Positive psychology: The critiques and criticisms

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Positive psychology has emerged as a rapidly growing sub-discipline of psychology that explicitly focuses on promoting wellbeing, happiness, and optimal functioning of individuals, communities, and institutions. But it has  been criticized for its relevance, impact and credibility as a scientific discipline and as a capitalistic venture.

Positive psychology specifically focuses on understanding the positive states, -traits and -behaviours required to live happier, healthier, and more meaningful lives. This approach spawned many new theories and models  that aimed to explain, measure, and develop the optimal conditions for individuals to thrive and societies to flourish. Positive psychology’s unique focus led to the development of several new sub-disciplines within psychology ranging from positive organizational psychology to positive ageing, and its scientific discoveries adopted in several adjacent fields (e.g. education, medicine, architectural design, and even environmental sciences). It also proved to be popular in practice, with many popular psychology and management books based on positive psychological principles and theories reaching the best sellers‘ lists in multiple countries. While its contribution and growing popularity are undeniable, positive psychology has also been criticized and critiqued for its relevance, impact and credibility as a scientific discipline or practice domain.

The main criticisms and critiques

Over the years, critics have questioned various aspects of the discipline ranging from the novelty of its distinct contribution to understanding the human condition, to the validity of the philosophies, theories, methodologies, and interventions on which it is built. Positive psychology has received criticism for its Western-centric focus, over-emphasis on individual-level approaches/interventions, over-simplification of the human experience, and reliance on poor methods and methodologies.

A recent systematic literature review by Van Zyl, Gaffaney, Van Der Vaart, Dik and Donaldson (2023) aimed to consolidate and categorize positive psychology’s various critiques and criticisms. The review identified 117 distinct challenges that critics raised, which were consolidated into six overarching categories of criticisms/critiques. Critics argued that positive psychology (a) lacked proper theorizing and conceptual thinking, (b) was problematic as far as measurement and methodologies were concerned, (c) was seen as a pseudoscience that lacked evidence and had poor replication, (d) lacked novelty and self-isolated from mainstream psychology, (e) was a decontextualized neo-liberalist ideology that caused harm, and (f) was a capitalistic venture.

Figure 1: Summary of the Main Criticisms and Critiques of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology lacks proper theorizing and conceptual thinking

Critics argue that positive psychology lacks a unifying metatheory underpinning its philosophy of science and that it fails to provide a clear set of ideas/principles on how positive psychological phenomena should be conceptualized, examined, or approached. These critiques aren’t new, nor have they been ignored by the positive psychological academic community. Positive psychological scientists have actively debated the epistemological, ontological, and axiological beliefs that drive the discipline, aiming to establish consensus and determine the most suitable methods, terminologies, and types of theories required to take the field forward. Recent contributions by researchers such as Ciarrochi, Wissing, Lomas, Seligman, and others have aimed to clarify the philosophical position of positive psychology, and presented explicit criteria for theory development, methods, and approaches in positive psychology. They emphasize the need for contextually relevant theories, systems-informed and cultural/linguistic approaches, qualitative/mixed-method methodologies, implicit assessment tools, and advanced computational approaches to data analysis.

Furthermore, they highlight the importance of embedding theories and methods within the meta-assumptions of positive psychology in order to clarify its view of human nature and positive psychological phenomena. Despite the progress, there are still areas that require further clarification, including its meta-theoretical assumptions, ontological/epistemological/axiological beliefs, and the development of a comprehensive theory of human development. Positive psychology should also embrace alternative perspectives, such as postpositivism and constructive-interpretivism, to enhance its understanding of positive psychological phenomena. Moreover, the field should focus on creating ethical decision-making models and refrain from sensationalism and exaggerated claims. By learning from other areas like the psychology of religion and spirituality, positive psychology can adopt a multi-level interdisciplinary paradigm that appreciates diverse approaches and encourages collaboration with adjacent fields. This approach allows for a more holistic understanding of human flourishing and acknowledges that explaining a phenomenon at one level does not exclude other levels. While complete consensus on all philosophical issues may be unrealistic, critics should recognize that fields like personality psychology operate with different theoretical perspectives and still contribute valuable insights through ideological pluralism and building upon each other’s findings and limitations.

Positive psychology has issues with the measurement of positive psychological constructs and the research methodologies it favours

Critics argue that positive psychology shows poor operationalization and measurement of its constructs, employs flawed methods, over-relies on empiricism/positivism to investigate phenomena, and fails to employ more robust research approaches. For example, popular measurement instruments in positive psychology, like the Mental Health Continuum and the Grit-O scale tend to produce inconsistent results, with different factorial structures and varying internal consistency across studies and contexts. Positive psychology has also been criticized for its heavy reliance on quantitative research and self-report measures, favouring cross-sectional designs and making causal inferences based on anecdotal evidence. However, it is important to note that these issues are not unique to positive psychology but are prevalent throughout the broader psychological discipline. As a relatively new field, positive psychology has followed common research practices in its early stages, using simple methodologies and measures to explore novel phenomena. Nevertheless, as the field evolves, it should strive for more rigorous development and validation of psychometric instruments, adhering to established test construction, adaptation, and validation guidelines. Researchers and reviewers should critically evaluate the unique contributions of new constructs and assessment measures while considering cross-cultural fairness and local values. Additionally, positive psychology should embrace more innovative and objective assessment methods like kinetic measures, neuroimaging, and machine learning approaches. In terms of research methodologies, there is a need for greater utilization of longitudinal and experimental designs, as well as qualitative and mixed-method approaches. By moving away from reductionist thinking and engaging in more phenomenological work, positive psychology can deepen its understanding of psychological experiences. Overall, positive psychology should address the identified methodological and measurement issues to enhance the validity and reliability of its findings and contribute to advancing the field.

Positive psychology is seen as a pseudoscience that lacks empirical evidence and shows poor replicability

Critics argue that positive psychology makes false claims about its benefits, exaggerates the implications of findings, is rife with confirmation bias, and that important findings cannot be replicated. This critique raises valid concerns about positive psychology’s scientific rigor, replicability, and potential biases. However, labelling positive psychology as a pseudoscience is a bit far-fetched. While there are inconsistencies in the terminologies and theories, positive psychological constructs are generally well-defined and testable. The field heavily relies on empiricism and scientific evidence around its constructs is accumulating. Positive psychological journals also invite reviewers from different fields as a means to be more open to scrutiny. This allows for open debate about issues but also provides an opportunity to learn and grow through different perspectives. However, the discipline faces challenges regarding self-correction, confirmation bias, exaggerated claims, and poor replication. To address these issues, positive psychological journals should promote open science practices, such as transparency in data, methods, and research materials. Pre-registration of studies and the submission of raw data and statistical codes should be required to ensure transparency and encourage replication studies. Collaboration and open peer review processes can enhance the quality of feedback and reduce biases. Regular meetings among the editors of prominent positive psychology journals can facilitate knowledge sharing and develop strategies to improve positive psychological research quality. While positive psychology has room for improvement, it should not be classified as a pseudoscience but rather strive for greater transparency, replicability, and self-correction to strengthen its scientific foundations.

Positive psychology lacks novelty and self-isolates from mainstream or general psychology

It was found that positive psychology does not bring anything new to the proverbial table, and that it wilfully created a fictitious divide between “negative” (or general-) psychology and the study of optimal human functioning. However, Seligman, one of the key proponents of positive psychology, acknowledges that the discipline builds upon historical contributions from other approaches (e.g. existentialism and the person-centered approach) and emphasizes the need for further development. Critics also point out that the initial call for positive psychology created a fictional divide, but recent developments demonstrate a greater recognition of the value of ‚the negative‘ and a better alignment with mainstream psychology. Challenges remain, such as the lack of clarity on the relationship between humanistic and positive psychology and the need to incorporate insights from other psychological approaches and domains. Positive psychology can benefit from integrating concepts from systems sciences, depth psychology, and evolutionary psychology and advancements in neuroscience, decision sciences, environmental studies, economic sciences, and computer sciences. By addressing these challenges and embracing interdisciplinary perspectives, positive psychology can continue to advance our understanding of the human condition.

Positive psychology is a decontextualized neoliberal ideology that causes harm

Positive psychology was classified as a Western-centric, neo-liberal ideology where optimal functioning and human flourishing are seen as an individual enterprise and a consequence of one’s own life choices. Critics argue that it neglects the role of the context/environment in its understanding of positive phenomena, which in turn causes harm. By assuming Western values as universal, positive psychology neglects indigenous knowledge, cultural perspectives, and social contexts in its explanations of positive phenomena, ultimately pathologizing normal human behaviour, perpetuating stereotypes, and marginalizing certain groups. The lack of cultural sensitivity and applicability to non-Western cultures reinforces stigma and creates unrealistic expectations about mental health and wellbeing. To address these shortcomings, there is a need for a more culturally relevant and cross-cultural approach to positive psychology. This includes incorporating indigenous perspectives, values, and traditions, conducting cross-cultural studies, and developing holistic indigenous positive psychological theories, methods, and interventions. It is crucial to give attention to the unique experiences of marginalized groups and involve them as co-developers of theories, approaches, and solutions through participatory action-research-based approaches. Furthermore, positive psychology must establish its own ethical research and intervention guidelines to mitigate potential harm. By embracing these recommendations, positive psychology can evolve into a more inclusive and culturally sensitive field that better serves diverse populations while avoiding the negative consequences of its current framework.

Positive psychology is a capitalistic venture

Critics argue that positive psychology has become a means to promote individualism, consumerism, and the medicalization of positive experiences, thus creating a market for unattainable ideals and capitalizing on people’s “chronic” unhappiness. While the commercialization of positive psychology cannot be denied, it is crucial to consider its underlying intent. Rather than labeling economic systems as inherently good or evil, it is intent of such and the societal implications that determine their impact. The popularity and commercial drivers behind positive psychological tools and techniques demonstrate their practical value and usefulness to consumers and organizations. Scalability plays a significant role in increasing accessibility and reducing costs for consumers, achieved through innovation, technology, and the expertise of professionals. It is important to acknowledge that access to positive psychological resources is not limited to commercial ventures, as non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and professional societies also offer free access to tools and techniques. Nevertheless, the demand for positive psychology creates a gap between what scientists discover and what practitioners develop and implement. To address this challenge, the discipline must focus on narrowing the gap through ongoing research, integrating science into practice, adhering to ethical codes, and educating the public to distinguish evidence-based practice from ineffective approaches. By adopting these measures, positive psychology can continue evolving and effectively contribute to individuals‘ wellbeing.


Although some of these critiques and criticisms are not distinctive features of- nor unique to positive psychology, they have renewed interest in reflecting on the challenges facing the growth and future of the discipline. There is a need to further dissect, discuss and debate each of these issues to evaluate their validity, discuss their implications, and present possible solutions. Similarly, it opens the door for a further critical evaluation of positive psychology’s current state-of-the-art and to reflect upon the strategies necessary to build out the credibility and impact of the field. A healthy debate and reflection upon the criticisms and critiques of positive psychology are crucial for enhancing scientific rigour and validity, improving it’s real-world relevance, and fostering a culture of openness and collaboration.

In conclusion, these criticisms and critiques of positive psychology provide an invaluable opportunity for growth and self-reflection. By embracing a culture of openness, collaboration, and critical evaluation, we can enhance positive psychology’s scientific rigour, real-world relevance, and impact. As consumers, practitioners, and researchers, let us embark on this transformative journey together by engaging in critical thinking, advocating for evidence-based practices, and upholding ethical research and practice standards. Together, we can harness the transformative potential of positive psychology, leading us towards lives filled with meaning, fulfilment, and genuine wellbeing. Let us embark on this journey together, cultivating a balanced, informed approach to positive psychology that empowers us to discover the secrets to meaningful and fulfilling lives.


Van Zyl, Gaffaney, Van der Vaart, Dik and Donaldson. (2023). The critiques and criticisms of positive psychology: A systematic review. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 1-30.

Professor Llewellyn van Zyl has a Doctorate (Ph.D), a Master of Commerce, Honours and a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Psychology and Statistics from the North-West University. He holds an Extraordinary Professorship of Positive Psychology with the Optentia Research Programme at North-West University and an Assistant Professorship with the Human Performance Management Group at Eindhoven University of Technology. Professionally, he is an established academic researcher, having published various scientific articles and specialist books on positive psychological approaches to wellbeing assessments and interventions. He also serves as the co-editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Positive Psychology.

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