This is an excerpt from a research paper exploring the theories behind Appreciative Inquiry. Written for my Organizational Systems Renewal Master’s Degree, Seattle, 2004.
Any review of the psychological literature on emotions will show that psychologists have typically favored negative emotions in theory building and hypothesis testing. In so doing, psychologists have inadvertently marginalized the emotions, such as joy, interest, contentment, and love, that share a pleasant subjective feel (Fredrickson, 1998, p. 300).
In the years following World War II, psychology focused on helping people and society solve serious problems. “In 1947, none of the major mental illnesses were treatable, whereas today 16 are treatable by psychotherapy, psychopharmacology or both. Although psychology had become proficient at rescuing people from various mental illnesses, it had virtually no scientifically sound tools for helping people to reach their higher ground, to thrive, to flourish” (Fredrickson, 2003, p. 330).
In a search of contemporary psychology literature, Fred Luthans found “approximately 200,000 published articles on the treatment of mental illness; 80,000 on depression; 65,000 on anxiety; 20,000 on fear; and 10,000 on anger; but only about 1,000 on positive concepts and capabilities of people” (2002, p. 697).
Leading scientists in the field were trying to focus psychology in a positive perspective. In 1954, Abraham Maslow introduces the term ’positive psychology’ in Motivation and Personality. In the final chapter, ’Toward a Positive Psychology,’ “Maslow diligently laid out a research agenda proposing investigation of such ’new’ and ’central’ psychological concepts as growth, self-sacrifice, love, optimism, spontaneity, courage, acceptance, contentment, humility, kindness, and actualization of potential” (Wright, 2003, p. 437).
Maslow’s later study of peak experiences again calls out to the field. He defines peak experiences as especially joyous and exciting moments in the life of every individual, often inspired by intense feelings of love, exposure to great art or music, or the overwhelming beauty of nature. When peak experiences are especially powerful, the sense of self dissolves into an awareness of a greater unity. “…one can set up the conditions so that peak experiences are more likely, or one can perversely set up the conditions so that they are less likely” (Maslow, 1971, p. 46).
However, it took a concerted effort 20 years later that finally created a more positive psychology.