Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective
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Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective

Foundations, Concepts, and Applications

Charles Hackney

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eBook - ePub

Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective

Foundations, Concepts, and Applications

Charles Hackney

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"Some theories of [psychology] are based largely on the behavior of sick and anxious people or upon the antics of captive and desperate rats. Fewer theories have been derived from the study of healthy human beings, those who strive not so much to preserve life as to make it worth living. Thus we find... many studies of criminals, few of law-abiders; many of fear, few of courage; more on hostility than on affiliation; much on the blindness in man, little on his vision; much on his past, little on his outreaching into the future." —Gordon Allport, 1955Originally the field of psychology had a threefold mission: to cure mental illness, yes, but also to find ways to make life fulfilling for all and to maximize talent. Over the last century, a focus on mental illness has often been prioritized over studies of health, to the point that many people assume "psychologist" is just another way of saying "psychotherapist." This book is about one attempt to restore the discipline's larger mission.Positive psychology attends to what philosophers call "the good life." It is about fostering strength and living well—about how to do a good job at being human. Some of that will involve cheerful emotions, and some of it will not. There are vital roles to be played by archetypal challenges such as those involving self-control, guilt, and grit, and even the terror of death enters into positive psychology's vision of human flourishing.Charles Hackney connects this still-new movement to foundational concepts in philosophy and Christian theology. He then explores topics such as subjective states, cognitive processes, and the roles of personality, relationships, and environment, also considering relevant practices in spheres from the workplace to the church and even the martial arts dojo. Hackney takes seriously the range of critiques positive psychology has faced as he frames a constructive future for Christian contributions to the field.Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) Books explore how Christianity relates to mental health and behavioral sciences including psychology, counseling, social work, and marriage and family therapy in order to equip Christian clinicians to support the well-being of their clients.

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Part One


Chapter One

What Is Positive Psychology?

Life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do.


A little over two decades ago, the president of the American Psychological Association, Martin E. P. Seligman, announced the beginning of a new direction in psychological research and practice. He called this movement “positive psychology,” the “study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing and optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p. 203). Since then, positive psychology has exploded in popularity and influence, spawning graduate degrees, research centers, international conferences, and academic journals. Positive psychology has been embraced by researchers and practitioners in every subdiscipline of psychology. Teachers have begun employing positive psychology in the classroom (Gilman, Huebner, & Furlong, 2009). Employers and business consultants have been applying positive psychology in the workplace (Froman, 2010). The US Army built the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program on a foundation of positive psychology (Casey, 2011). Politicians have discussed using positive psychology to shape public policy (Cameron, 2010).
Positive psychology has also seen application in the church (McMinn, 2017). Theologians (e.g., Charry, 2010) and biblical scholars (e.g., Strawn, 2012) have brought Christian ideas about happiness and flourishing to center stage. Many Christian colleges and universities have added courses in positive psychology to their roster. Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought dedicated its 2013–2014 research theme to “Psychology and Spiritual Formation” (Crisp, Porter, & Ten Elshof, 2019), including the question, “How does positive psychology contribute to a Christian understanding of human flourishing?” Flourishing, it seems, is a hot topic all over.


When Seligman launched positive psychology in 1998, he argued that the movement was necessary because the field had become unbalanced. Originally, psychology had a threefold mission: “curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 6). However, events in the twentieth century led to the first of those missions being prioritized over the second and third, to the point that nowadays many people think psychologist is just another way of saying “one who cures mental illness.”
Let’s look at how that happened.


The title of the first official positive psychology book is Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Seligman, 2002). Note the use of the word new to describe positive psychology. Similarly, Seligman’s 2011 book is titled Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Much of the excitement about positive psychology is the sense that it is a new direction for psychology. However, positive psychologists are aware that this approach is “new” only in that it is a revitalization of ideas that have been around for as long as psychology itself.
The first positive psychologist was in fact the first North American psychologist, William James (Taylor, 2001). James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) is primarily concerned with topics such as perception, memory, and the nature of thought, but James also discussed “positive” phenomena such as sympathy and altruism, the constructive drive, play, and aesthetic enjoyment. James’s most extensive treatment of happiness and flourishing can be found in his volume on the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Here, James describes the effect of religious devotion on people’s lives. His primary conclusion is that religion provides a “new zest which adds itself like a gift to life” and an “assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections” (p. 401). We will discuss more recent work on the psychology of religion and flourishing in chapter twenty-one.
Gordon Allport is considered the “patron saint of personality,” having done more than any other scholar to establish the study of normal personality as a mainstream topic for psychological consideration (Nicholson, 2003). Early in his career, Allport found himself in Vienna and, in a fit of fanboyish enthusiasm, arranged for a meeting with the man himself: Sigmund Freud. Allport did not have anything prepared to talk about with Freud, so he tried to make conversation, including relating to Freud a story about a dirt-phobic boy whom Allport had seen on a train. Freud listened (I always imagine him stroking his beard as he did so), then asked, “And was that little boy you?” (Evans, 1971, p. 4). Allport’s impression of Freud was that the great psychiatrist tended to read far too much into things and interpreted far too many observations as indicators of unconscious pathology. As his career progressed and he became a leading figure in the study of personality, Allport (1937, 1955) continued to criticize psychoanalysis for overemphasizing illness and infantile neuroses. He sought to compensate for this tendency by developing the scientific study of the mature personality. His description of psychological maturity emphasized self-acceptance, connections to other people, dedication to higher ideals, zest, security, a well-developed philosophy of life, and an equally well-developed sense of humor (Allport, 1961).
The largest mainstream movement in psychology to take a positive approach to the human condition is humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology arose in reaction to the negative views of human nature among the Freudians and the behaviorists (Maslow, 1962). On one side, Freudians saw humans as neurotic bundles of pathology driven by sex and violence. On the other side were the behaviorists, who in their more radical forms denied human choice, purpose, and dignity. Humanistic psychologists seek to establish a “third force” within mainstream psychology, emphasizing the goodness that can be found in human nature and the possibility for growth and flourishing (Goble, 1970). Abraham Maslow (1962) put it this way: “It is as if Freud supplied to us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half” (p. 5).
Positive psychologists owe a great deal to their humanistic colleagues. Humanistic psychologists redirected the spotlight back onto questions of fulfillment and above-average functioning with their inquiry into topics such as self-actualization (e.g., Rogers, 1961), peak experiences (e.g., Maslow, 1962), and self-determination (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1985). Indeed, Maslow’s “mission statement” quoted above could easily be seen as the mission statement of positive psychology.


Despite the positive psychology being carried out by earlier psychologists, the field as a whole took on a decidedly negative tone after World War II (Seligman, 1999). Twentieth-century warfare was historically unprecedented in its infliction of mental trauma on combatants (Grossman, 1995), and the existing American mental health system was overwhelmed by the number of soldiers returning with such trauma (Pohls & Oak, 2007). To help fill this need, the Veterans Administration (VA) turned to a small group on the margins of psychology: clinical psychologists. Clinical psychology before World War II was primarily focused on psychological tests and measures, with some emphasis also on children experiencing school-related difficulties (McReynolds, 1987). After World War II, though, the VA began encouraging clinical psychologists to expand their consulting work to help treat traumatized veterans, and they dedicated funding for nearly two dozen doctoral programs in clinical psychology. The field of clinical psychology rapidly expanded in popularity, prestige, and power, to the point that by 1962, practicing psychologists outnumbered academic psychologists in the American Psychological Association. Clinical psychology is now the dominant force within psychology.
When this shift in the field is viewed in light of Seligman’s (1999) complaint that psychology had become too negative, it might appear that positive psychologists see the rise of clinical psychology as a bad thing. By no means. Thanks to clinical psychology’s powerful position, we have made tremendous strides in helping those who are experiencing mental health problems, and hopefully we can look forward to further substantial progress over the next half-century. Wanting to help those who are hurting is a good thing. For any students reading this who are considering a career as a clinical psychologist, you have the possibility to do great good pursuing a noble calling. Further, if you want your doctoral training to be specifically shaped by a Christian worldview, there are several Christian universities that offer doctorates in clinical psychology. So do not let me dissuade anyone who wants to work within the “illness” approach to psychology.
That being said, the primary message motivating the positive psychology movement has been that studying illness is not enough by itself. It should be balanced with an equally strong emphasis on studying wellness. To grossly oversimplify things, some positive psychologists (e.g., Gable & Haidt, 2005) use the image of a numerical scale to get this point across. Think of a scale ranging from negative ten to positive ten, with negative ten being the lowest possible depths of misery, the zero point being neutral (neither doing poorly nor doing well), and positive ten being the happiest life possible. Currently, psychology is good at helping people who are around negative six or negative seven to make it up to the neighborhood of zero (maybe positive one on a good day). By contrast, we know very little about how to help people get from the zero point to positive seven.


In 1998, Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association. In his presidential address, Seligman laid out his vision for his tenure, and a major part of that vision was “a new science of human strengths.” He pointed to psychology’s post–World War II status as a field primarily dedicated to repairing damage, and he argued that psychologists should reshape the field in a way that addressed the needs of the twenty-first century: “We can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound and, at the same time, understandable and attractive. We can show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society” (Seligman, 1999, p. 560).
In addition to the power of his position as APA president, Seligman had the financial resources to support his new movement. With backing from the Templeton Foundation, he announced the establishment of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize. This prize, the largest ever offered by the APA ($100,000), was to go to a psychologist who was doing excellent work within positive psychology (the inaugural prize went to Barbara Fredrickson, whose work on positive emotion we will cover in chapter four). Funding from the Gallup Organization helped establish a series of International Positive Psychology Summits in Washington, DC, which gathered hundreds of scholars to present papers and discuss this emerging science of strengths. The Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation supported the creation of positive psychology’s first major reference volume, Character Strengths and Virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), which we will discuss in chapter ten.
Positive psychology has taken off since 1998, and it has shown itself to be one of psychology’s great success stories. In January 2000, American Psychologist dedicated a special issue to this new movement, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers (including Ed Diener, whom we will meet in chapter four) launched the Journal of Happiness Studies. Two years later, Authentic Happiness (Seligman, 2002), the first book about positive psychology, was published. In 2005, the University of Pennsylvania introduced a master’s degree in applied positive psychology. The following year, the first positive psychology textbook (Christopher Peterson’s Primer on Positive Psychology) was published and the Journal of Positive Psychology was launched. In 2007, the International Positive Psychology Association was formed and the first PhD programs in positive psychology were offered at Claremont Graduate University. In 2008, the US Army began its work on the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program (our topic for chapter twenty), applying positive psychology to military personnel. Despite some early claims that all this happiness stuff was just a fad, positive psychology is not showing any signs of going away.


As is the case with everything else in this field, positive psychology has attracted its share of critics. Some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the movement have some teeth, as we will see in chapter twenty-four, while others do not. One of the first misconceptions one encounters in connection with po...


  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication Page
  4. Contents
  5. Part One: The Big Picture
  6. Part Two: Positive Subjective Experiences
  7. Part Three: Positive Cognitions
  8. Part Four: Positive Personality
  9. Part Five: Positive Relationships
  10. Part Six: Applied Positive Psychology
  11. Part Seven: The Positive in the Negative and the Negative in the Positive
  12. References
  13. Index
  14. Notes
  15. Praise for Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective
  16. About the Author
  17. More Titles from InterVarsity Press
  18. Copyright
Zitierstile fĂŒr Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective

APA 6 Citation

Hackney, C. (2021). Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective ([edition unavailable]). InterVarsity Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2984260/positive-psychology-in-christian-perspective-foundations-concepts-and-applications-pdf (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Hackney, Charles. (2021) 2021. Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective. [Edition unavailable]. InterVarsity Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/2984260/positive-psychology-in-christian-perspective-foundations-concepts-and-applications-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Hackney, C. (2021) Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective. [edition unavailable]. InterVarsity Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2984260/positive-psychology-in-christian-perspective-foundations-concepts-and-applications-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Hackney, Charles. Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective. [edition unavailable]. InterVarsity Press, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.