, one of several organizations that certifies life coaches (as well as career and executive coaches), has grown from just over 2,000 in 1999 to more than 13,000 this year.
Academic psychologists are ambivalent about this market, but it is a market that they helped create: The IPPA was formed in 2007 explicitly to share the science of positive psychology with a broad audience, and the bulk of attendees at the Philadelphia meeting were corporate consultants, coaches, and other people hoping to apply researchers' findings in their own professions.