Positive Psychology and Its Benefits In Children

Positive Psychology is a multi-faceted complex topic, which has generated great arguments both for and against it, by many great psychologists. Many edited textbooks have been published (e.g. Lopez & Snyder, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004), countless conferences have been held and numerous grants have facilitated the research of individuals attempting to honour, or discredit positive psychology. There are scores of definitions, but the one I would like to use is Gable and Haidt’s (2005), which refers to positive psychology as ‘the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions’ (Pg 104).

It is often thought to be the ‘wishy-washy’ side to psychology; as soon as the words are mentioned images of bookshelves crammed full of self-help books comes to mind. But, this is not positive psychology’s fault: Anyone can call themselves a “psychologist” and seek to work under that label. Therefore, anyone can offer ‘psychological counselling’ or any other ‘psychological’ services (Rosenzweig, 1992), without having any form of degree or training, and this paves the way for any individual who wishes to write books claiming to provide psychological help, in a do-it-yourself format.

Although there are major flaws in the concepts of positive psychology, it is not attempting to replace traditional psychology, or insinuate that there are negative and positive versions of the discipline. Positive Psychologists want the main principles of the speciality field to be integrated with those already present in contemporary psychology. 

One important area that is often overlooked is the effects of positive psychology on certain aspects of a child’s development. In a positive psychology orientation, a comprehensive and inclusive conceptualization of coping views adaptations to stressors and illnesses as normal developmental events, with much common origin and function (Roberts, Brown, Johnson, & Reinke, 2005). All too often, a ‘pathology model’ has been applied to study how children develop. The positive psychology alternative is to focus on the child when s/he is in development and attempt to enhance functioning, competence and overall mental health. Research has illustrated the possible benefits of positive psychology in relation to the conceptualisation of optimism, hope, and quality of life.

Seligman (1991) studied the concept of learned optimism with children (and of course with adults, but the research discussed here focuses on studies of children). They found that optimists tend to do better in school, perform well in sports and appear to have better physical and mental health than pessimists (Seligman, 1991). Four main sources for the origins of optimism have been discussed (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, & Gilham, 1995); the first being genetics. A second source is the child’s environment, with particular emphasis on parental interaction and a parent’s own level of optimism. Thirdly, criticism; again from an authoritative source, e.g. parents, teachers and other adults, can shape a child’s explanatory style. The fourth way in which optimism (or pessimism) develops is through life experiences that promote either helplessness or mastery. But, it is important to note that positive psychologists are not encouraging parents to ensure their children are constantly optimistic. Children must see themselves in a realistic light, and understand the real world, in order to successfully challenge automatic negative thoughts (Roberts et al, 2005). Compelling arguments have been made affirming the need for, and advantages of occasional pessimism. Norem (2001) discussed how individuals who adopt a defensive pessimistic strategy in life set their goals unrealistically low, analysing possible problems in advance and therefore enhancing task performance. As Held (2004) states: “It is not a case of one size fits all” (Pg 23). Pessimists should not be forced to be optimistic, and vice versa, individual differences must be taken into account. But, optimism may be a very valuable tool that children can use to negotiate challenges and adversity at an early stage.

Hope has been defined as a cognitive set involving an individual’s beliefs in their capability to produce workable pathways to goals, and belief in an individual’s ability to initiate and sustain movement towards those goals (Lopez & Snyder, 2005). Therefore, hope is an important construct in a child’s life, helping them to deal with stressors, avoid problem behaviours and use past experience to develop strategies towards goals in an effective manner. It has been found that children are slightly biased, in a positive way, in their perceptions of the future, and that this bias may help children develop positive outcome thoughts and strive for success in childhood, and usually onto adulthood (Snyder et al, 1997).

Research on pretend play fits under the umbrella term of positive psychology (Pearson, Russ & Spannagel, 2008). Pretend play can be defined as “a symbolic behaviour in which one thing is playfully treated as if it were something else” (Fein, 1987, p. 282), and has been linked with optimism, hope and creativity. I am sure that at some stage in our childhood we all partook in pretend play; making forts out of boxes, or playing house with random items stolen from the kitchen. Pretend play involves a multitude of cognitive, affective and interpersonal processes that are linked to adaptive functioning (Pearson et al, 2007), and is very important in aiding a child to learn valuable skills. When a child is totally involved in pretend play, or ‘lost in play,’ that child is most likely experiencing what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) conceptualised as ‘flow.’ Studies have found that pretend play and coping, or optimism, are positively related (Goldstein & Russ, 2001). In a study involving seven to nine year olds undergoing an invasive dental procedure, a positive relationship between play and coping was found, compared to a negative relationship between play and distress (Christiano & Russ, 1996). Consistent with these findings, the study conducted by Goldstein & Russ (2001) illustrated that fantasy and imagination in play were closely linked to the number and variety of cognitive coping techniques present in a child when aggression had to be controlled. As Pearson et al (2008) state: “Part of what makes play so pleasurable for children is that within play, unlike the rest of their day, children can be powerful” (Pg 115). This gives them hope; during pretend play problem solving and conflict resolution systems are required (Russ, 2004). Although a child can use fantasy to resolve any issues, they still learn to attempt a task a different way if something is wrong. Positive psychology has been publicized as being quite beneficial for children, and perhaps this is the area that future research should focus on.

The message of the positive psychology approach is that psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, illness or health; it is also about understanding strength, work, education, love and play (Seligman, 2002). Although there are many flaws to the movement if it is followed religiously, it is possible that taking some of the main principles and applying them to the developmental psychology of children, that there is a lot to gain. The main benefits of a positive psychology approach with children have been hinted at in recent research, but we need to delve further into the area, as a better understanding of a child’s development will lead to more effective preventions, interventions and treatment of problems.


Christiano, B., & Russ, S. (1996). Play as a predictor of coping and distress in children during an invasive dental procedure. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 25, 130–138.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). The psychology of optimal experience. Grand Rapids, MI: Harper & Row.

Fein, G. (1987). Pretend play: Creativity and consciousness. In P. Gorlitz & J. Wohlwill (Eds.), Curiosity, imagination, and play (pp. 281–304). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gable, S.L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9, 103–110.

Goldstein, A.B., & Russ, S.W. (2000–2001). Understanding children’s literature and its relationship to fantasy ability and coping. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 20, 105-126.

Held, B. S. (2004). The Negative Side of Positive Psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 44, 1, 9-46.

Lopez, S. J., & Snyder, C. R. (2005). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Norem, J. K. (2001). The positive power of negative thinking. New York: Basic Books.

Pearson, B. L., Russ, S. A., & Spannagel, S. A. (2008). Pretend Play and Positive Psychology: Natural Companions. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 2, 110-119.

Roberts, M. C., Brown, R. J., & Reike, J. (2005). Positive Psychology for Children; Development, Prevention, and Promotion. In Lopez & Snyder (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (Pg 663 – 675). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosenzweig, M. R. (1992). Psychological Science around the World. American Psychologist, 47, 6, 718-722.

Russ, S. (2004). Play in child development and psychotherapy: Toward empirically supported practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York: Knopf.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Positive Psychology, Positive Prevention, and Positive Therapy. In Lopez & Snyder (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (Pg 3 – 9). New York: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., & Gillham, J. (1995). The Optimistic Child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Snyder, C. R., Hoza, B., Pelham, W. E., Rapoff, M., Ware, L., Danovsky, M., Highberger, L., Rubinstein, H., & Stahl, K. J. (1997). The development and validation of the Children’s hope Scale. Journal of Paediatric Psychology, 22, 399-421.


~ by dani cullen on April 23, 2010.

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