Positive psychology, an emergent branch of scholarship concerned with wellbeing and flourishing,
initially defined itself by a focus on ‘positive’ emotions and qualities. However, critics soon pointed
out that this binary logic – classifying phenomena as either positive or negative, and valorising the
former while disparaging the latter – could be problematic. For example, apparently positive
qualities can be harmful to wellbeing in certain circumstances, while ostensibly dysphoric emotional
states may on occasion promote flourishing. Responding to these criticisms, over recent years a
more nuanced ‘second wave’ of positive psychology has been developing, in which wellbeing is
recognised as involving a dialectical balance of light and dark aspects of life. This commentary
introduces this emergent second wave, arguing that it is characterised by four dialectical principles.
Firstly, the principle of appraisal states that it is difficult to categorially identify phenomena as either
positive or negative, since such appraisals are fundamentally contextually-dependent. Secondly, the
principle of co-valence holds that many states and qualities at the heart of flourishing, such as love,
are actually a complex blend of light and dark elements. Thirdly, the principle of complementarity
posits that not only are such phenomena co-valenced, but that their dichotomous elements are in
fact co-creating, two intertwined sides of the same coin. Finally, the principle of evolution allows us
to understand second wave positive psychology as itself being an example of a dialectical process.
Keywords: positive; negative; dialectics; balance; wellbeing; positive psychology
The evolution of positive psychology
Just before the dawn of the new millennium, Martin Seligman used his ascension to the presidency
of the American Psychological Association to inaugurate a bold new initiative: positive psychology
(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The rationale for its creation was Seligman’s perceptive – if not
universally endorsed – contention that mainstream psychology had hitherto tended to mainly
concern itself with disorder and dysfunction. Certain fields had resisted this trend of course, focusing
instead on human potential and excellence, such as humanistic psychology (Waterman, 2013).
Nevertheless, on the whole, Seligman argued that concepts like happiness and flourishing were
largely absent in mainstream psychology, removed from serious consideration, and regarded
disparagingly by gatekeepers such as grant-awarding bodies. And so, Seligman used his influence
and prominence to propose the notion of positive psychology as a way of redressing this lacuna. It
swiftly became a fertile new paradigm, offering a ‘collective identity’ for researchers interested in
‘the brighter sides of human nature’ as Linley and Joseph (2004, p.4) put it. As the field grew, it
began to encompass research – much of which pre-dated the field itself – around diverse process
and qualities that could be deemed ‘positive,’ from overarching constructs such as flourishing, to
more specific concepts like optimism and hope.
As intimated above, it was not the case that this research was necessarily new. Before
positive psychology strode boldly onto the scene, many of these topics had already been studied
empirically by scholars in disparate fields, from humanistic to clinical psychology. Moreover, its
central concerns – the nature of wellbeing and the good life – had been debated by scholars for
centuries, millennia even (McMahon, 2006). However, part of the attraction and power of the new
field was that it created a conceptual space where these diverse topics – all of which shared the
‘family resemblance’ (Wittgenstein, 1953) of pertaining in some way to wellbeing – could be brought
together and considered collectively. Thus, as a new field of enquiry focused specifically on ‘the
science and practice of improving wellbeing’ (Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan, 2015, p.1347), positive
psychology found an enthusiastic response among students and scholars within psychology, and
indeed in other fields, from education to social work (Lomas, 2015b).
However, the field was not without its critics. Some argued that its conceptualisations of
wellbeing were culturally-specific – influenced by the North American context in which the field
emerged – and yet the field tended to presume that these concepts were universally and perennially
applicable (Becker & Marecek, 2008; Lomas, 2015a). Others accused the field of promulgating a
‘separatist’ agenda, positioning itself as radically different to previous scholarship, and failing to
recognise or engage with pertinent research in other fields (Cowen & Kilmer, 2002; Held, 2004).
Another line of criticism was that the field tended towards the promotion of an individuation of
social problems, and as such that it was aligned with a neoliberal political agenda (McDonald &
O’Callaghan, 2008). However, while there may be some merit to these claims, at least initially, it is
also important to note that the field is responding receptively to these critiques. Objections around
cultural bias are being addressed through the emergence of sub-fields such as ‘positive cross-cultural
psychology’ (Lomas, 2015a), featuring analyses of phenomena such as linguistic differences in well-
being related concepts (Lomas, 2016b). Critiques around the separatism of the field have led to
attempts to build bridges with other fields, from ‘positive education’ (Seligman et al., 2009) to
‘positive art’ (Lomas, 2016a), which recognise the extensive work pertaining to wellbeing that has
already happened within disciplines such as educational psychology and art therapy. Finally, the
issue of individuation of social problems has given rise to more critical perspectives within the field,
as highlighted by a forthcoming Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology (Brown, Lomas, & Eiroa-
Orosa, 2016), and the emergence of new sub-disciplines such as ‘positive social psychology’ (Lomas,
One of the most insightful and interesting critiques concerned the very notion of ‘positive’
which underpinned the entire field, as articulated in particular by scholars such as Barbara Held
(2002; 2004). The accusation was that positive psychology was promulgating a rather polarising
positive-negative dichotomy. Certain phenomena, emotions for example, were being labelled as
positive, presented as inherently desirable and thus to be cultivated. The necessary corollary, of
course, is that contrasting phenomena were implicitly conceptualised as negative, positioned as
intrinsically undesirable and to be avoided. For example, optimism often appeared to be valorised as
an unqualified good, and pessimism as intrinsically deleterious. It is true that some scholars did paint
a more nuanced picture; for instance, Seligman (1990, p.292) himself cautioned that one must be
wary of being a ‘slave to the tyrannies of optimism,’ and that one needs to be ‘able to use
pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it.’ However, in terms of the broader discourse of
the field, and its wider cultural impact, a less nuanced binary message – the simplistic valorisation of
ostensibly positive phenomena – appeared to be dominant.
Although this valorisation of positivity seemed to offer an upbeat message – that positive
emotions are linked to beneficial outcomes in multiple arenas, from health (Fredrickson & Levenson,
1998) to success (Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2008) – critics saw it as problematic. Firstly, it often failed
to appreciate sufficiently the context and complexity of emotional outcomes. For instance,
‘excessive’ optimism can be harmful to wellbeing, particularly when it contributes to an
underappreciation of risk and to subsequent health-risk behaviours, such as smoking (Weinstein,
Marcus, & Moser, 2005). Conversely, pessimism and anxiety may engender forms of proactive
coping that are beneficial to wellbeing (Norem, 2001). Of even greater concern was Held’s (2002,
p.965) contention that this emphasis on positivity contributed to a ‘tyranny of the positive’ – i.e., to
a cultural expectation that one should be upbeat – which had deleterious consequences. For
instance, Held argued that it contributed to a climate in which people who could not find or express
the requisite positivity might face social censure and even ostracism. Similarly, in her polemic against
positivity, sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich (2009) accused companies of compelling positive thinking
as a way of hindering dissent, and a means of cajoling more out of workers. Perhaps most
perniciously, this ‘tyranny’ fed into a larger cultural discourse in which negative emotional states are
not simply seen as undesirable, but as disorders. This discourse is part of a broader medicalisation of
existence, reflecting the cultural hegemony of medical fields such as psychiatry. As Horwitz and
Wakeﬁeld (2007) suggest in The Loss of Sadness, emotions that were previously regarded as natural
and inherent aspects of the human condition, from sadness to grief, have largely been re-framed as
disorders, and certainly as problematic. And, it could be argued that positive psychology
contributed, albeit perhaps unwittingly, to this process.
Second wave positive psychology
If the very notion of ‘positive’ is problematic, where does this leave positive psychology? Perhaps for
some of the critics mentioned above, these criticisms might definitively undermine the field.
However, an alternative perspective would be that such critiques in fact facilitate a more nuanced
appreciation of the dynamics of flourishing. This is the view taken by myself and my colleagues.
Challenged and provoked by these critiques, we feel that the field is responding receptively, evolving
and maturing into what we call ‘second wave’ positive psychology (SWPP) (Wong, 2011; Lomas &
Ivtzan, 2015; Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2015). If the ‘first wave’ incarnation of the field can
be defined by valorisation of the positive, SWPP recognises that flourishing instead involves a
complex balance, a subtle, dialectical interplay between ostensibly positive and negative
phenomena. This second wave is still very much positive psychology: its overarching concern is still
with ‘positive’ meta-constructs and goals such as flourishing and wellbeing. It simply acknowledges
that the routes towards these luminous destinations can be complicated, and sometimes lead
through ‘darker’ realms of human experience. More specifically, SWPP is underpinned by four
dialectical principles: appraisal; co-valence; complementarity; and evolution.
The principle of appraisal cautions against categorically identifying phenomena as either
positive or negative, as such appraisals are fundamentally contextually-dependent. This was alluded
to above, where it was noted that ‘excessive’ optimism can lead to miscalculations of risk, whereas
pessimism can be advantageous if it leads to prudence. One could problematize most emotional
dichotomies in this way. For instance, McNulty and Fincham (2011) show that prosocial emotions
like forgiveness can be harmful if it means one tolerates a situation that one might otherwise resist,
such as an abusive relationship. Conversely, ‘anti-social’ states like anger may actually be ‘moral
emotions’ which can alert us to ethical breaches, and motivate us to resist iniquities (Tavris, 1989).
Indeed, ‘righteous’ anger has been identified as a crucial driver of progressive change, inspiring and
propelling social movements that have changed the world for the better, from Civil Rights to
feminism (Siegel, 2009). Likewise, consider the polarity of freedom versus restraint. While the total
deprivation of freedom, as in slavery, is surely an unqualified evil, existentialist thinkers have argued
that an excess of freedom, a life untrammelled by restrictions, can be troubling (Yalom, 1980). For
instance, Kierkegaard (1834) felt that this ‘dizzying’ sense of unlimited possibilities could engender
ontological ‘dread,’ since we must continually make choices that irrevocably shape our lives, and
assume responsibility for the consequences. As Sartre (1952, p.399) put it, people are ‘condemned
to be free.’ In a more mundane but no less revealing way, Schwartz (2000, p.79) reports that
‘excessive’ consumer freedom can be experienced ‘as a kind of tyranny,’ with empirical studies
suggesting that a greater diversity of choice often leads to lower levels of subsequent satisfaction
(Iyengar & Lepper, 1999).
Even happiness and sadness are not immune from such considerations around the principle
of appraisal. There is a risk, for example, that superficial forms of happiness, such as hedonistic
pleasure, might forestall efforts to pursue deeper states of wellbeing that might ultimately prove
more fulfilling (Wong, 2009). Or such pleasures might tranquilise us into acquiescing to social
contexts that ultimately undermine our wellbeing, beguiling us by modest satisfactions into entering
what Marxist theorists call ‘false consciousness,’ i.e., a state of mind that prevents us from acting in
our own interests (Jost, 1995). Thus, for instance, there is the accusation that consumer capitalism
provides ‘the 99%’ with just enough recompense to prevent people from revolting en masse against
a socio-economic system that systemically serves to fundamentally limit their wellbeing (DeLuca,
Lawson, & Sun, 2012). Conversely, at times, sadness may be thoroughly appropriate, such as in
response to loss, where grief is not only normal, but may actually maintain and honour one’s
connection to a departed loved one (Thieleman & Cacciatore, 2014). Similarly, sadness may be
valuable as a humane response to suffering (Christiansen, Oettingen, Dahme, & Klinger, 2010), or a
refined aesthetic response to the ephemeral beauty of the world (Thoolen, Ridder, Bensing, Gorter,
& Rutten, 2009). Dwelling on such paradoxes, clear-cut determinations of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’
become harder to make.
Moreover, it is not just that such appraisals are difficult. The second principle of co-valence
reflects the idea that many phenomena are complex admixtures of light and dark, positive and
negative. Consider perhaps the way that hope involves a yearning optimism for a future goal, which
is yet undercut with a gnawing anxiety that it may not come to pass (Lazarus, 2003). Such co-valence
is perhaps most powerfully revealed in arguably the most cherished and exalted of all human
phenomena: love. While there are many different forms of love – from the passion of eros to the
selflessness of agape (Lee, 1977) – all can perhaps be understood as being a dialectical blend of light
and dark. One might approach this dialectic in various ways, but all are essentially reflected in the
poignant lamentation of C.S. Lewis (1971) that, ‘To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and
your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.’ Love can be troubled by the vicissitudes of fate in all
kinds of ways, from enforced partings to an erosion of feelings over time. Thus, even while love
contains pleasure, joy and bliss, it is also infused with worry, anxiety, and fear. It is, as such, co-
valenced, harbouring darker shades of feeling. This recognition leads us inexorably to the third
principle: complementarity. Here we recognise that the potential dysphoria and vulnerability
inherent in love are not aberrations, but the very condition of it. The light and dark of love are
fundamentally inseparable, complementary and co-creating sides of the same coin. Consider that
the stronger and more intense one’s love for another, the greater the risk of heartbreak were the
relationship to end against one’s will. As Bauman (2013, p.6) eloquently puts it, ‘to love means
opening up to that most sublime of all human conditions, one in which fear blends with joy into an
alloy that no longer allows its ingredients to separate.’
With this third principle, we are in dialectical territory that has been explored with particular
depth and insight by Eastern philosophies, especially Taoism. Taoism has its roots in the I Ching, or
‘Book of Changes,’ which began life over 3000 years ago as a shamanic practice among the Chou
people, based on the practice of consulting oracles (Wilhelm, 1950). The overarching philosophical
principle of the I Ching is change, which, paradoxically, is the one eternal, immutable law at work in
the universe. Moreover, the I Ching identified the mechanism through which change occurs: the
dialectical interaction between opposites (Fang, 2012). This dialectical interaction was subsequently
captured symbolically by the yin-yang motif (although the terms themselves do not appear in the
book; instead we find dichotomies such as ‘the firm’ and ‘the yielding’). Yin means cloudy/overcast,
whereas Yang means ‘in the sun’ (i.e., shone upon), implying the two sides of a mountain (one sunlit,
one in shadow). Thus, as Fang (2012) explains, yin-yang encapsulates various ‘tenets of duality.’ The
tenet of ‘holistic duality’ means that reality comprises co-dependent opposites that each require the
other for their existence (e.g., ‘up’ depends upon the notion of ‘down’). Moreover, the tenet of
‘dynamic duality’ holds that these opposites tend to mutually transform into each other in a dynamic
process; as Fung (1948, p.19) puts it, ‘When the sun has reached its meridian, it declines’ (i.e., its
zenith heralds the beginning of the descent into night). Thus, yin-yang does not simply present a pair
of static opposites, but includes an element of darkness in the light, and vice versa, capturing the
ceaseless process of becoming. As Ji, Nisbett, and Su (2001, p.450) put it, ‘The pure yin is hidden in
yang, and the pure yang is hidden in yin.’ Such considerations beautifully encapsulate the principle
of complementarity, which can arguably be applied to all emotional dichotomies that combine to
constitute flourishing, from optimism versus pessimism to freedom versus restriction.
Finally, the principle of evolution allows us to contextualise the very idea of SWPP. Just as
SWPP is defined by an appreciation of dialectics, it is itself an example of a dialectical process. Here I
refer to the dialectical movement of thesis-antithesis-synthesis associated with G.W.F. Hegel (1770-
1831). One might view mainstream psychology, with its apparent concern with ‘negative’ aspects of
human functioning, as the thesis. In critiquing this and embracing ostensibly positive phenomena,
positive psychology presented itself as the antithesis. However, critics subsequently began to discern
flaws in this antithesis, as elucidated above, pointing out the pitfalls of positive qualities and the
potential merits of negative ones. Crucially though, from a Hegelian perspective, this does not
necessarily mean an abandonment of positive psychology, a reversion back to the original thesis.
Rather, the next stage in this dialectical process is ideally synthesis, in which the truths of both thesis
and antithesis are preserved, while the flaws in their respective positions are overcome. And, one
might argue, SWPP is just such a synthesis: there is a movement away from a binary classification of
phenomena as either positive and negative – valorising the former while condemning the latter –
towards a more nuanced appreciation of the dialectical complexities of flourishing.
This paper has provided a summary of SWPP, which is characterised above all by appreciation of the
dialectical nature of wellbeing (supported by subsidiary elements, such as a critical attention to
context). It was suggested that this dialectical appreciation centres on three key components: the
principle of appraisal (the difficulty of categorising phenomena as either positive or negative), the
principle of co-valence (the notion that many experiences involve a blend of positive and negative
elements), and the principle of complementarity (the idea that wellbeing and flourishing depend
upon a complex balance of light and dark aspects of life). In addition, SWPP itself was seen as the
manifestation of a fourth dialectical principle, namely evolution, in that it is a synthesis, emerging
from the interaction of ‘psychology as usual’ (the thesis) and positive psychology (the antithesis).
These considerations show the way in which positive psychology is evolving as a discipline, and point
the way ahead to future scholarship on the nature of wellbeing.
Bauman, Z. (2013). Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Becker, D., & Marecek, J. (2008). Dreaming the American dream: Individualism and positive
psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(5), 1767-1780. doi:
Boehm, J. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Does happiness promote career success? Journal of Career
Assessment, 16(1), 101-116.
Brown, N. J. L., Lomas, T., & Eiroa-Orosa, F. (Eds.). (2016). The Routledge International Handbook of
Critical Positive Psychology. London: Routledge.
Christiansen, S., Oettingen, G., Dahme, B., & Klinger, R. (2010). A short goal-pursuit intervention to
improve physical capacity: A randomized clinical trial in chronic back pain patients. PAIN,
Cowen, E. L., & Kilmer, R. P. (2002). “Positive psychology”: Some plusses and some open issues.
Journal of Community Psychology, 30(4), 449-460.
DeLuca, K. M., Lawson, S., & Sun, Y. (2012). Occupy Wall Street on the public screens of social media:
The many framings of the birth of a protest movement. Communication, Culture & Critique,
5(4), 483-509. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-9137.2012.01141.x
Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. London:
Fang, T. (2012). Yin Yang: A new perspective on culture. Management and Organization Review, 8(1),
Fredrickson, B., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular
sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12(2), 191-220. doi:
Fung, L.-Y. (1948). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: The Free Press.
Held, B. S. (2002). The tyranny of the positive attitude in America: Observation and speculation.
Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9), 965-991.
Held, B. S. (2004). The negative side of positive psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 44(1),
Horwitz, A. V., & Wakeﬁeld, J. C. (2007). The Loss of Sadness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Worth, P. (2015). Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing
the Dark Side of Life. London: Routledge.
Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (1999). Rethinking the value of choice: A cultural perspective on
intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 349-366. doi:
Ji, L. J., Nisbett, R. E., & Su, Y. (2001). Culture, change, and prediction. Psychological Science, 12(6),
Jost, J. T. (1995). Negative illusions: Conceptual clarification and psychological evidence concerning
false consciousness. Political Psychology, 397-424.
Kierkegaard, S. (1834/1957). The Concept of Dread (W. Lowrie, Trans. Second ed.). Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press.
Lazarus, R. S. (2003). The Lazarus manifesto for positive psychology and psychology in general.
Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 173-189. doi: 10.2307/1449828
Lee, J. A. (1977). A typology of styles of loving. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3(2), 173-
182. doi: 10.1177/014616727700300204
Lewis, C. S. (1971). The Four Loves. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Applied positive psychology: A new perspective for professional
practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 3-12).
Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.
Lomas, T. (2016a). Positive art: Artistic expression and appreciation as an exemplary vehicle for
flourishing. Review of General Psychology. In press.
Lomas, T. (2016b). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape
through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to wellbeing. The Journal of Positive
Psychology. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993
Lomas, T. (2015a). Positive cross-cultural psychology: Exploring similarity and difference in
constructions and experiences of wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 60-77.
Lomas, T. (2015b). Positive social psychology: A multilevel inquiry into socio-cultural wellbeing
initiatives. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 21(3), 338-347. doi:
Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Ivtzan, I. (2015). The LIFE model: A meta-theoretical conceptual map for
applied positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(5), 1347-1364. doi:
Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2015). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive-negative
dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10902-015-9668-y
McDonald, M. & O'Callaghan, J. (2008). Positive psychology: A Foucauldian critique. Journal
of Humanistic Psychology, 36, 127-142.
McMahon, D. M. (2006). Happiness: A history. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.
McNulty, J. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Beyond positive psychology? Toward a contextual view of
psychological processes and well-being. American Psychologist, 67(2), 101-110.
Norem, J. K. (2001). The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. New York: Basic Books.
Sartre, J.-P. (1952). Existentialism and Humanism (P. Mairet, Trans.). Paris: Methuen.
Schwartz, B. (2000). Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom. American Psychologist, 55(1), 79-
88. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.79
Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned Optimism. New York: Pocket Books.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American
Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education:
Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-
Siegel, A. (2009). Justice Stevens and the Seattle schools case: A case study on the role of righteous
anger in constitutional discourse. UC Davis Law Review, 43, 927-937.
Tavris, C. (1989). Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. New York: Touchstone.
Thieleman, K., & Cacciatore, J. (2014). When a child dies: A critical analysis of grief-related
controversies in DSM-5. Research on Social Work Practice, 24(1), 114-122.
Thoolen, B. J., Ridder, D. d., Bensing, J., Gorter, K., & Rutten, G. (2009). Beyond good intentions: The
role of proactive coping in achieving sustained behavioural change in the context of diabetes
management. Psychology and Health, 24(3), 237-254.
Waterman, A. S. (2013). The humanistic psychology–positive psychology divide: Contrasts in
philosophical foundations. American Psychologist, 68(3), 124-133. doi: 10.1037/a0032168
Weinstein, N. D., Marcus, S. E., & Moser, R. P. (2005). Smokers’ unrealistic optimism about their risk.
Tobacco Control, 14(1), 55-59. doi: 10.1136/tc.2004.008375
Wilhelm, H. (1950/1977). The I Ching or Book of Changes (C. F. Baynes, Trans.). New York: Princeton
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan.
Wong, P. T. P. (2009). Positive existential psychology Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology (pp. 345-
351). Blackwell: Oxford.
Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life.
Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 52(2), 69-81. doi: 10.1037/a0022511
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential therapy. New York: Basic Books.