How the academic field of positive psychology erupted into mainstream culture

Building a positively happy world view, from college courses on happiness to professional societies.

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In the years after 1998, positive psychologists took the lead in developing the institutions, programs, and publications essential to the establishment of a legitimate field. Although there had been some pre- 1998 organizational precedents, they hardly matched those that would come afterwards.1 In 1999 at Harvard, Phillip Stone taught the nation’s first positive psychology course— to twenty undergraduates; eight years later, American universities hosted more than 200 such courses with more than 10,000 students enrolled. Then in 2006 Tal Ben- Shahar offered a course at Harvard on positive psychology which, with 855 students, had the highest enrollment in the university’s history. It was a class, the Boston Globe reported, with an unexamined juxtaposition of popularization and science, “whose content resembles that of many a self- help book but is grounded in serious psychological research.”2 Scholarly journals increasingly published articles; beginning in 2002 the number of scholarly articles on positive psychology took off— initially in the United States and abroad very soon after.3 Well before 1998, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology had presented scores of articles that contributed to the two fields. The new century saw publications with a sharper focus: Journal of Happiness Studies in 2001; Applied Research in Quality of Life five years later; and Journal of Positive Psychology one year after that. More articles containing the key word “happiness” appeared in psychology journals in the first fifteen years of the twenty- first century than in the entire century before.4

Newspapers and magazines increasingly offered familiar discoveries as well as new ones. In 2006 the BBC broadcast a six- part series titled “The Happiness Formula.” Textbooks and handbooks codified the latest findings.Moving increasingly away from political polling by focusing on new areas of inquiry, including happiness, in 1997 the Gallup Organization established the Gallup International Positive Psychology Summit. Government agencies and private foundations played key roles in supporting the field. The Templeton Foundation, eager to place positive values on a firm scientific basis, provided lavish funding to scholars who worked in that vineyard. In 2000 Princeton University launched its Center for Health and Wellbeing; a year later, also with funding from the Templeton Foundation, came the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love at SUNY– Stony Brook. The year 2001 also saw the inauguration of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, with a $2,200,000, 6½- year grant from the Templeton Foundation. The same year University at California– Berkeley founded the Center for the Development of Peace and Well- Being, later renamed the Greater Good Science Center.

Professional societies sprung up everywhere: around 2000 the International Society for Quality- of- Life Studies, followed soon after by the International Positive Psychology Association, and then the European Network of Positive Psychology. Programs in positive psychology grew in the United States and in scores of nations on every continent. These included online and in- residence courses, short- term workshops, and graduate degree programs at major universities and pop- up sites. Outcomes ranged from the experience itself to certificates and degrees. By 2015, there were more than fifty TED talks on happiness. Rarely had an academic fieldrisen so quickly to such prominence.6

From Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America by Daniel Horowitz. Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Horowitz and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.


1. For the agenda in building a field, see Christopher M. Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, “Positive Organizational Studies: Lessons from Positive Psychology,” in Positive Organizational Scholarship, ed. Kim S. Cameron, Jane E. Dutton, and Robert E. Quinn (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003), 14–27.

2. D. T. Max, “Happiness 101,” NYTM, Jan. 7, 2007; Carey Goldberg, “Harvard’s Crowded Course to Happiness ‘Positive Psychology’ Draws Students in Droves,” Boston Globe, March 10, 2006.

3. Meg Rao, “Overview of and Methods in Positive Psychology,” Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology, June 26, 2015, Buena Vista, FL (hereinafter cited as IPPA meet- ing); Heejin Kim, “Positive Psychology Across the World,” June 26, 2015, IPPA meeting. For an analysis of the growth of interest in positive psychology as reflected in journals, see Reuben D. Rusk and Lea E. Waters, “Tracing the Size, Reach, Impact, and Breadth of Positive Psychology,” JPP 8 (April 2013): 207–21. Using sophisticated statistical tech- niques, Christopher Kullenberg and Gustaf Nelhans, “The Happiness Turn? Mapping the Emergence of ‘Happiness Studies’ Using Cited References,” Scientometrics 103 (May 2015): 615–30 charts the centrality of Ed Diener’s 1984 article, the emergence of social indictors research in the 1970s, a takeoff in journal articles in the 1990s but without integration of seemingly disparate fields, and a more integrated and even steeper rise after 2000.

4. This is based on data in PsychInfo and Robert Biswas-Diener et al., “Positive Psychology as a Force for Social Change,” in Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, ed. Kennon, 410–11.

5. Among the examples of newspaper coverage are David Leonhardt, “If Richer Isn’t Happier, What Is?” NYT, May 19, 2001; Arthur C. Brooks, “A Formulafor Happiness,” NYT, Dec. 14, 2013. For textbooks and handbooks, see C. R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez, eds., Handbook of Positive Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); C. R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez, Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007); Anthony D. Ong and Manfred H. M. van Dulmen, eds., Oxford Handbook in Methods of Positive Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Shane J. Lopez, ed., Positive Psychology: Exploring the Best in People, 4 vols. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008); Steve R. Baumgardner and Marie K. Crothers, Positive Psychology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009); Shane J. Lopez, ed., The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); Susan A. David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda C. Ayers, eds., The Oxford Handbook on Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Michele M. Tugade, Michelle N. Shiota, and Leslie D. Kirby, eds., Handbook of Positive Emotions (New York: Guilford Press, 2014). For a discussion of textbooks in the field, see Grant J. Rich, “Teaching Tools for Positive Psychology: A Comparison of Available Textbooks,” JPP 6 (Dec. 2011): 492–98.

6. For a guide to programs, see chology-courses-programs-workshops-trainings/. For some discussion of the build- ing of an infrastructure, see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, “Positive Psychology: Where Did It Come From, Where Is It Going?” in Sheldon, Kashdan, and Steger, Designing Positive Psychology, 3–8.

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