Positive psychology

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Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology which emphasizes normal, successful development rather than the treatment of mental illness. The field is intended to complement, not to replace, traditional psychology. It does not seek to deny the importance of studying how things go wrong, but rather to emphasize the importance of using the scientific method to determine how things go right.

Researchers in this field analyze states of happiness, flow, values, strengths, virtues, and talents, as well as the ways in which they can be promoted by social systems and institutions. Their discoveries help people live life to its fullest potential.


Positive psychologists are concerned with positive experiences, enduring psychological traits, positive relationships, and positive institutions. Their work is changing the way we live our lives on individual, societal, and global levels.


Positive psychology has been defined as "the scientific study of positive experiences and positive individual traits, and the institutions that facilitate their development."[1] The term "Positive Psychology" originates with Maslow, in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality.[2] Positive psychology finds its roots in the humanistic psychology of the twentieth century, which focused heavily on happiness and fulfillment. Several humanistic psychologists—such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm—developed theories and practices that involve human happiness. The theories of human flourishing developed by these humanistic psychologists have now found empirical support from studies by positive psychologists. Positive psychology has also moved ahead in a number of new directions: Positive psychologists seek "to find and nurture genius and talent," and "to make normal life more fulfilling,"[3] rather than treating mental illness.

Positive psychology was not formally accepted as a branch of psychology until 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association.[4] Seligman, considered the father of the modern Positive psychology movement, began his career studying depression. His experiments at the University of Pennsylvania beginning in 1967 led him to develop the theory of "learned helplessness"—a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helplessly in a particular situation, usually after experiencing some inability to avoid an adverse situation, even when it actually has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance. Seligman argued that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result in part from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.[5] He became interested in how to alleviate the depression, and then in those who resisted becoming depressed. Finally, Seligman realized that he and other psychologists spent their time on victims, suffering and trauma, depression, anxiety, anger, generally making miserable people less miserable. In other words, psychology was primarily based on a model of disease, and this had several costs:

The first one was moral, that we became victimologists and pathologizers. Our view of human nature was that mental illness fell on you like a ton of bricks, and we forgot about notions like choice, responsibility, preference, will, character, and the like. The second cost was that by working only on mental illness we forgot about making the lives of relatively untroubled people happier, more productive, and more fulfilling. And we completely forgot about genius, which became a dirty word. The third cost was that because we were trying to undo pathology we didn't develop interventions to make people happier; we developed interventions to make people less miserable.[6]

He decided to study the positive aspects of life—the understanding and building of positive emotion, of strength and virtue, and of positive institutions. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the purpose of Positive psychology: "We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities."[7]

The first Positive psychology summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002.[3] More attention was given by the general public in 2006 when a course at Harvard University on Positive Psychology taught by Tal Ben-Shahar became particularly popular.[8] In June 2009, the First World Congress on Positive Psychology took place.[9]


Did you know?
Positive psychology studies people's happiness rather than diagnosing mental illness and treating what makes them miserable

Positive psychology naturally studies happiness, attempting to discover what makes people happy or fulfilled rather than diagnosing and treating what makes them miserable. Nevertheless, the issue of suffering cannot be ignored. Positive psychologists just take a different approach to it.

Seligman originally suggested that Positive psychology can be delineated into three overlapping areas of research:[10]

  1. Research into the Pleasant Life, or the "life of enjoyment," examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, and so forth). Seligman has suggested that this is the most transient element of happiness and may be the least important, despite the attention it is given.[4]
  2. The study of the Good Life, or the "life of engagement," investigates the beneficial effects of immersion, absorption, and flow that individuals feel when optimally engaged with their primary activities. These states are experienced when there is a positive match between a person's strength and the task they are doing, in other words when they feel confident that they can accomplish the tasks they face.
  3. Inquiry into the Meaningful Life, or "life of affiliation," questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (such as nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems).

Seligman later suggested that "Meaningful Life" would be better considered as three different categories, resulting in five elements of well being with the acronym PERMA:[11]

  • P(ositive) emotion - tunable by writing down, every day at bed time, three things that went well, and why
  • E(ngagement) - tunable by preferentially using one's highest strengths to perform the tasks which one would perform anyway
  • R(elationships) - tunable, but not in a way that can be explained briefly; listen to timestamp 15:12 and following of the audio
  • M(eaning) - belonging to and serving something bigger than one's self
  • A(chievement) - determination is known to count for more than IQ.

Some other areas of research that have developed out of these ideas include flow, elevation, and learned optimism.


Simple exercise, such as running, is cited as key to feeling happy.[12]
A portrait commemorating a family's day together

Happiness has become a very popular discussion topic in popular culture, especially in the Western world. There are many studies being done to demystify the factors that play into happiness.

Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught the popular Positive Psychology course at Harvard University, has discovered a number of important factors that increase happiness.[13] He has suggested:

  • Real happiness requires both pleasure and meaning, providing both present and future gain
  • Happiness is not an end state, but rather a journey; it is gained from the experience of climbing the mountain not from reaching the summit
  • The mind-body connection is important: Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health
  • Simplify: trying to do everything leads to "time poverty," which decreases the ability to derive happiness from any activity
  • Pain and suffering are part of life: Expecting constant happiness is unreasonable and leads to disappointment; allowing oneself to feel the full range of emotions, including fear, sadness, and anxiety, increases happiness in the long run
  • Gratitude increases happiness.

Seligman reviewed hundreds of studies on happiness, finding several factors to be more or less important in producing happiness:[10]

Less important

Money - Although very poor people may have a low level of happiness, beyond a certain level of wealth there are no increases in happiness. Money cannot buy happiness.

Illness - Good health does not lead to greater happiness; and only severe or multiple illnesses lower positive feelings, and often only temporarily.

Climate - Good weather does not lead to greater happiness despite the finding that those who live in harsh climates believe those who live in sunnier climates are happier; in fact, we adapt to the local climate very quickly.

Education and intelligence - Greater intelligence or higher levels of education do not lead to greater happiness. Seligman noted: "As a professor, I don't like this, but the cerebral virtues—curiosity, love of learning—are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love."[4]

More important

Marriage - Surveys carried out by the National Opinion Research Center found that a higher proportion of married people were "very happy" than single people. Seligman's own study found that the majority of very happy people were involved in a romantic relationship.

Sociability - Very happy people lead a "rich and fulfilling social life" while those who spend a lot of time alone had a lower level of happiness.

Religion - Religious people are happier and more satisfied with life; those involved in fundamentalist faiths with strong "hope for the future" feel good about themselves and the world.

The most important factor that Seligman found in determining genuine and long-lasting happiness is character - virtues that are developed rather than our natural talents. He suggested that "authentic happiness" comes from developing ones strengths. This is not to say that genetics, childhood experiences, or current circumstances have no impact on one's level of happiness. Although there are ranges of happiness that are genetically determined, it is possible to live in the upper reaches of one's natural range of happiness.[10]


Positive psychology suggests that the Buddhist saying that "Life is Suffering" can be understood as a call to cultivate virtues and a flourishing life

Psychology acknowledges that suffering can be managed and reduced but not eliminated, and the branch of Positive psychology does not refute that: "Psychology’s concern with remedying human problems is understandable and should certainly not be abandoned. Human suffering demands scientifically informed solutions. Suffering and well being, however, are both part of the human condition, and psychologists should be concerned with both."[14]

Suffering can be an indicator of behavior that a person might want to change, as well as ideas that require the person's careful attention and consideration. Positive psychology proposes that suffering can best be understood in the context of the flourishing life: The role of suffering is not to endure it for its own sake, but for the sake of cultivating the flourishing life.[15] Positive psychology, inspired by empirical evidence, focuses on productive approaches to pain and suffering, as well the importance of cultivating strengths and virtues to keep suffering to a minimum.[14]

Seligman has discussed the issue of suffering in relation to Positive psychology, stating that the goal of psychology is not only to make people less unhappy, but also to make people more happy and this is what Positive psychology contributes. He claims this is "not a luxury," but rather that "most of Positive Psychology is for all of us, troubled or untroubled, privileged or in privation, suffering or carefree. The pleasures of a good conversation, the strength of gratitude, the benefits of kindness or wisdom or spirituality or humility, the search for meaning and the antidote to "fidgeting until we die" are the birthrights of us all."[16]

Strengths and Virtues

The development of the Character Strengths and Virtue (CSV) handbook by Seligman and his colleague, Christopher Peterson, represents the first attempt on the part of the research community to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings.[17] Much like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of general psychology, the CSV provides a theoretical framework to assist in understanding strengths and virtues and for developing practical applications for Positive psychology. This manual identifies six classes of virtue ("core virtues"), made up of twenty-four measurable character strengths.[17] Peterson and Seligman reviewed a wide range of cultures and suggested that these six virtues are considered good by the vast majority of cultures and throughout history, and that these traits lead to increased happiness when practiced. The organization of these virtues and strengths is as follows:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality
  3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

The organization of the virtues into these six groups has been contested, with suggestions that they would be better grouped into just three or four categories: Intellectual Strengths, Interpersonal Strengths, and Temperance Strengths[18] or alternatively Interpersonal Strengths, Fortitude, Vitality, and Cautiousness.[19]

Optimism and Helplessness

Learned optimism is the idea that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated. Seligman developed this concept through his study of learned helplessness, the idea that a certain re-occurring negative event is out of the person's control. He noticed that while some subjects blamed themselves for negative outcomes, others blamed the experiment for setting them up to fail.

Seligman shifted his focus to attempting to discover what it is that keeps some people from ever becoming helpless. The answer was optimism. Using his knowledge about conditioning people to be helpless, Seligman shifted his focus to conditioning people to be optimists. In his book, Learned Optimism, Seligman invited pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism—one that grew from pessimism—is a learned optimism.[20]

According to Seligman, anyone can learn optimism. The difference between optimists and pessimists is in how they view failures and successes. The optimist's outlook on failure can be summarized as "What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)."[20] In other words, the pessimist views bad things as permanent and pervasive and good things as temporary and narrowly focused, whereas the optimist views bad things as temporary and narrowly focused and good things as permanent and pervasive.[21]

Pessimists can learn optimism by consciously doing what an optimist may do intuitively. Seligman’s process of learning optimism involves training a new way of responding to adversity—adopting the optimist’s explanatory style. Thus, the pessimist learns to describe good things as permanent and pervasive, and bad things as temporary and restricted to a limited event. The process begins with Adversity—the event that happens; Belief—how that adversity is interpreted; Consequences—the feelings and actions that result from the beliefs; and then Disputation—providing counter-evidence to the negative beliefs in general, the causes of the event, or the implications; and finally Energization—celebration of the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment that come from successful disputation of negative beliefs. Disputation and Energization (celebration) are the keys to Seligman's method of learning optimism.

Both optimists and pessimists can benefit from exposure to the process of learned optimism, improving their responses to both large and small adversities. Seligman's research suggests that optimism has many benefits. Optimistic people catch fewer infectious diseases, they have better general health habits, their immune systems seems to work better, and optimistic people tend to live longer.[20]


After several years of researching disgust, a complex emotion that protects the body and the soul from degradation, Jonathan Haidt studied its opposite, which he called "elevation."[22] Elevation is a positive moral emotion. It involves a desire to act morally and do "good." It can be characterized by physical feelings in the chest, especially warm, pleasant, or "tingling" feelings; and by feelings of being wanting to help others, to become a better person, and to affiliate with others.[22]

Haidt pointed out that the power of positive moral emotions to uplift and transform people has long been known, but not studied by psychologists. Positive psychology, with the goal of bringing about a balanced reappraisal of human nature and human potential, can balance out what is known about the emotions that make people compassionate towards each another.


A concept proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an intrinsically rewarding experience, which can also help one achieve a goal (such as winning a game) or improve skills (for example, becoming a better chess player). It is a state of absorption in one's work, characterized by intense concentration, loss of self-awareness, a feeling of being perfectly challenged (neither bored nor overwhelmed), and a sense that "time is flying." It is "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it."[23]

Flow can be encountered in many different situations, including play, creativity, hobbies, sports, and work. To experience flow, one needs to have the correct ratio of challenge for their particular skill set. Therefore, those who are very skilled in a certain regard need greater challenge while those who are unskilled need a smaller amount of challenge. If one is too challenged a state of anxiety results and if one is not challenged enough the result is boredom.[23] Being challenged means flow is, of course, temporarily exciting and stressful, but this Eustress is not harmful because it is not chronic stress.

Csikszentmihalyi identified nine components of flow:[24]

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities)
  2. There is immediate feedback to one's action (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed)
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult but is matched to one's skill level)
  4. Action and awareness are merged
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness
  6. There is no worry of failure
  7. Self-consciousness disappears
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted (time may appear to pass very quickly when one is fully engaged, or slow down at the moment of executing some action for which one has developed a high degree of skill)
  9. The activity becomes "autotelic" (an end in itself, done for its own sake)

For Csikszentmihalyi, "the secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible."[23]

Good work

As mentioned above, having more money does not reliably cause more happiness. Still, time spent at work constitutes a large proportion of time in our lives. The issue for Positive psychology is how to make work meaningful, and thus lead to positive outcomes both for the individuals doing the work and for society as a whole.

A group of psychologists including Howard Gardner have created the "GoodWork Project," defining 'Good work' as "work that is at once excellent in quality, responsive to the needs of the broader community, and personally meaningful."[25] Their research identifies individuals and institutions that exemplify good work and investigates how best to increase the incidence of good work in our society.

Gardner has suggested that good work has three ingredients, the "3 E's":[26]

  1. technical Excellence (the worker knows his work and keeps up with the latest knowledge and techniques)
  2. being Engaged (it feels good, it feels right, it is personally engaging, yields experiences of flow)
  3. working Ethically in a way that is responsible (good work is good in a moral sense, it serves the wider good).


Practical applications of Positive psychology include helping individuals and organizations identify their strengths and use them to increase and sustain their respective levels of well-being. Therapists, counselors, coaches, and various psychological professionals, as well as HR departments, business strategists, and others are using these new methods and techniques to broaden and build upon the strengths of individuals. Following are a few specific examples of such applications


Positive psychology has been applied to education by Seligman and his colleagues, who defined "Positive Education" as education for both the traditional skills of achievement and the skills of well-being.[27] In 2008 a whole-of-school implementation of Positive Psychology was undertaken by Geelong Grammar School (Victoria, Australia) in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This involved initial training of teaching staff in the principles and skills of Positive psychology. Ongoing support was provided by The Positive Psychology Center staff remaining in-residence for the entire year. This, and other implementations of positive education, suggests that it is possible to educate not just for prosperity based on financial wealth but prosperity that includes well-being and happiness.

Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that flow is a strong predictor of student progress in education.[28] He and his colleagues found that successful teachers focused on cultivation of passionate interest as a primary educational goal. They also noted that flow is not static and so teachers must adapt to the shifting needs of their students. Once a skill has been mastered more complexity must be added or the student will become bored–there must always be a close fit between challenges and skills.

Clinical Psychology

Positive psychologists have proposed a complementary relationship between traditional clinical psychology, which attempts to understand and treat psychological distress, and Positive psychology, which is concerned with well-being and optimal functioning. Seligman and others suggest that a strengths-based approach will support people with psychological problems not just in alleviating their suffering, worry, and sadness, but enable them to experience joy, satisfaction, and lives filled with meaning and purpose—states that do not automatically occur when suffering is removed. In addition, they have argued that "the fostering of positive emotion and the building of character may help—both directly and indirectly—to alleviate suffering and to undo its root causes."[1]

The rationale is based on several empirical findings. Seligman and his colleagues reported interventions focusing on strengths and positive emotions that increased happiness over the long term and decreased depressive symptoms.[29] Others have reported similar results, and taken together they suggest that the incorporation of Positive psychology techniques into clinical work, particularly for treating clients who are depressed, relatively older, or highly motivated to improve, may prove valuable.[30]

In the Workplace

In the twenty-first century, the highly competitive business world requires that workers not just do their jobs, but do good work. To achieve this, it is necessary to go beyond fixing problems in the workplace, such as work violence, stress, burnout, and job insecurity, into the promotion of excellence and flourishing among workers.[31]

Positive psychology in the workplace means creating an environment that is enjoyable and productive. Fun should not be looked at as something that cannot be achieved during work but rather as a motivation factor for the staff.

There are several examples of applying Positive psychology to the workplace. One such application is the Job Characteristics Model (JCM), a theory of work design based upon five characteristics-skill variety, task identity, task significance, task autonomy, and task feedback-which are used to identify the general content and structure of jobs.[21] This model argues that employees with a personal need for growth and development, as well as knowledge and skill, will display more positive work outcomes, including job satisfaction, lower absenteeism, and better work turnover. Stronger experiences of these five traits have been shown to lead to greater job satisfaction and better performance.[21]

Academic programs

The University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center has developed a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Program, "the world's first degree program in positive psychology".[32] The degree "explores the history, theory, and basic research methods of positive psychology," "focuses on such issues as the empirical study of positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions," and mentors the student in using "these aspects of positive psychology in" their "particular professional setting."[32]

Another academic program that focuses on training students in Positive Psychology and features concentrations in both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, is offered at the Claremont Graduate University's School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences and is affiliated with the school's Quality of Life Research Center. This program "aim[s] to provide excellent graduate education and to facilitate the production of practical knowledge" and emphasizes "sampling methods as well as more traditional experimental and quasi-experimental designs, surveys, and interviews, our faculty and students focus their research on lifelong processes and outcomes of behavior as they affect the quality of life".[33]


While Positive psychology has made contributions to the field of psychology, several critics have pointed out that it is not without its faults. For example, the simplistic approach taken by some psychologists in the application of positive psychology. A "one size fits all" approach may not be beneficial, suggesting there is a need for individual differences to be incorporated into its application.[34]

Other causes for concern include the division inside the field of psychology caused by differing opinions held by psychologists on Positive psychology and the separatist and negative approach taken by some positive psychologists to ideas or views that run counter to the approach of Positive psychology; a rejection of negativity and the "tyranny of the positive attitude" which leads to the unintended consequence of making those who are not able to go beyond their suffering or fail to achieve optimism to add guilt and a sense to failure to their problems; the danger of support from the media for Positive psychology enhancing results and leading to a loss of scientific professionalism.[34]

Critics have also noted that contemporary Positive psychology is not a new approach within psychology, nor is it a new approach to life—it has many similarities to the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century Roman Catholic priest who founded the Society of Jesus.[35]


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  2. "The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, than the darker, meaner half." (Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1987, ISBN 978-0060419875), 354. Note: the last chapter is entitled "Toward a Positive Psychology".
  3. 3.0 3.1 William C. Compton, An Introduction to Positive Psychology (Wadsworth Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0534644538), 1–22.
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  11. Martin Seligman, PERMA Edge The World Question Center 2011. Retrieved May 10, 2012.
  12. Robin Lloyd, Best Benefit of Exercise? Happiness, Fox News (May 30, 2006). Retrieved May 11, 2012.
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  16. Martin P Seligman, "Does Suffering Trump Happiness?" Authentic Happiness, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0195167016).
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  19. Ingrid Brdr and Todd B. Kashdan, "Character strengths and well-being in Croatia: An empirical investigation of structure and correlates," Journal of Research in Personality 44 (2010): 151-154. Retrieved May 10, 2012.
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  22. 22.0 22.1 Jonathan Haidt, Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. Retrieved June 4, 2012.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, ISBN 978-0061339202).
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  25. The GoodWork Toolkit The GoodWork Project. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  26. Howard Gardner (ed.), Good Work: Theory and Practice (GoodWork Project, 2010). Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  27. Martin E.P. Seligman, Randal M. Ernst, Jane Gillham, Karen Reivich, and Mark Linkins, "Positive education:positive psychology and classroom interventions," Oxford Review of Education 35(3) (2009): 293-311. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
  28. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde, and Samuel Whalen, Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  29. Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson, "Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions," American Psychologist 60(5) (2005): 410-421. Retrieved June 5, 2012.
  30. Nancy L. Sin and Sonja Lyubomirsky, "Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis,"Journal of Clinical Psychology 65(5) (2009): 467–487. Retrieved June 5, 2012.
  31. Orin C. Davis, Why the Workplace Needs Positive Psychology Retrieved June 6, 2012.
  32. 32.0 32.1 The University of Pennsylvania, Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Program Retrieved June 5, 2012.
  33. Claremont Graduate University, Positive Psychology at Claremont Graduate University Retrieved June 5, 2012.
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External links

All links retrieved May 26, 2015.


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