The New Mission of Psychology – Finding What We Can Do to Be Happier, Healthier and More Resilient

Over the past 11 years, the field of psychology has been on a new mission, one of identifying, researching and teaching the skills that lead to well-being and resilience. Called “Positive Psychology,” it’s a rapidly growing branch of scientific psychology that studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.

In 1998, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania was elected President of the American Psychological Association (APA). At the time, Dr. Seligman was famous in the world of research for his work on Learned Helplessness and Optimism. As President of the APA, he designated Positive Psychology as the theme for his term.

In many of his presentations to psychologists and others, Professor Seligman reviewed the field of psychology in the 20th century from a historical perspective. He pointed out that before World War II, psychology espoused three missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing talent and genius. A number of famous psychologists dedicated their work to promising theories of happiness but without the empirical research to support them. 
After the war, two events changed the focus of psychology. In 1946, the Veteran’s Administration was created, and practicing psychologists found they could make a living treating mental illness. Then in 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health was formed, and academic psychologists discovered they could obtain grants for research on mental illness. Thus, the major, almost exclusive emphasis in psychology was on mental illness. And the effort has been very effective in bringing both greater understanding of psychopathology and many more effective treatments.
A little over a decade ago, however, Professor Seligman believed it was time for psychology to learn what it is that makes life worth living, what helps people bounce back when adversity occurs, what makes their lives more enjoyable and meaningful, what communities and institutions can do to promote well-being. He declared it was time to find what’s right in people — rather than only what’s wrong with them.
What has occurred in the period from 1998 until now is nothing short of spectacular. Research is being done on Positive Psychology in just about every corner of the world. The findings are being applied in therapy, coaching, schools, institutions, corporations and communities. So much has been discovered about happiness and its pursuit. Interestingly enough, some of the results have been counterintuitive, that is, they are not what would be expected by most of us.
The field of Positive Psychology holds dear the goal of preparing people to handle all the difficulties and curve balls that life so often throws our way. When Seligman asked one of his heroes, Dr. Jonas Salk, the American biologist and physician famous for the first effective polio vaccine, what he would do if he were a young scientist today, Dr. Salk said, “I would do immunization, but instead of doing it physically, I’d do it psychologically.”
You can find more information on the impact of Positive Psychology in my book, It’s Your Little Red Wagon… Six Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams), available on
Copyright 2009. Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D.

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