Pioneers in Positive Psychology — from the 1950s

Jahoda_Positive_HealthWhen thinking about (modern) Positive Psychology, people usually associated its onset with Martin Seligman’s term as president of the the American Psychological Association (APA) and his seminal paper in American Psychologist (2000, co-authored with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).

But the first modern (research-based) sources are almost 50 years older than that. Abraham Maslow was (very likely) the first person to use the term Positive Psychology in a scientific essay. As early as 1954, he wrote about how and why psychology had gone wrong by focusing only on negative behaviors and avoiding the question of what the human experience could be:

If one is preoccupied with the insane, the neurotic, the psychopath, the criminal, the delinquent, the feeble-minded, one’s hopes for the human species become perforce more and more modest, more and more realistic, more and more scaled down. One expects less and less from people. From dreams of peace, affection, and brotherhood, we retreat.

In 1958, Marie Jahoda wrote the book Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health, a book considered to be the first on positive mental health. From the introduction:

Knowledge about deviations, illness, and malfunctioning far exceeds knowledge of healthy functioning. […] Science requires that the previous concentration on the study of inappropriate functioning be corrected by greater emphasis on appropriate functioning, if for no other reason than to test such assumptions as that health and illness are different only in degree.

It´s always good to know on which giant´s shoulders we´re standing on today…

Surprising Finding | Mental Illness vs. Mental Health: Continuum or Matrix?

A few days ago, I shared some research by Carol Ryff and Corey Keyes on the structure of psychological well-being. Today, I’d like to highlight more of Keyes’  work.

When we think about psychological health, we typically have a kind of continuum in mind. On the one end, there are states such as satisfaction and happiness, on the other end there’s (severe) mental illness, e.g., depression and anxiety disorders. And we’re also sure all people can be located on this single dimension at any given point in time. Additionally, the absence of one state is mostly equated to the presence of the other. Accordingly, an individual is perceived as being psychological healthy when there are no signs of mental illness.

Turns out this perspective may be flawed, or rather: incomplete. Using large-scale samples, Corey Keyes is able to show that we should probably see mental health and mental illness as two interrelated, yet clearly separable dimensions. The first one is about the presence or absence of mental health, the other about the presence or absence of mental illness (please take a look at his paper Mental Illness and/or Mental Health? Investigating Axioms of the Complete State Model of Health)


When creating a matrix that is composed of these two continua, we’re able to understand psychological states on a much more nuanced level. By way of example, in his data, Keyes finds there are people who portray distinct signs of mental illness (e.g., depressive symptoms) while at the same time displaying a moderately high level of psychological health (e.g., perception of meaning in life). Conversely, there are quite a few people who are clearly neither mentally ill nor particularly healthy, a state that Keyes calls languishing. In the words of the researcher:

The current study confirms empirically that mental health and mental illness are not opposite ends of a single continuum; rather, they constitute distinct but correlated axes that suggest that mental health should be viewed as a complete state. Thus, the absence of mental illness does not equal the presence of mental health.


The diagnosis and measurement of mental health […] has provided some invaluable information. First, relatively few adults (i.e., about 2 in 10) who were free of any of the four 12-month mental disorders could be classified as flourishing or completely mentally healthy. Almost as many adults were mentally unhealthy (i.e., languishing) as were mentally healthy (i.e., flourishing), and most adults were moderately mentally healthy. Second, diagnoses less than flourishing were associated with greater levels of dysfunctions in terms of work reductions, health limitations, and psychosocial functioning. Moreover, pure languishing was as dysfunctional (sometimes more) than pure mental illness.

Especially the last sentence should give some food for thought to public health officials and corporate health executives alike. For decades, their focus has been on understanding, assessing, and mitigating mental illness. And while this certainly is an important endeavor, Keyes´ esearch clearly shows that it might be and equally pressing mission to help people find pathways from a state of low mental health (languishing) to high mental health (flourishing).

Enter Positive Psychology

Social Media and Wellbeing – or: Can your iPhone tell if you´re depressed?

For a moment, please imagine that you have had an episode of depression at an earlier point in your life. Obviously, you would not want anything of that to return anytime soon. Unfortunately, that´s just not an easy thing to do. Relapse rates for depression are rather high – thus, there is a considerable probability of experiencing at least one other episode once who been there for the first time.

Now imagine there´s someone that could give you an early warning. Someone that would be able to detect and interpret all those little behavioral signals that typically occur when a person slips in into depression. This someone would also automatically notify your doctor so she can catch up with you. Sounds like a dream of the future? Well, maybe not. What if your smartphone could understand what you are saying all day long – and then infer from your words that you are currently talking like somebody who is depressed?

Enter several researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, of whom one is Johannes Eichstaedt (who was in the MAPP program three years ago). They analyzed 700 million words and phrases collected from Facebook messages of 75,000 volunteers, who also took standard personality tests. What they´ve found is pretty amazing: the usage of certain (groups of) words on Facebook can be highly predictive of certain aspects of our personality, but also other variables like gender or age. So while there are a lot words that basically everybody uses to the same extent, there are specific words or sentences that on average tend to occur more often when, e.g., you´re a woman (as opposed to a man), or 35 years old (as opposed to 15), or extroverted (as opposed to introverted), or displaying high levels of Neuroticism (as opposed to Emotional Stability).


Have a look at the image (click to enlarge), especially at the grey, blue, and red wordles at the center of the word clouds (those that are surrounded by the greenish ones). They can tell us something on the language(s) of a) extroversion, b) introversion, c) neuroticism, and d) emotional stability. The size of each word will tell you something on the predictive power pertaining to the variable in question.* By way of example, the use of the word ‘internet’ is a better predictor of being introverted than the use of ‘comic’. Additionally, the color will tell you how often that word is used (relatively; grey = not that often; blue: often; red = very often).

Now isn´t that cool?  But…you might ask: So what?

The ‘So what?’ leads us back to beginning of this post: if there is a typical ‘language of neuroticism’, there might also be a typical ‘language of depression’ – since displaying, e.g., a high level of neuroticism is correlated with the prevalence of depression. Or there might be a typical ‘language of mania’, or a ‘language of schizophrenia’ etc.

Now suppose there were an app on your smartphone that – at certain intervals over the day – switched on and took sound files of whatever you´re doing at a specific moment. It would surely pick up a lot of your conversations. By way of speech recognition (and prior, being fed with the algorithms that the abovementioned research is based on), your smartphone could detect if, over the course of time, your use of language changes from a ‘language of (relative) mental health’ to a ‘language of relative mental illness (perhaps, the app could also analyze whatever you´ve written on Facebook, Twitter and e-mails on a specific day). And if that were the case, the app would report this change back to you (or your doctor) as a means of early recognition. Wouldn’t that be really, really beneficial to a lot of people?

Now to date, this is a dream of future. But all the ingredients are there!

If you would like to learn more on this research, please click here for the original research paper. Also, there is a lot of cool stuff coming up in the near future – so you might want to check out the website of the World Well-Being Project.


*Please note that this is correlational research – so it is not appropriate to make any causal inferences. For instance, frequently using the word ‘party’ will not make you more extroverted. Rather, it can be likened to a ‘side effect’ of already being extroverted.