Positive psychology is a relatively new field of study focusing on responding to the question of “what is good about people?” and thus departing from the traditional conventions of clinical psychology, which focus on responding to the question of “what is wrong with people?” By its fundamental nature, positive psychology emerged as a call-to-action, rather than a fully science-backed paradigm shift, to the unaddressed issues associated with modern clinical psychology. Significant among these is the fact that current psychotherapy helps people in need to move from a negative place to a neutral one but ignores the need to transfer them further from this neutral place to a positive level. In keeping with this much-needed utility, positive psychology has found important use as a complementary intervention for people with severe mental illnesses and other mental disorders. The role of positive psychology in addressing social anxiety disorder and extreme social anxiety has been associated with its ability to cultivate important positive emotions such as pride, hope, optimism, and love which effectively address the salient negative correlation between social anxiety and positive affect.
Positive Psychology: A Background
Since the birth of psychology as a human research discipline, the primary tenet upon which the entirety of this applied science has been built seeks to answer one universal question: what is wrong with people? Over the past century, applied psychologists have made numerous attempts to explicate and, perhaps, formulate a basis for understanding human fallibility or the “human incarnate” that characterizes the average person. The innate nature of humans has sparked contentious debates over the years as experts in applied psychology and philosophy continued to make attempts to debunk the good/compassionate versus the nasty/brutish character of humans. Looking back at history and findings published over time, there has been no simple or concrete answer to this question.
In an attempt to find an amicable solution to this age-long question, the 21st century has witnessed a shift in perspective from questioning the bad in people to seeking to understand the good in them. The question “what is good about people?” appears to have caught on strongly since the turn of the century—this question forms the fundamental basis of positive psychology. Loosely defined as the scientific and applied discipline emphasizing the human ability to be inherently good and their capacity for positive functioning, the emergence of positive psychology packs a significant impact on today’s view of the world and its humanity. The basis of positive psychology contends heavily with previously held scientific beliefs on the nature and objective of psychology. Specifically, the outlook of Sigmund Freud, a founding father of modern psychology, fashioned the goal of psychology as one of replacing neurotic despair with conventional unhappiness.
Acknowledging that the original goal of psychology was to intervene in mental illnesses by drawing an understanding of people living with such problems, positive psychology inverts this perspective. It offers what many would consider a counterbalanced perspective against what Freud and other pioneers of psychology had initially hoped to achieve. Positive psychology strikes a balance by emphasizing the importance of exploring the will and strength in humans alongside their perceived weaknesses. However, the proponents of positive psychology make it clear that this discipline does not intend to dilute the importance and outcomes of human suffering and the pain that comes with it. The acknowledgment of suffering is prominent in Martin E.P. Seligman’s personalized account of the beginnings, motivation, and objective of the discipline in a now-published 2018 paper titled “Positive psychology: A personal history.”
In his account, Seligman, the pioneer of positive psychology, talked about “the substance” of this discipline as being the very fabric through which the ideals of goodness and beneficence run through. He argued that the basis for establishing positive psychology as a scientific and social discipline was to offer a different perspective on the concerns captured in modern clinical psychology. Seligman mentioned “the good life,” which he argued was lacking as a guiding principle in clinical psychology. He thought about positive psychology as the mainstay of a healthy and sane lifestyle and a default pursuit for humans when they are not suffering. He recognized the reality of suffering and, in fact, proposed the five elements of well-being—positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (collectively called PERMA). To him, an element implies “what free, nonsuffering people choose to pursue for its own sake.” (Seligman, 2019, p. 9). The inclusion of suffering (or the lack of it) in positive psychology introduces an interesting yet essential perspective on how this discipline applies to everyday human living.
Indeed, almost as many acts of kindness, beneficence, and love have existed in the world as have absolute acts of evil fueled by abhorrence and cruelty. Those who lived in the period between the 5th and 14th centuries A.D. experienced the Dark Ages, but their descendants, born after the 14th century, enjoyed a period of extreme calm and euphoria called the Renaissance period. Similarly, the invention of penicillin was a groundbreaking and much-needed intervention in the world, but somewhat similar chemical processes birthed nerve gas which has brought untold devastation in the face of chemical warfare. The human race has been responsible for civilian displacement and the advent of concentration camps in much the same manner as has been involved in the building of cathedrals, hospitals, and shelters. For every do-gooder in history who has sought to bring equality and peace to the human race, there has existed an equally influential antihero who has directed discrimination and cruelty at people.
However, in line with acknowledging these counterbalancing events, most researchers have departed from questioning the fundamental nature of humanity. Instead, they have adopted an approach that attempts to answer the question: is it possible to create a world in which the good side of humanity finds an opportunity to flourish and exist expressively? (Ciarrochi et al., 2013). Now, positive psychology has, in part, responded with a resounding “yes” to this question as it channels its main focus towards human strength and flourishing. Much of its success as a discipline has arisen from the fact that experts view positive psychology as an effort to reroute academic/research attention toward previously overlooked topics, not as a paradigmatic shift in scientific thinking. In keeping with this reality, it suffices to view positive psychology and its propositions as an audacious, bold, and perhaps even half-baked attempt when considered from a scientific angle.
One of the hallmarks of positive psychology has been its ability to courageously point out the weaknesses of modern clinical psychology. While the latter has had extensive success in reducing stress and managing human disorders, it has largely ignored the ultimate purpose of human living. From a positive psychological standpoint, no human being lives simply to be free of distress or mental disorder; however, the “positive” in positive psychology does not imply the nonexistence of distress or disorder. Seligman’s brainchild continues to insist on the presence of other ingredients that constitute a well-lived life and which have been the focal point of this relatively new discipline. A typical working assumption of the discipline is that the aspects of life constituting health and positivity are not exact opposites of distress and disorder in humans. A neat example of what positive psychology is in what clinical psychology is unable to do—the latter is effective at bringing people from a negative emotion to a neutral place but poor at moving them from this neutral place to a more positive one. Therefore, the primary aim of positive psychology has been to address, harness, and cultivate positive experiences, strengths, and human qualities as a precursor to positive interactions and the creation of institutions of positive embodiment.
Effectiveness Cases of Positive Psychology
Since its emergence in 1998, positive psychology has grown vastly and rapidly with the central mission of identifying, developing, and evaluating interventions that promote human well-being (Wood & Johnson, 2016). Among the key achievements of positive psychology include goalsetting, the espousal of a person’s best self, capitalizing on one’s signature strengths, lingering on past and present pleasures afforded by one’s immediate environment, finding and committing to a flow, showing gratitude for positive experiences in one’s life, cultivating a personal philosophy of optimism, exuding kindness, building strong relationships, harnessing courage, and exercising forgiveness towards others (Parks & Layous, 2016; Parks & Schueller, 2014).
Over the years, the rationale for developing positive psychology interventions, called PPI, has evolved from the idea that personal well-being and psychopathological traits are two independent yet correlated psychological constructs. Essentially, the role of psychotherapy has been to reduce patient symptoms associated with psychopathology; however, despite remaining relatively asymptomatic post-treatment, many patients have expressed a feeling of dissatisfaction with their lives. The role of PPI steps in to remedy this aftermath by complementing, rather than providing an alternative to, psychotherapeutic interventions. The function of the PPI is to produce an enhanced sense of well-being instead of working to reduce the apparent psychopathological symptoms. However, other researchers have argued that enhanced well-being may lead to a reduction of symptomatic recurrence but that it is prone to increased longevity. In all, there has not been a solid definition of PPI, and the only preexisting characterization has a broader and generic intonation.
The current definition of PPI dials back to the goal of achieving well-being in humans using pathways that align with the positive psychology theory. Such pathways, much of which incorporate into Seligman’s PERMA theory, include promoting pleasurable past and present experiences, engaging in and absorbing skillful everyday activities, and enhancing and building strong relationships. Fostering a sense of inner meaning and purpose and offering support to and celebrating personal achievements. Character development through inner strength has been a tool for assessing well-being and has played a critical role in evaluating PPI and validating their use alongside psychotherapeutic interventions. A meta-analytical study by Carr et al. (2021) found that the current nature of PPI allows them to find important use as a psychological distress prevention intervention among nonclinical populations. Prevention interventions offered in the form of self-help groups within occupational and educational contexts prove to be an effective strategy for nonclinical populations. The study also reported that PPI is an effective treatment strategy for clinical cases of depression, stress, and anxiety. Combining multiple PPIs and administering them on a long-term basis in the form of individual or group therapy has proven effective in offering treatment to clinical populations.
Another study by Geerling et al. (2020) has emphasized a growing interest in cultivating the benefits of PPI among populations with severe mental illnesses—including bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia. With a focus on positive feelings and cognitions, PPI focus on developing resources that offer support to persons with severe mental illnesses in discovering a journey of personal recovery and well-being during symptomatic management. The study reported that people with severe mental illnesses do, in fact, benefit from PPI both in terms of acquired well-being and from a psychopathological perspective. While there is currently no evidence for whether PPIs show higher effectiveness at improving mental health conditions, they effectively enhance the well-being of patients with major depressive disorders compared to those with schizophrenia. Further, the findings indicated that PPIs are most effective for patients who are on their recovery journey for major depressive disorder. An explanation for this outcome is that many PPI work towards enhancing positive emotion and cognition, which are key frameworks for impacting the recovery journey for people with this disorder. Findings reported in this study have opened the floor for the consideration of a more nuanced clinical psychology intervention for people with severe mental illness. Specifically, incorporating positive psychotherapeutic strategies in the traditional clinical intervention model shows great potential to enhance the outcomes of mental health.
Social Anxiety Disorder
The demonstrated benefits of PPI have incited evidence-based changes in clinical intervention to accommodate positive well-being extrapolated toward people with social anxiety disorder (SAD). SAD is the fear or anxiety associated with social interactions or situations involving the likelihood of being scrutinized and thus leading to a fear of displaying anxiety which may be evaluated negatively. The foundational behavioral model of SAD is social anxiety which emerges as a gap between what people perceive as high social expectations of a person and what that person perceives as low self-social performance. The outcome of these conflating events is a misrepresentation of social settings in a behaviorally unhealthy way that involves constantly monitoring and evaluating self and others. The lacking aspect of social intelligence implies that the person with SAD will mostly be clueless, will tend to be unaware of other people’s social standing, or have a tendency to misrepresent it (Kashdan, 2007). On the opposite side of the spectrum, the same person will tend to overuse or overanalyze their own or other people’s emotions, engage in unhealthy nonverbal behavior, and exhibit unconventional social nuances (Freidlin et al., 2017).
One notorious and admittedly unique characteristic of social anxiety is that it has the strongest negative association with positive affect compared to all other anxiety disorders (Cohen & Hupert, 2018). The negative correlation remains solid even when social anxiety is controlled for depression. At present, little evidence exists explaining what factors contribute to this unique negative relationship and whether the correlation spreads universally across the entire range of positive affect or is only limited to certain emotions. A seminal study by Kashdan and Breen (2008) reported that the moderating factor of the negative correlation between social anxiety and positive affect is a person’s tendency to suppress emotions. In another finding, the researchers suggested that a person’s negative analysis of positive social occurrences may also be a partial mediator of this negative relationship (Alden et al., 2008). Additionally, the person with SAD may tend to exhibit less positive interpretations of social occurrences, which may also mediate the negative correlation between positive affect and social anxiety. Most studies have considered the relationship between social anxiety and positive affect to be a unidimensional factor that does not spread out towards a wider canvas of positive emotions.
A 2006 study by Kashdan and Steger adopted a self-regulatory psychopathology framework designed to provide an answer to why people with social anxiety and SAD tend to have less positive social experiences and events. In a case of an individual with extreme social anxiety, it is true that the person will be naturally unable to monitor, regulate, and resolve their fear of negative evaluation or rejection. Similarly, the socially anxious individual will view themselves as outcasts or unaccepted members of a social event. Such persons also tend to believe that their actions may embarrass them and lead to rejection. Kashdan and Steger (2006) provided that the difference between people with social anxiety and those without does not lie entirely in the frequency or extent to which each one exhibits social fear and avoidant tendencies but also in the differed capabilities to individually manage social anxiety.
In line with the need to empower socially anxious people to overcome their fear of rejection, a typical self-sought solution is usually to conceal any outputs related to the self—such as words or emotions—that may likely result in a declined social status. Individual effort to avoid evocation of adverse reactions from others in a social event leads the socially anxious person to engage in safe behaviors, including talking little and avoiding being first at expressing emotions. In so doing, the socially anxious person suppresses their emotional responses by limiting any self-relevant material that is prone to negative assessment or rejection by others. Rather unfortunately, this coping mechanism leads to an exacerbated sense of the very emotion that the person is attempting to conceal. For instance, in the attempt to prevent their hands from trembling during a social event, a socially anxious person may resort to being relatively physiologically aroused, which eventually inflates their emotional distress. For the socially anxious individual, the persistent need to constantly seek positive experiences and avoid embarrassing scenarios is so diverted that this individual’s ultimate goal is to avoid social failure. Addressing the issues facing a socially anxious person demands the application of positive psychology to serve as a tool for recalibrating positive experiences to become an end rather than a means. SAD, being arguably the only anxiety disorder that signals a negative correlation with positive affect, demands the intensive application of PPI with the goal of behaviorally reinforcing positive affect to the individual with social anxiety.
In keeping with this need to address social anxiety, Cohen and Hupert (2018) have argued that one of the most impactful positive emotions that can address the problem of social anxiety in people with SAD is pride. As a positive yet self-conscious emotion, pride involves evaluating the self—a person who displays pride displays a confident body posture which has led a number of scholars to believe that pride is a basic human emotion. While being a social emotion at its core, self-evaluating one’s sense of pride naturally occurs in social contexts. This evaluation involves a tendency to self-compare to others, especially with regard to actions that pass as high-value. From a theoretical standpoint, the essence of pride is to foster a transformation of socially revered gains into an individualized status symbol. In view of this, positive psychology steps in as a perfect fit for promoting the individualistic sense of pride due to its shared individualistic ideology.
When viewed from the lens of personal pride, positive psychology supplies a template through which selfhood depicts individual subjectivity as a naturally-occurring, autonomous, and self-driven emotional and cognitive container (Cabanas, 2018). Findings in the study by Cohen and Hupert (2018) examining the role of pride in social anxiety lent credence to another positive emotional construct: love. The study reported that love, much like pride, is a social emotion that facilitates the development of intimate bonds with people. In attempting to respond to the question of whom one is likely to fall in love with, the ideals of reciprocated liking, desirability, and seeing the other person as similar contribute to love (Aron & Tomlinson, 2019). Findings about reciprocated liking show that how a person feels about themselves is critical towards deciding with whom they want to be in a relationship. This finding hints at the self-sought nature of love which is what positive psychology taps into with the quest to provide interventions to people in need.
Another family of constructs that align with PPI for people with social anxiety, much like pride does, are the ideals of optimism and hope. Individuals with SAD have been known to exhibit higher levels of pessimistic styles of expression when exposed to both negative and positive social occurrences—this compares starkly to persons with other anxiety disorders (Kashdan et al., 2002). In relation to optimism, hope is the expectation that a person’s goals are achievable, that the person has what it takes to pursue them with energy and drive, and that one is capable of generating several strategies for achieving their goals even when faced with barriers or obstructions. Advocating for the use of positive psychology among persons with SAD and extreme social anxiety is a welcome intervention because this discipline renders valued subjective experiences; that is, hope and optimism for the future, and contentment, well-being, and satisfaction for past and present (Hoy & Tarter, 2011).
As a newly discovered subfield of psychology, positive psychology has evolved tremendously and has found important use as a complementary intervention that helps people shift from neutral or negative feelings to more positive ones. The role of positive psychology in addressing extreme social anxiety and SAD is a multifaceted one and has incorporated the role of many positive social emotions, including pride, optimism, hope, and love. With time, the utility of positive psychology might help seal the existing gap between psychotherapeutic interventions and patient post-treatment progress in terms of well-being and a feeling of satisfaction.