What makes life worth living? What factors contribute to happiness? What are the best paths to success? Positive psychology, the study of well–being, seeks to answer these questions and more. The field was popularized in the late 1990s by former President of the American Psychological Association and Penn’s very own Martin Seligman.
Positive psychology emerged as a departure from traditional psychology’s focus on remedying “negative” emotions or behaviors. As Seligman asserted in a 2000 issue of the American Psychologist journal, “Psychology is not just a branch of medicine concerned with illness or health; it is much larger.” Instead of only helping individuals with mental illnesses, positive psychology is meant for everyone. In Seligman’s view, being mentally healthy is much more than simply not having a diagnosed mental illness. By studying positive traits—happiness, optimism, motivation, to name a few—Seligman hoped that his work could uncover why some people are more fulfilled with their lives, and use what they were doing differently to improve life satisfaction for the discontented.
The field has a large presence on Penn’s campus. Topics of study like happiness are particularly compelling at a University where rampant careerism causes students to prioritize material successes above all else. At Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, researchers study topics ranging from imagination to resiliency, with the aim of helping people “enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
In positive psychology, happiness can be quantified. Seligman even developed an equation that does exactly that: Happiness equals the sum of a person’s genetic capacity for happiness, their life circumstances, and the voluntary factors under their control. Positive psychology emphasizes that individuals can take action to ensure their happiness and well–being, and that agency is equally as important as our life circumstances. Actions one can take to improve happiness include strategies such as mindfulness, exercise, meditation, and staying away from negative self–talk. The field utilizes longitudinal studies (looking at the same group of people across a period of time), surveys, and case studies that are common in the social sciences, but also employs more neurological methods like brain imaging and hormone measurement.
Penn’s toxic mental health environment is well documented—from the illusions perpetuated by Penn Face to the serious shortcomings of Counseling and Psychological Services to meet student demand. The University’s toxic grind culture and marked de–emphasis on exploration in favor of securing a job post–graduation can exacerbate the misconception that you’re the only one struggling. But is positive psychology the outlook Penn students need?
In recent years, some have criticized positive psychology for its seemingly all–too–optimistic and individualistic outlook. One of these critics was Barbara Ehrenreich, a political activist and author whose writings focus on issues of class and inequality. She initially became interested in the subject after her breast cancer diagnosis was met with a stream of sentiments telling her “to be cheerful and accepting.” This eventually led to Ehrenreich’s 2009 book, Bright–sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, where she argues that positive psychology, and specifically the mantra of “just think positive thoughts,” is not the solution to life’s troubles.
To Ehrenreich, the rhetoric of constant positive thinking can serve to victim blame. “The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: If your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success,” she writes.
Ehrenriech’s book highlights a much–cited positive psychology study claiming that students who had “authentic smiles” in their yearbook photos reported being more satisfied with their lives years later. She points out that the original study used photos from students at Mills College, a private liberal arts school for women in the mid–20th century. The participants likely came from more privileged backgrounds, as they were receiving an education at a time when very few women attended college.
When the study was replicated using the yearbook pictures of a less–affluent high school in Wisconsin, little correlation between the authenticity of one’s smile and future life outcomes was found. The difference in happiness, Ehrenreich argues, is a matter of class and context, not some individual personal choice to be happy.
Many students taking Penn’s positive psychology classes paint a different picture. For Lila DiMasi (C ’25), taking “Introduction to Positive Psychology” changed her outlook on mental health and wellness. She’s even continued her work in Penn’s Psychology Department by interning with the Penn Resilience Program since mid–2022, and still uses the mindfulness techniques she learned in class today.
“Previously, therapy would just [be] talking about what was going wrong. It didn’t feel like it made any sense,” Lila says. “Positive psychology confirmed my feeling of ‘what is the point of talking about what’s bad? How can we start talking about what’s going right instead?’” She stresses that this outlook doesn’t mean she’s ignoring the bad entirely, or that she doesn’t have bad days at all. Instead, she sees positive psychology as a way to change her thinking patterns and develop coping skills for when she’s going through a tough period.
One of the class assignments was to write down three things about her day that went well alongside an explanation of why they went well for a week. Lila continued to do it for months. She credits that strategy with helping her get through the spring of her first year, a period she reflects on as being otherwise a “tough, lonely, and anxious time.”
Similarly, Harley Haas (C ’24) took the SNF Paideia Program course “Positive Education,” a seminar that focused on how positive psychology techniques can be applied to early education. Like Lila, Harley left the class with a changed outlook on what mental wellness could look like for herself, and also how she could utilize what she’d learned to help others.
Though her class focused on K–12 students, they also addressed several positive psychology interventions for college students. “As a Penn student, I see so many people take wellness for granted … Positive psychology means making sure that you check in with yourself, and find a balance so that you can also improve wellness for those around you,” Harley says.
Ehrenreich’s critique is perhaps better applied to toxic positivity, a term that has blown up in recent years to describe how being told to constantly stay positive can be toxic to one’s mental health. Toxic positivity is not the same as the rhetoric of the positive psychology classes at Penn, both Lila and Harley insist. “Whenever positive psychology research is being communicated, people have to make sure they’re really explicit about that,” Lila says. “It’s not saying that everything is sunshine and rainbows all of the time. It’s not head in the sand, it’s facing problems with a mindset of ‘I can get through this.’”
These student experiences point towards an even broader critique of positive psychology: Maybe the problem isn’t the ideas themselves, but it’s the way the field has been decontextualized and marketed to wide audiences. In their quest to pathologize emotions like happiness, researchers and their findings may end up invalidating the genuine feelings of the public, much along the lines of toxic positivity.
“Happiness is about self control” or “people who think positively live longer” are just the type of statements that are constantly reappearing in the media, often far removed from their psychological basis. Several of the most popular self–help books co–opt positive psychology concepts to feed the $10.4 billion self–improvement market.
The illusion of easy, step–by–step plans for happiness or success sells—to individuals, yes, but also to schools like Penn for their wellness programming and companies seeking to maximize employee productivity.
For example, in the 2010 New York Times bestselling self–help book The Happiness Advantage, motivational speaker Shawn Achor employs positive psychology to help his readers understand the connection between happiness and success. Coming from a Harvard–educated background, Achor argues that “Happiness is a choice, happiness spreads, and happiness is an advantage.” For his corporate clients littered across the Fortune 100, Achor’s rhetoric is that their happiness—and by extension, their success—is largely in their own hands.
Consumer capitalism is intrinsically connected to mainstream positive psychology’s individualistic bent. Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at Wharton and New York Times Writer, calls the pressure to be positive “quintessentially American,” the result of a population growing up on the lofty, now–unattainable ideals of the American Dream. If people are told that happiness and success is all in their hands, it’s much easier to deny them healthcare or send them to underfunded schools because they should overcome these difficulties themselves.
In his 2015 book The Happiness Industry, sociological theorist William Davies argues that big businesses and governments employ positive psychology’s individualistic solutions to make us better workers, trick us into settling for less, and even buy more. In doing so, it detracts from the larger issues that cause people’s unhappiness—exploitation, injustice, and overworking all fueled by capitalism.
In contrast, Lila emphasizes that in her work with the Penn Resilience Program, the effects of larger institutions and systems of power are considered when discussing what resilience looks like and how to build it. She points to the Resilience Program curriculum, which highlights not only individual traits like optimism and self–awareness, but also positive institutions—meaning institutions that enable people to thrive—as the key to building resiliency. “Right now, I’m working on a literature review on optimism and socio–economic factors … There are people who are doing research that looks at how we can make our institutions work in a way that fosters well–being,” she says.
Instead of dismissing the prevalence of systemic issues, Harley’s seminar read Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, a book by psychologist Claude Steele about how stereotypes impact minorities’ academic performance as well as their sense of belonging and well–being. The class examined these deficits and thought about how positive psychology can help reform educational systems. Though Harley believes her class adequately addressed societal problems like discrimination, she knows that psychologists writing for popular audiences can never paint the full picture. “Take everything you read with a grain of salt… even Whistling Vivaldi. It’s a great book, but the research in it is old,” she says.
However, some psychology classes at Penn haven’t offered such a nuanced approach. Perhaps the concept within positive psychology that has garnered the most traction in popular media, and at Penn itself, is grit. Coined and defined by Penn professor Angela Duckworth as a “passion and perseverance for long–term goals,” grit goes beyond talent and luck, emphasizing individual drive as a force of change. Duckworth utilizes a “grit scale” for individuals to rate their own levels of grit and see where they can improve.
Like many concepts within positive psychology, grit has taken on a life of its own. After doing a 2013 TedTalk that now has over 29 million views, earning a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and penning a New York Times bestseller in 2016, Duckworth has earned considerable acclaim for her work. She’s taught PSYC0005: “Grit Lab: The Science and Practice of Passion and Perseverance” since spring 2020, attracting an eager crop of students each semester excited to learn about how to make their goals a reality using the power of grit.
One of these students, criminology major Brinn Gammer (C’24), found that grit can be a powerful concept, albeit one that doesn’t work for everyone. Brinn considers herself a wellness advocate on campus, having co–founded Penn’s Coalition for Wellness last year. She’s also a low–income student, coming from a high school that wasn’t very well ranked in her state.
Brinn maintains that she enjoyed Grit Lab but was surprised that it lacked discussion of how class, race, and other systemic factors impact one’s ability to have grit. “I remember Dr. Duckworth had us read an article that said from a racial perspective, and from an economic perspective, grit isn’t fair,” she explains. But the discussion didn’t go far beyond simply bringing up the criticism. Duckworth brushed it away—she and the article’s writer already had a discussion on their disagreement. “From then on we just talked about grit and how great it was,” Brinn adds. Dr. Duckworth declined to comment on these criticisms.
Many students at Penn can afford to have grit, considering the average undergraduate comes from a family with an income of $195,000—compared to the average American household income that is less than $60,000. Only a minute 3.3% of the student body comes from the bottom 20% of households ranked by income nationwide. A whopping 71% come from the top 20%. “I do think that passion and perseverance can get you places, and that’s why grit has been corroborated in research. But you can’t forget context,” Brinn says.
When you’re already among the elite, success is much more achievable, especially if you’re willing to put in the passion and perseverance that grit demands. When facing challenges such as impostor syndrome, Penn students are often told that it’s purely psychological and can be overcome from within. However, for FGLI students or students of color, structural barriers mean that these feelings of inadequacy can’t be entirely erased by merely believing in oneself. This individualistic approach ignores the fact that places like Penn were not built for us, and still have a long way to go in truly building inclusive and effective support systems.
Believing entirely in positive psychology’s outlook may ignore the fact that everyone isn’t on a level playing field. Yes, we all have the ability to think positively, to journal, to meditate, to have grit, and these things may truly help individuals reach greater happiness in their lives. But we need to reform more than just our own mindsets to better society and address the sheer amount of unhappiness present at universities like Penn and across the nation overall.
“‘Just work harder’ is a sentiment that’s reflected in a lot of American culture, but you can be working three jobs and still not be able to support your family,” Brinn says. The promise of positive psychology is limitless and universal, but no system of self–improvement is one–size–fits–all. “I worked hard to get where I am. At the same time, there’s a limit.”