The Convergence of Positive Psychology and Neurodiversity
By Gwendolyn Barnhart, PhD
Within my studies of psychology, there are often converging viewpoints between modalities. Indeed, the commonalities in thought, viewpoint, and practice are strikingly similar. I will briefly discuss the basic underpinnings of positive psychology and neurodiversity and intertwine them together through a theory of convergence while using the lens of positive psychology’s framework of Three Paths to Happiness, PERMA, and Character Strength Virtues.
The founder of Positive Psychology is past American Psychological Association President, Dr. Martin Seligman, who believes that most other modalities of psychotherapy focus on the negative and pathological aspects of psychology (Seligman, 2002). He wanted to turn that focus around and currently works to accentuate the positive aspects of an individual’s experience (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016). Seligman believes that therapists most often focus on the treating of mental illness, he does this, but, goes further and focuses on making people’s lives more fulfilling and productive (Seligman, 2008). His influences stem from humanistic psychology in that the basic principles of positive psychology was based on an individual’s positive aspects. He was also inspired by the humanistic theory of flourishing.
Positive Psychology was born through the work of Seligman and his counterpart, Christopher Peterson. They wanted to refute the negative and pathologizing connotations of the DSM and thus created the Character and Strength Virtues. In 1999, the first Positive Psychology summit occurred followed by the first International Conference of Positive Psychology in 2002 (Compton, 2005). Gradually, Positive Psychology has increased in popularity, and the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) has since been established.
Seligman believed that other forms of psychotherapy taught clients skills, but that those skills were hard to maintain. He equated these newly learned skills to a diet, very difficult to stay on track and had little results in the end. Positive Psychology is broken up into three facets, positive emotion, engagement, and meaning (Magyar-Moe, Owens, & Conoley, 2015). Seligman also discussed that at times people who have developed coping mechanisms are not in need of having to revisit traumatic memories as they do in some therapeutic modalities (Seligman, 2008). He goes on to discuss how many psychotherapists believe that trauma victims need to revisit and work through their trauma. He takes the stance by saying that those who have healthy coping mechanisms are doing well. Overall, Seligman believes that positive psychology can be used in congruence to other psychotherapies.
Seligman also believes in the notion that a therapist’s job is to help stop/cure the illness but to also to make people happy. Seligman hypothesizes that many therapists forget the second part of this stance (Seligman, 2008). He also believes that one vast way for people to find meaning is through finding a purpose or meaning in life.
Neurodiversity is a concept relating to differences in the human brain. These differences relate to learning, attention, mood, and other mental health differences (Jurecic, 2007). Initially coined by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist on the autism spectrum, neurodiversity was introduced in the late 1990s. Society as a whole tends to pathologize those with neurological differences rather than celebrate their unique abilities. This social model of disability contributes to societal barriers and stigmatization. Initially, neurodiversity related to those on the autism spectrum but has since been embraced by a number of different people with neurological differences such as ADHD, OCD, and dyslexia. The focus is to change the cure stance of neurological differences, to accentuate support systems and inclusion-focused services (Roberts, Beadle-Brown, & Youell, 2011). There is a mindset, especially from people on the autism spectrum, that they want to be seen and accepted as they are, without the stance that they need to be like everyone else.
Like positive psychology, neurodiversity proponents work to rid society of the negative connotations of psychopathology and help to build people up from their talents and gifts (Lancet, 2016). We do indeed tend to focus on the negative aspects of a person, and as such, we as a society tend to stigmatize mental ailments. Seligman and neurodiversity proponents refute the notion that the medical model is beneficial which is often focused on in therapy (Cascio, 2015). This medical model is often stigmatizing. When we contextualize mental health issues and accentuate the person’s gifts rather than their setbacks, the person as a whole becomes more accepted within society and themselves.
Neurodiversity focuses on the celebration of the unique abilities of persons who exhibit neurological differences. Proponents of neurodiversity celebrate the uniqueness of individuals that do not particularly fit the mold that society has deemed. Often society discounts people who pose neurological differences as being sub-par and less able to contribute to their communities.
Often society focuses on individuals deficits; which can drag down self-esteem and elicit maladaptive responses such as depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicidal ideation. Proponents of neurodiversity seek to change all that and help people learn to love themselves and gain acceptance within the community. Thus the rationale as to the convergence of neurodiversity and positive psychology as both wanted to refute the negative and pathologizing connotations of the DSM.
Theory of Convergence
Three Paths to Happiness
In 2002, Seligman initially proposed three tenants of positive psychology. He focused on what encompasses a happy life: pleasant life, good life, and meaningful life. Although the three paths to happiness have been expanded upon in later years, it still elicits the basic cornerstones of positive psychology. Here, I briefly describe each and how neurodiversity intertwines within it.
Pleasant Life. Pleasant life refers to the life of enjoyment, essentially, how do people hang onto the positive aspects of their lives (Seligman, 2002). How do people hang onto the joy they gain from their relationships, hobbies, community, etc. Helping those with neurological differences learn how to hold onto the positive aspect of their lives through neurodiversity can be life-changing. By helping people to build their relationships as they learn to accept themselves as they are, others will learn to accept them too. This will help people to accentuate their relationships. Also, by teaching the community around them the difference stance as opposed to reinforcing the derogatory aspects of the medical and deficit models can help thwart stigmatization. Similarly, by encouraging those to build upon their hobbies, for those with autism, their special interests, rather than pathologize intense interests, people who are neurologically different can learn how to enjoy their life, rather than fear and work to extinguish their natural inclinations.
Good Life. Good life is also referred to as eudaimonia and life of engagement and focuses on the notion of immersion by allowing people to get fully immersed in a primary activity (Seligman, 2002). Flow is also part of the good life as people discover their passions and pair them with their strengths and work/tasks. One example of this in actual practice is the novel extension of career opportunities for persons on the autism spectrum in fields such as computers or engineering (Rashid, Hodgetts, & Nicholas, 2017). Many people on the spectrum have talent in many areas however, this example plays to the most common stereotype of a person with autism’s strengths. Neurodiversity comes into play here as the notion is to work towards people’s strengths, focus on what a person can do rather on what they cannot. Also, by helping people to fully immerse themselves within the cruxes of society allows them to live their true good life.
Meaningful life. Meaningful life is also referred to as life of affiliation, which corresponds with an individual’s meaning-making in how they belong and contribute to the world (Seligman, 2002). Neurodiversity proponents help people with neurological differences to gain self-esteem so that they are more contributory of themselves and their talents for the benefit of society as a whole. Neurodiversity, as it lessens stigmatization, also accentuates acceptance and encourages a celebration of differences.
Martin Seligman (2011) used PERMA as a mnemonic to accentuate various tenants of his well-being theory. The acronym stands for; positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments. Below is a brief description of each and how neurodiversity can be intertwined within.
Positive emotions. Positive emotions relate to emotions such as joy and happiness, but can also to other emotions not commonly associated with positivity such as satisfaction, tranquility, and harmony (Seligman, 2011 & Sze, 2015). Neurodiversity converges with positive emotions because through neurodiversity; people are able to experience positive emotions more frequently. Through neurodiversity, people are taught to be more accepting of themselves and when people are more accepting of themselves, they naturally experience more positive emotions.
Engagement. Engagement refers to a person’s involvement in specific activities that are built around an individual’s interests (Seligman, 2011 & Sze, 2015). For example, persons with autism often have intense interests and talents, thus leading to flow, (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990) or meaningless effort. Neurodiversity celebrates an individual’s ability to hyper-focus on a particular interest while the deficit and medical models pose to pathologize it.
Relationships. One factor in eliciting positive human emotions directly correlate to the relationships we have with one another (Seligman, 2011 & Sze, 2015). Human beings, by nature, are social creatures. We help each other feel happiness, it is from each other that we seek and attain validation. Through neurodiversity, persons who have neurological differences can be more widely accepted within society as a whole rather than stigmatized. People who have a higher self-esteem often have an easier time making friends and keeping them (Mazurek, 2014).
Meaning. Meaning relates to one’s purpose, their method for meaning-making, what drives them to continue in this world (Seligman, 2011). Meaning-making can elicit an answer for a person’s why? The why I am referring to relates to what drives a person to do what they do. Perhaps the meaning or the why behind neurodiversity is to help those with neurological differences find their own why, rather than society’s expectation of what their why should be. What is the one aspect that drives them towards personal happiness and productivity?
Accomplishments. Accomplishments refer to the notion of success and mastery Seligman, 2011). Furthermore, It can refer to accomplishments on varying levels such as personal accomplishments or community-based accomplishments such as a sports team winning a game. Accomplishments can be reached while engaging in self-care such as hiking 10 miles. Similarly, or at work, like your regional sales office wins national recognition for having the highest sales.
Character and Strength Virtues
According to the the Character Strengths and Virtues Handbook, there are six main categories which encompass 24 areas of strength (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). In this section, I discuss each of the six main categories and then intertwine neurodiversity. I also strove to incorporate all 24 areas of strength.
Wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge conjure notions such as creativity, curiosity, love of learning, innovation (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Through neurodiversity, society can develop open-mindedness through new perspectives. Furthermore, aspects such as love of learning, creativity, and curiosity can lead to new innovations. Persons who are differently minded often view things from a different perspective, these differences in perspective can lead to new innovations. However, acceptance from themselves and the support of the community is needed to help with this new innovation. If society stigmatizes others for thinking differently, then the creativity, love of learning, and the curiosity can easily be squelched. While as a society we have had great innovators, imagine how many we have shut down and thus never able to realize their path.
Courage. Through neurodiversity people who are neurologically different can learn to be brave in the face of opposition (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). They can be persistent in their goals despite challenges. Learn how to live their lives with vitality and zest. Thus, live a life of integrity in being true to themselves and who they really are. It takes true courage to be different and embrace it.
Humanity. Proponents of neurodiversity can help the whole of society learn how to love and develop kindness and social intelligence by facilitating learning and developing respect for people who may be different from themselves. This facilitates the idea of accentuating the notion of being human (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Through our humanity, we can learn to strengthen ourselves.
Justice. Neurodiversity can help the world be a more just place for those with neurological differences by helping to develop the citizenship of differently-minded individuals, providing fair opportunities to all, and by advocating for differently minded people to others in leadership positions (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Taking it a step further, differently minded people can work on developing the skills to advocate for themselves. While it may be terrific that people are advocating for others, it sends a powerful message to those in privileged positions to hear it from the actual voice of the people from the disenfranchised community.
Temperance. Through neurodiversity, people are more apt to practice forgiveness, mercy, humility, prudence, and self-control (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Not that people who are differently minded need to be forgiven, but neurodiversity can foster a sense of forgiveness and acceptance. From this same standpoint, others can learn to have mercy on others who are differently wired while developing their own humility and self-control. Too often people who do not understand the situation judge and ridicule others for being or for acting differently. The notion of neurodiversity can help others become more temperate.
Transcendence. People can also learn to appreciate the beauty of those who are different from themselves by using positive psychology and neurodiversity as a lens in which to view the world — thus becoming appreciative of their contributions. People can view life circumstances such as neurological differences with humor rather than with anguish and strife. Other areas of transcendence can encapsulate hope, spirituality, and excellence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Within this paper, I briefly discussed the basic underpinnings of positive psychology and neurodiversity. Furthermore, I intertwined them together through threads of theorem of convergence while using the lens of positive psychology’s framework of Three Paths to Happiness, PERMA, and Character Strength Virtues.
Compton, W. C., (2005). An introduction to positive psychology. Wadsworth Publishing. pp. 1–22.
Cascio, M. A. (2015). Cross-cultural autism studies, neurodiversity, and conceptualizations of autism. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 39(2), 207-212.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Han, H. (2015). Virtue ethics, positive psychology, and a new model of science and engineering ethics education. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21(2), 441-460.
Hassan, M., & Younas, M. (2016). Promoting wellbeing through positive psychology. I-Manager's Journal on Nursing, 5(4), 36-39.
Jurecic, A. (2007). Neurodiversity. College English, 69, 421-442. doi:1275821501
Lancet, T. (2016). Pride in autistic diversity. The Lancet, 387(10037), 2479.
Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive-negative dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1753-1768.
Magyar-Moe, J., Owens, R. L., & Conoley, C. W. (2015). Positive psychological interventions in counseling: What every counseling psychologist should know. Counseling Psychologist, 43(4), 508.
Mazurek, M. O. (2014) Loneliness, friendship, and well-being in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 223-232. doi.org/10.1177/1362361312474121
Mills, A. L., & Kreutzer, J. S. (2016). Theoretical applications of positive psychology to vocational rehabilitation after traumatic brain injury. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 26(1), 20-31
Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-516701-6.
Rashid, M., Hodgetts, S., & Nicholas, D. (2017). Building employers' capacity to support vocational opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 4(2), 165-173. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/10.1007/s40489-017-0105-5
Roberts, R., Beadle-Brown, J., & Youell, D. (2011). Promoting social inclusion for children and adults on the autism spectrum-reflections on policy and practice. Tizard Learning Disability Review, 16(4), 45-52. doi.org/10.1108/13595471111172840
Seligman, M. (2008). Positive psychology and psychotherapy (Video). Retrieved from https://antioch.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://www.psychotherapy.net.antioch.idm.oclc.org/stream/antioch//video?vid=057&clip=cs20720ce4635920
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.
Seligman, M.E.P.; Maier, S.F. (1967). "Failure to escape traumatic shock". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 74(1): 1–9. doi:10.1037/h0024514
Sze, D. (2015), The Father of Positive Psychology and His Two Theories of Happiness