Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology and Subjective Well-Being

What is positive psychology?

Throughout the past century, much of mental health research has focused on pathology and the preventative measures of disease. The psychological discipline has been dominated by studies investigating the cause, treatment, and prevention of certain disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Research has often turned a blind eye to the features of human existence that make life worth living. The concepts of hope, wisdom, courage, spirituality, and creativity “are ignored or explained as transformations of more authentic negative impulses” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Luckily, a new area of research has developed in the last few decades to address this gap: positive psychology.

Positive psychology, as founded by Martin Seligman, is about positive subjective experience in the past, present, and future. Positive psychology encompasses well-being, satisfaction, joy, sensual pleasures, optimism, and faith. For the individual, it involves his or her “capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future-mindedness, high talent, and wisdom” (Seligman, 2002). Much of this article will be spent addressing the ways in which positive psychology can be utilized on an individual level; however, this field of study can be implemented to group settings, as well, guiding people towards better citizenship.

After Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi developed the positive psychology theory in 2000, research regarding this topic skyrocketed. Some studies have proven the effectiveness of interventions, such as setting personal goals and expressing gratitude. Others have flimsy experimental designs and make erroneous causal conclusions. A recent meta-analysis reviewed the effectiveness of the positive psychology interventions (PPIs), only looking at findings from randomized controlled trials. The researchers evaluated the efficacy of 39 studies, comprising 6,139 subjects, 4,043 in experimental groups, and 2,096 in control groups. Here are some of the findings…

  1. Positive psychology interventions significantly increase psychological well-being and limit depressive symptoms. The effect size between the experimental and control groups was around .3 (on a scale from 0-1.0). Although this is considered a relatively small effect size in psychological research, this is comparable to effect sizes in high-quality studies evaluating psychotherapy.
  2. Specific features of studies altered the effect on depressive symptoms. Greater effects were observed in interventions of longer duration, in individual interventions (vs. self-help), and when people with psychosocial problems engaged in interventions. 
  3. Short-term interventions also had small, yet significant effects. This may be helpful from a public health perspective, as it provides a means of reaching populations that may otherwise not be affected by long-term interventions. However, more research is necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of temporary, self-help interventions. Increasing compliance and adherence to self-help interventions may be a step to increasing effectiveness.

Positive Psychology Interventions

So how can these findings be implemented into practice? Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) may be most effective for individuals in remission from psychopathology. It may provide a means of improving psychological well-being and improving resilience against mental health problems in the future. In terms of public health, PPIs fulfill the preventative objective of clinical psychology and provide an accessible means of improving mental health. According to Bolier et al., these interventions can be used in mental health promotion and as a first step in a stepped care approach (start with low-intensity intervention and increase as needed).

As we continue to live in this time of uncertainty, certain PPIs can be applied to our own lives. The following self-help interventions were found to have the biggest effect size in terms of subjective well-being. The majority of these interventions are applicable to our everyday life.

  • Doing acts of kindness. Buchanan et al. found that kind acts, performed over a period of just 10 days can increase life satisfaction. In addition, if these acts were novel, the respondents reported a greater improvement in happiness.
  • Projecting a positive self in the future. Quoidbacha, Wood, and Hansenne found a significant increase in happiness for individuals in a group who thought positively about the future. Specifically, these subjects were told to imagine four positive events that could reasonably happen tomorrow. This “mental time travel” can have a positive effect, even if it is just short-term.
  • Practicing gratitude by counting one’s blessings. Emmons and McCullough revealed that a grateful outlook can have a positive impact on subjective well being. Specifically, participants in a gratitude condition were asked to write down five things in their life for which they were grateful. In another study, having participants rank the extent to which they had experienced discrete sentiments (grateful, thankful, appreciative) lead to a decrease in negative emotion.

Although most of these self-help interventions seem intuitive, we often fail to do these things on a daily basis. Finding a means of performing small acts of kindness or counting one’s blessings have been proven to improve subjective well-being. I suggest finding the thing that works for you and is convenient in your day-to-day life. Hold the door. Help a classmate. Keep a journal. Despite seeming minor, small actions and positive thinking can have a substantial impact on subjective wellbeing. 

Psychology Resources

Positive Psychology Center:

Authentic Happiness:

APA Psychologist Locator:

Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapists:

McWell Notre Dame:

University Counseling Center Notre Dame:


The information and suggestions that I have provided here are in no means professional. This post has been reviewed by a faculty member of the University of Notre Dame Department of Psychology to verify accuracy.

Works Cited

Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G. J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC public health, 13(1), 119.

Buchanan, K. E., & Bardi, A. (2010). Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. The Journal of social psychology, 150(3), 235-237.

McCullough, M. E., & Emmons, R. A. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389

Quoidbach, J., Wood, A. M., & Hansenne, M. (2009). Back to the future: The effect of daily practice of mental time travel into the future on happiness and anxiety. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), 349-355.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy. Handbook of positive psychology, 2(2002), 3-12.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology [Special issue]. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.