Third Wave Positive Psychology: Broadening Towards Complexity
Tim Lomas1, Lea Waters2, Paige Williams2, Lindsay G. Oades2, Margaret L. Kern2
1 School of Psychology, University of East London, London, UK
2 Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne,
The Journal of Positive Psychology
The development of academic fields is often described through the metaphor of ‘waves.’
Following the instantiation of positive psychology (the first wave), scholarship emerged
looking critically at the notions of positive and negative, becoming known as its second
wave. More recently, we discern an equally significant shift, namely scholarship that in
various ways goes beyond the individual and embraces greater complexity. This includes
going beyond the individual person as the primary focus of enquiry to look more deeply at
the groups and systems in which people are embedded. It also involves becoming more
interdisciplinary and multicultural, and embracing a wider range of methodologies. We
submit that these interrelated ripples constitute a form of epistemological ‘broadening’ that
merit the label of an incoming ‘third wave.’ This paper identifies the key dynamics of this
wave, allowing appreciation not only of the field’s leading edge, but also its developmental
potential into the future.
Keywords: positive psychology; scholarship development; wave metaphor; paradigms
It is over 20 years since Martin Seligman officially initiated the field of positive
psychology (PP) in 1998 (in his presidential address to the American Psychological
Association). With PP as a field now moving into its third decade, it is an opportune moment
to consider how the field has developed – and more intriguingly – how it might evolve from
here. In delving into these issues, this paper will invoke the metaphor of ocean ‘waves,’ a
common way of tracing patterns of development within scholarship (e.g., Hofmann, Sawyer,
& Fang, 2010). We begin by considering the wave metaphor itself, before briefly introducing
the first two waves of PP. The paper then explores the dynamics of what appear to be an
emergent third wave. We suggest that this new wave involves going beyond the individual
and embracing greater complexity in various ways. More specifically, these ways constitute
forms of epistemological broadening, both in terms of scope and methodologies. We
therefore present these two aspects of the third wave over two sections: one pertaining to
scope (featuring four examples of broadening) and one pertaining to methodologies
(featuring three examples of broadening). First, though, we will foreground these sections by
introducing the wave metaphor itself.
The Metaphor of Waves
We use the notion of ocean waves as an evocative metaphor to represent progress in
PP. In contrast to formulations such as Wong’s (2011) notion of PP 2.0, which suggests
punctuated stages and stepwise change, waves represent dynamic fluidity. Much as we have
been influenced by Wong’s pioneering work, we do not see the evolution of PP as having
strict developmental phases with clearly delineated boundaries. Instead we prefer to view the
progression of the field in terms of overlapping, yet separate, waves, with each wave taking
its own shape while still drawing from the same deep ocean. The metaphor furthermore lends
itself to creative elaboration – as we explore below – which allows us to engage
imaginatively with the field’s progress, thereby helping us better conceptualise and articulate
its dynamics of development over the past two decades.
In physical terms, waves do not represent the horizontal movement of water per se,
but rather energy pulses that pass through the water, moving it vertically. Let us imagine our
culture – the field of psychology more narrowly, and the marketplace of ideas more broadly –
as the body of water in which we humans psychologically ‘swim’. These energy pulses (i.e.,
waves) constitute ideas, animating the water and coalescing into visible rolling movement.
Thus, people do not ‘belong’ to any particular wave, but rather may be energised by, and
moved to contribute to, the passing waves. Some people, like swimmers or surfers, might
choose to embrace and harness the dynamics of a given wave, whereas others might choose
or be compelled to passively be moved by the shifting waters around them.
Furthermore, people can contribute to and even help create these waves. As we play
vigorously in the water of culture, our actions can energise passing waves. Those who make a
big enough cultural splash might even create a wave themselves. The decision by Seligman
and colleagues to instantiate the paradigm of PP could be deemed one such instance of wave
creation. Considerable work and research on the good life already existed within academic
waters, but the establishment of an official field created an energy pulse that generated the
field of PP as we know it today. Others might not make an action that is large or significant
enough to create a wave per se, but their contribution can yet make a ripple, which affects
others and builds energy, cumulatively creating a wave. The second and third waves of the
field are instances of the latter; no single figure, event, or moment has heralded either of these
waves; rather they arise from the semi-co-ordinated and interlinked actions of multiple people
around the world.
Lastly, to add one final layer to the metaphor, beneath the surface phenomenon of
waves, oceans also exhibit deeper, slower, and more durable forms of movement. These
include the cyclical ebb-and-flow of tides, patterns of currents, and even – over much longer
time frames – the changing shape of the ocean itself due to geological factors (e.g., tectonic
shifts). In that respect, just as ocean waves are rather brief and fleeting, so too do academic
waves span relatively short periods of time, measured often merely in years and, at most,
decades. We can then appreciate that beneath these waves are deeper forms of movement
operating over longer time frames, lasting centuries and even millennia. In considering the
deep cultural context in which PP emerged, one might, for instance, point broadly to the post-
Enlightenment age that has been gradually unfolding since the 17th century. This era has been
characterised by increasing secularisation in many places (particularly the West), with
gradual loss of faith in religious institutions and narratives, together with loss of belief in the
possibility of achieving wellbeing through spiritual salvation (McMahon, 2006). The same
period has also seen the emergence and eventual dominance of scientific methods and
discourses, with these arguably replacing religion as the pre-eminent mode of understanding
the world, including with respect to phenomenon such as wellbeing (Ahmed, 2010). Such are
the deeper currents of movement underlying the various waves discussed here.
We acknowledge that not all people in the field might appreciate this wave notion,
perhaps fearing that it implies that new waves somehow de-value earlier waves. We do not
see it this way. One wave does not devalue or replace another; rather, preceding waves create
the conditions for the next. As such, earlier work provides the impetus for the next wave,
whereby later waves do not negate previous work, but rather build upon and accentuate it.
Each wave, after all, is part of the same deep ocean.
Indeed, in many cases, ideas found in later waves are the culmination of energy pulses
set in motion by earlier waves. For instance, the idea that positively valenced emotions can
sometimes be detrimental to wellbeing – a hallmark of PP’s second wave, as elucidated
below – was implicit in the field from its outset. For instance, Seligman (1990) argued that
we must be wary of the “tyrannies of optimism” and be “able to use pessimism’s keen sense
of reality when we need it” (p.292). However, in the initial phase of the field, this kind of
nuanced critique of the ‘positive’ needed to remain only implicit, otherwise the field would
arguably not have gotten off the ground at all. Then, once PP was accepted and substantiated,
such ideas could be made more explicit. As that happened, a new wave of scholarship
energised the field.
The Waves of PP
Given the above considerations, we’ll begin by briefly outlining what we consider the
first two waves of PP, before then discussing in detail the emerging third wave. One way to
understand the causal relationship between these different waves is in terms of Hegel’s
(1812) influential analysis of dialectical change, which posits that development occurs
through a process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Consider the development of ideas. An
argument is advanced, say, that people are fundamentally good; this proposition is the thesis.
People might subsequently discern flaws in this perspective, responding with the
counterargument that people are inherently errant; this retort is the antithesis. However, this
counterargument may then itself be found wanting. Crucially, this does not necessitate
reverting to the original thesis. Rather, what may emerge is a synthesis incorporating aspects
of both arguments (acknowledging that people have the potential for good and bad), creating
a higher unity that transcends yet preserves the truth of both original opposites (Mills, 2000).
Moreover, the process does not rest there. This new synthesis in effect becomes a thesis that
awaits its own antithesis, and subsequent synthesis … and so on.
In this context, the impetus for PP’s creation was disenchantment with the way
‘psychology as usual’ was mainly focused on disorder and dysfunction (apart from pockets of
scholarship such as humanistic psychology; Waterman, 2013). From a Hegelian perspective,
one might call the predominant focus on dysfunction the thesis. In response, Seligman and
colleagues advanced what could be deemed its antithesis: the need for an area of psychology
that specifically focuses on the positive. Seligman’s opening address was the energy pulse
that mobilised scholars and practitioners with this alternative focus: concentrating on the
positive (versus fixing dysfunction). This move, then, is the first wave of PP: the formulation
of the field itself, and the work that subsequently followed. Indeed, this wave continues still.
Here the point about waves being impulses of energy that excite people comes into force.
This first wave of scholarship is still energising scholars within and beyond the field, even if
some have also been stimulated by the more recent second and third waves: the influences of
the energy currents are not mutually exclusive.
In sum, the first wave is essentially characterised by a focus on positive phenomena
(including emotions, traits, behaviours, cognitions, and organisations). In that respect,
Pawelski (2016a, 2016b) delineated one inclusion criterion and five continuum criteria for
identifying something as positive. The inclusion criterion is simply preference: a
phenomenon is positive if its presence is preferred to its absence. The continuum criteria
indicate the ‘scale’ of positivity, with positivity a function of: (a) relative preference (the
strength of the preference for it over something else); (b) sustainability across time; (c)
sustainability across persons; (d) sustainability across effects; and (e) sustainability across
structures. Phenomena are deemed more positive to the extent that they are more preferable,
longer-lasting, relevant to a greater number of people, have more positive flow-on effects,
and are more scalable and transferable across organisational and cultural contexts.
The impressive progress made in this first wave of the field then set the foundation for
people to think more deeply and critically vis-à-vis its foundational notion of the positive. For
example, in accentuating the positive, PP could be seen as generating a polarising rhetoric, in
which apparently positive qualities are regarded as necessarily beneficial and to be pursued,
while negative phenomena as undesirable and to be avoided (Ehrenreich, 2009). However,
critics from both inside the field (e.g., Wong, 2011) and outside (e.g., Held, 2004) began to
show that the picture was more complicated. For instance, one can differentiate between
positive and negative valence (whether something is experienced as pleasant or unpleasant)
versus positive and negative outcome (whether something facilitates or hinders wellbeing). In
doing so, one can find situations in which positively-valenced qualities can have negative
outcomes, such as ‘unrealistic’ optimism being linked to risky health-related behaviours
(Weinstein et al., 2005), or attitudes of forgiveness potentially leaving a person more
vulnerable in harmful relationships (Sinclair et al., 2020). Conversely, while negatively-
valenced qualities can sometimes have positive outcomes, such as anger motivating someone
to act against an invidious situation that had been hindering their wellbeing (Tavris, 1989),
sadness being reflective of prosocial attributes such as compassion, caring, and sensitivity
(Lomas, 2018d), or boredom facilitating introspective insight and creative imagination
Through such arguments, the initial premise of PP, defined by its focus on the
positive, was enlarged such that an increased appreciation of the subtle dynamic interplay
between positive and negative began to be more overtly considered. Thus, if ‘psychology as
usual’ was the thesis (focusing on fixing dysfunction), and first wave PP its antithesis
(emphasising the positive), this newer phase of scholarship constituted a synthesis. It is this
synthesis that has attracted the label of ‘second wave’ PP – alternatively referred to by Wong
(2011) as ‘PP 2.0’ – a phrase coined by Held (2004) and subsequently adopted by Ivtzan,
Lomas, Hefferon, and Worth (2015).
This second wave still focuses on the same meta-concepts that underpinned the first
wave, such as flourishing and wellbeing. However, it is characterised by a more nuanced
approach to concepts of positive and negative, an appreciation of the ambivalent nature of the
good life, and an understanding of the fundamentally dialectical nature of wellbeing (Lomas
& Ivtzan, 2016b). Overall it recognises, as Ryff and Singer (2003) put it, that flourishing
involves an “inevitable dialectics between positive and negative aspects of living” (p.272).
Rather than polarization, the second wave is reflected by “dynamic harmonization” of
dichotomous states, and “balancing opposite elements into a whole” (Delle Fave, Brdar,
Freire, Vella-Brodrick, & Wissing, 2011, p.199). Importantly though, to reiterate the point
above, the waves are not mutually exclusive, but rather inform and complement each other in
valuable ways. The first wave ignited hope and enthusiasm within psychology (and beyond),
providing an alternative paradigm when narratives of dysfunction dominated, and is still
energising scholars, practitioners, and laypeople worldwide, resulting in its positive
perspective being incorporated into a growing range of disciplines, and the continued growth
of the field. The second wave then provides further nuance that serves to deepen the insights
and impact made by the first wave.
The Nascent Third Wave
Now, even as the energies of the first and second waves are still pulsing, new forces
are gathering – which this paper attempts to identify. At present, some of these charges may
be merely ripples, which may diffuse and never become fully formed. Others conceivably
will build and contribute to a third wave of the field. Recall that in the Hegelian process, any
emergent synthesis becomes the thesis for a new dialectical movement. The second wave
may be the synthesis of psychology as usual and first wave PP, but as it establishes itself, it
then becomes a new thesis awaiting challenge from still newer antitheses. This is our focus
here: to identify this third wave that may be forming. In that respect, the dominating feature
of this new wave is a general movement towards greater complexity. This includes
complexity in terms of the: focus of enquiry (becoming more interested in super-individual
processes and phenomena); disciplines (becoming more interdisciplinary); culture (becoming
more multicultural and global); and methodologies (embracing other ways of knowing).
Overall, these different ways of embracing complexity can be characterised as various
types of epistemological ‘broadening.’ By that, we do not simply mean expanding in size or
scope, but also becoming more diverse, inclusive, complex, and ‘hospitable’ (e.g., new
paradigms and ideas are generally welcomed into the field on their own terms, without
having to unduly adjust or accommodate themselves to what is already there). These forms of
broadening can be grouped into two broad classes. Epistemology refers both to what we
can/should know, and how we can know it. Some forms of broadening refer principally to the
former, such that the third wave involves expansion in scope. Other forms of broadening
relate more to the latter, such that the third wave also involves expansion in methodologies.
In terms of broadening scope, we are talking about going beyond the individual
person as the primary focus and locus of enquiry. This means looking deeply and critically at
groups, organisations, and broader systems, and exploring the multiple socio-cultural factors
and processes that impact upon people’s wellbeing (from politics to economics). Of course,
even in the first and second waves, scholarship could be found taking an interest in super-
individual phenomenon like organisations (e.g., Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Luthans,
2003) and communities (e.g., Lomas, 2015b). However, it is also fair to say that the foci of
research and practice has remained primarily on the individual (Kern et al., in press). One
might argue that such trends reflect the broader tradition of individualism in cultures where
PP initially developed, beginning in North America and spreading to other Western countries
(Becker & Maracek, 2008). Similarly, PP’s origin in the field of psychology also implicitly
brought bias towards agentic action. But as the field has become more global, individualism
and agentic control are challenged. These dynamics are helping to shape the third wave in
Second, this new wave involves moving towards complexity in terms of methodologies,
i.e., forms and ways of knowing. In establishing itself as a separate discipline, the founders of
PP drew three clear boundaries around the field (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Snyder
& Lopez, 2002). The first was a large circle of inquiry encompassing the “positive features
that make life worth living” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p.5). The second was to
give prominence to the role that subjective experiences play in human flourishing, and bring
these experiences inside the boundaries of science (Diener, 2000). The third was to assert that
positivity and subjectivity, which were feared as being labelled lightweight, must be studied
empirically using quantitative designs (Held, 2004; Rich, 2017; Synard & Gazzola, 2013)
Thus, first wave PP was primarily situated within a positivistic paradigm, which shaped
subsequent research. Indeed, a review of the field by Donaldson, Dollwet, and Rao (2015)
revealed that quantitative designs account for 78% of the research. These positivistic and
post-positivist approaches certainly helped to establish the legitimacy and growth of PP
(Donaldson et al., 2015; Rusk & Waters, 2013). Nevertheless, calls for other methodologies
and epistemologies – including interpretivist/hermeneutic, constructionist, phenomenological,
and action-praxis – are becoming louder (Hefferon, Ashfield, Waters, & Synard, 2017;
McDonald & O'Callaghan, 2008; Rich, 2001, 2017), and are an important manifestation of
this new third wave.
We have identified seven different manifestations of this broadening dynamic, which
are grouped together below under two main headings: expansion in scope, and expansion in
methodologies. The former is characterised by contextual approaches, system-informed
approaches, cultural and linguistic approaches, and ethical approaches. The latter is seen by
greater use of qualitative methods, implicit methods, and computational science. One should
add that these two headings overlap to an extent, with the various approaches each often
offering both an expansion of scope and methodologies. For instance, a systems-informed
approach is included below in the section on broadening in scope (since it is characterised by
an expanded scope that focuses on systems), yet it also has significant methodological
implications. Nevertheless, we have found this broad grouping a helpful way of bringing
structure to the discussion. These different forms of expansion, together with the broader
progression of first, second, and third waves of the field, are illustrated in figure 1 below.
“Unscientific positivity” was placed outside of the circle and, arguably unfairly, labelled as a humanistic
approach (Held, 2004).
Figure 1. The three main waves of positive psychology, including details of the third wave
Broadening of Scope
The first set of broadening dynamics reflect an expansion in ‘scope.’ Specifically, this
means going beyond the individual person as the primary focus and locus of enquiry, and
exploring the manifold socio-cultural factors, systems, and processes that impact upon
people’s wellbeing. From the outset, proponents of PP advocated for a broad perspective on
flourishing, with a focus not only on individual level phenomena (e.g., positive subjective
experiences and individual traits), but also collective phenomena (e.g., positive institutions
and organisations). For instance, in their foundational article, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi
(2000) called for a study of positive institutions, recognising that “people and experiences are
embedded in a social context,” and that ecological factors play a key role in either enabling or
disabling positive growth for an individual (p.8). Despite that call, however, the field has
been primarily concerned with wellbeing at the individual level (Donaldson et al., 2015).
Relatedly, PP has been critiqued for an often reductive, over-simplified, and de-
contextualised focus on individual lives (Brown, Lomas, & Eiroa-Orosa, 2017), overlooking
the significant intersectional challenges that people face in navigating various issues and
barriers in their lives (Kern et al., in press).
The limitations of this tendency towards focusing on the individual are increasingly
recognized (e.g., Williams, Kern, & Waters, 2016; Rusk, Vella-Brodrick, & Waters, 2018;
Allison, Waters, & Kern, in press). In that sense, we see signs of an epistemological
expansion towards adopting more holistic, complex dynamic-systems approaches to
developing and implementing interventions. These include: a better understanding of context
(e.g., historic, social, cultural and institutional) (Ciarrochi et al., 2016); systems-informed
perspectives (Kern et al., in press); greater inclusion of minority voices (Rao & Donaldson,
2015); and exploration of different cultural and linguistic approaches to wellbeing (Mouton &
Montijo, 2017; Lomas, 2018). Here we focus on four forms of broadening in scope:
contextual; systems-informed; cultural and linguistic; and ethical.
We first consider work that has sought to develop a deeper and richer understanding of
the environmental context of flourishing. This includes looking at how various interpersonal
and ecological factors can be better understood to create nurturing environments and positive
institutions. To date, such research has primarily focused on three key settings: workplaces,
schools, and families.
PP research in the workplace has long incorporated a focus on situational context (i.e.,
environmental variables). Such literature is exemplified by Positive Organisational
Scholarship (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003), which explores how organizations can be
better shaped to allow employees to flourish (e.g., through relationships, practices, and
leadership). For instance, the work of Dutton and colleagues on the social architecture of
compassion is a quality example of how researchers have taken compassion – traditionally
conceptualised as an individual quality – and studied how workplace contexts activate or
inhibit its expression, as well as how leaders can use structural and strategic approaches to
enhance ‘compassion competence’ at the organisational level (Dutton & Workman, 2012;
Dutton, Workman, & Hardin, 2014).
In schools, research in positive education is evolving beyond just mainly focusing on
individual student wellbeing, moving towards contextually-oriented research. Positive
education was initially criticized for its over-emphasis on interventions that focus on
changing students’ inner experiences and resources at the expense of understanding the
impact of context (Ciarrochi et al., 2016). However, there is growing adoption of ecological
approaches that take into account school climate and classroom culture (Waters, Cross, &
Shaw, 2010). For example, Allen et al. (2018) took the construct of school belonging –
traditionally studied as a subjective, psychological appraisal situated within individual
students – and applied Bronfenbrenner’s (1979; 1989) socio-ecological model to analyse the
factors in the school environment that contribute to students’ sense of belonging. This
research led to contextual guidelines that school leaders can implement to create
environments that foster a culture of belonging.
A focus on context in families is exemplified by innovations such as family-centred
positive psychology (Sheridan et al., 2004) and positive family therapy (Conoley et al.,
2015). These have incorporated systems theory – discussed further in the next section – to
extend the aim of PP interventions beyond changing individuals in the family (e.g., fostering
mindfulness in parents) to interventions that also alter how relational family systems operate
(e.g., changing communication and interaction patterns). Similarly, Waters (in press) took a
contextual approach to design interventions that boost the wellbeing of the family as a whole
rather only create change within individual family members. Waters developed and tested
two new family-based relational, strengths-based interventions, in which the whole family
participated. Families who undertook the interventions reported higher levels of family
happiness, thus shifting the contextual emotional context, or ‘shared affect’ (Barsade &
Knight, 2015). Systems theory was likewise used by Waters to suggest how families can
change their emotional contexts by tapping into their emotions and meaning-making
processes (Henry, Sheffield-Morris & Harrist, 2015), in turn triggering more frequent
positive interactions that shift the family towards greater collective happiness.
The movement towards more complex understandings of wellbeing has also begun to
be formalized and integrated in PP through the emergent paradigm of Systems Informed
Positive Psychology (SIPP). This approach incorporates principles and approaches from the
systems sciences into PP to enable human social systems and individuals within them to
thrive (Kern et al., in press). The systems sciences are an interdisciplinary area that studies
the nature of systems (M’Pherson, 1974), and are necessary when problems are complex – as
typifies the challenges and opportunities of life in the modern world (Arnold & Wade, 2015).
Traditional PP approaches tend to be more reductionistic in nature, implicitly assuming that
singular cause and effect relationships can be identified, resulting in specific interventions
that can build wellbeing. By contrast, SIPP explicitly addresses the complexity of the world
by incorporating systems principles such as complexity, dynamism, non-linearity, multiple
perspectives, boundaries, and self-organisation. Drawing on a PP perspective, it moves
beyond solving problems in unidimensional ways, to generate positive, often unimagined
futures that can emerge collectively from within the system.
A SIPP perspective understands the individual as embedded within broader social
systems; within these, there will be different perspectives about how goodness or wellbeing is
defined, which outcomes are desired, and the processes that should be followed. Equally,
within these interconnected social systems, there exist multiple layers of reality in operation
at any one time. PP theory, research, and practice therefore need to develop more
sophisticated approaches to allow for this. For instance, the expansion of boundaries leads to
inclusion of a greater diversity of vantage points from which to observe the system. This
means that minority voices and cultural diversity will be better included in the scientific
endeavour (as addressed further in the next section).
Several implications arise from the SIPP perspective. For instance, before moving to
action, rather than assuming that the system and different perspectives within it are already
known and understood, practices are needed that help develop systems awareness. Scholars
need to be explicit in defining their boundaries, whether at the level of the individual, or
incorporating broader systems around the person (e.g., family, workplace, classroom, local
community). Close integration is needed amongst theory, research, and practice, rigorously
identifying what works, how, when, and with whom. It is vital to develop study designs,
approaches to measurement, and analyses that are sophisticated and appropriately capture the
complexity of the real world. Furthermore, commitment to transparency is vital in the
reporting of research; practitioners are encouraged to explicitly acknowledging the limitations
of interventions, depending on the purpose, the individual, and their context. Finally, SIPP
calls people to responsibility. Wellbeing is a shared duty of individuals, institutions, and the
systems in which they reside, with each having the onus for the factors within its control. As
such, the purpose of PP is to create system conditions that support wellbeing, while providing
individuals with strategies and motivation to change. Thus, SIPP can help the field develop a
better understanding of the dynamic processes that influence individual and communal
wellbeing, whilst motivating adaptive and sustainable changes.
By taking a systems approach to PP, boundaries are expanded, which can lead to the
inclusion of different perspectives, including minority voices, as noted above. A systems
approach does not privilege a single perspective of an observer of the system, because we are
all seen as part of the system. Initially this may be viewed as only an epistemological point.
But it also has significant social justice implications. If the perspectives – i.e., vantage points
of observation – of non-Western cultures, for example, are included at an epistemological
level, then our very definition of what constitutes PP, and wellbeing itself, may look very
Cultural and Linguistic Approaches
Following on from the need to include a wider range of perspectives, the third aspect
of broadening in scope pertains to the inclusion of a greater range of cultural and linguistic
perspectives. Mainstream psychology – including PP – has historically tended to be Western-
centric, inherently influenced by the mostly Western contexts in which it has formed and
developed. For instance, much of its empirical work has involved scholars and participants
described by Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010) as WEIRD (belonging to societies that
are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic). As a result, the field is biased
towards Western ways of thinking and understanding the world, such as a North American
tradition of expressive individualism (Izquierdo, 2005).
However, psychology is often unaware of, or unconcerned with, its situatedness –
uncritically regarding itself as psychology in toto – with its cultural bias therefore having
been described as a ‘disguised ideology’ (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). Thus,
concepts, ideologies, priorities, and methods associated with American psychology have
come to dominate the international scene. For instance, one aspect of this dominance is that
(American) English is the default language for the field, meaning that most of its ideas and
theories are structured around the contours of the English language. This linguistic bias is an
issue, since the knowledge developed within the field is therefore to an extent provincial and
culturally-specific, influenced by the ideological and economic traditions associated with the
United States, from individualism to consumer capitalism (Becker & Marecek, 2008).
An important thread of the third wave therefore is (or will be) the inclusion of non-
Western ethnopsychologies, and other forms of cross-cultural psychology (Berry, 2000) or
indigenous psychology (Kim, Yang, & Hwang, 2006). PP already includes a decent range of
research pertaining to non-Western cultures – as summarised by Lomas (2015a) under the
rubric ‘positive cross-cultural psychology’ – including both work by Western scholars
conducting research in those arenas, and by scholars from those cultures themselves.
However, for the most part, such research is still often through the prism of constructs and
methodologies developed in Western contexts (Lambert et al., 2020). For instance,
comparisons between populations may be made using psychometric tools like the satisfaction
with life scale (Diener & Diener, 2009), whether or not such comparisons are appropriate
(Kern, Zeng, Hou, & Peng, 2018).
As valuable and useful as such research is, it presumes that constructs developed in
one cultural context (e.g., the US) can be readily transposed onto another. That may be true,
to an extent, even if there is the thorny issue of how to translate such concepts and scales, and
whether seemingly comparable terms mean the same thing in different languages – both of
which are contentious propositions (Lomas, 2018). In any case, one must tread cautiously,
since a wealth of scholarship from fields like anthropology has shown that culture can
profoundly influence people’s experience and understanding of the world, including at the
most fundamental level, for instance with relation to the perception of time (Arman & Adair,
2012) and the self (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). As such, the third wave will likely involve a
greater inclusion of input from non-Western psychologies and psychologists, bringing in
constructs, theories, and methodologies conceived and developed in non-Western contexts.
One example of this approach has been an initiative by Lomas (2016, 2020) to create an
evolving lexicography of 'untranslatable' words (i.e., without exact equivalent in English)
relating to wellbeing. Such words indicate phenomena and insights which have not yet been
lexicalised in English, and hence tend to be overlooked by psychology, to its detriment. By
analysing these words thematically it has been possible to augment the field's current
conceptual 'map' of various topics, including positive emotions (Lomas, 2017b), ambivalent
emotions (Lomas, 2017c), prosociality (Lomas, 2018b), love (Lomas, 2018c), spirituality
(Lomas, 2019a), eco-connection (Lomas, 2019b), and character (Lomas, 2019c).
The fourth form of broadening in scope concerns recent efforts to situate the applied
elements of PP within a wider ethical framework. Such developments are timely. The speed
and scale of the uptake of PP shows it has filled a real academic, personal, and professional
need (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016), affording it a place of increasing power as it reaches arenas
such as education, business, and public policy (Rusk & Waters, 2013). However, alongside
this privilege comes responsibility, and yet the field has been largely unregulated, with no
formal standards or ethical guidelines to inform applied practice until recently. Such issues
are particularly pertinent now that PP is becoming a professional specialty. Initially, PP was
more a “collective identity” unifying people interested in “the brighter sides of human
nature” (Linley & Joseph, 2004, p.4), open to scholars and practitioners in various established
fields, such as educational psychology. However, recent years have seen PP also becoming a
specific discipline, endowed with a distinct professional identity (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016).
Part of the impetus for this comes from the ever-expanding community of postgraduate
Masters of Applied Positive Psychology courses, organically leading to graduates and
scholars self-identifying as ‘positive psychology practitioners’ and even as ‘positive
psychologists’ (though this label is legally contentious).
Such developments raise various ethical issues. For example, unless practitioners are
affiliated to a particular profession, they may be operating outside the advice and provisions
of any set of ethical guidelines. This is not to suggest malpractice; such people are likely to
be aware of, and sensitive to, ethical considerations. But many will still be relatively
unguided, reliant on their own judgement and intuitions. As such, there have been calls for
the development of ethical guidelines (Handelsman et al., 2009; Vella-Brodrick, 2011, 2014;
Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016). These can help to: professionalise the field in a consistent way that is
recognised internationally; provide a transparent structure for PP practitioners to develop
their knowledge, skills, and practice; enable ‘customers’ of such practitioners to understand
different levels, specialisms, and types of qualification and applied practice; and create a
solid foundation for the future development of the field.
To make the most of its privileged position and fulfil the responsibility that comes
with it, PP needs clear structures, guidelines, and frameworks that will serve both those
within the field and those wishing to engage with it. Fortunately, such efforts are underway.
One such initiative has recently been led by Jarden, Rashid, Roache, and Lomas (2019). In
collaboration with key stakeholders across PP, they developed a set of guidelines, drawing
inspiration and incorporating ideas from established protocols in professional fields with
whom PP shares conceptual and practical kinship, such as counselling and psychotherapy
(see Lomas, Roache, Rashid, and Jarden (2019) for a fuller account of the development of the
guidelines). In broad terms, the guidelines are designed to ensure beneficence (do good to
others) and non-maleficence (avoid potential harm). More specifically, the guidelines are
based on the premise that ethical practice in PP should be guided by three interrelated moral
components: values, principles, and personal strengths
The intention with the guidelines is that practitioners will not only strive to uphold the
recommended values and principles, but also to remain up-to-date with emerging research
findings and evolving practice, and engage in suitable professional development. In addition,
The values are: protecting the safety of clients and others; alleviating personal distress and suffering; ensuring
the integrity of practitioner-client relationships; appreciating the diversity of human experience and culture;
fostering a sense of self that is meaningful to the person(s) concerned; enhancing the quality of professional
knowledge and its application; enhancing the quality of relationships between people; increasing personal
effectiveness; and striving for the fair and adequate provision of counselling, psychotherapy and coaching
services. The principles are: beneficence (or non-maleficence); responsible caring; respect for people’s rights
and dignity; trustworthiness; justice; and autonomy. The strengths are: honesty; fairness; social intelligence;
teamwork; kindness; prudence; perspective; judgement; self-regulation; perseverance; and bravery.
the guidelines emphasise the importance of practitioners being aware of, and accurately
communicating, the potential benefits and limitations of wellbeing science and their own
knowledge base and professional scope, while also monitoring the wellbeing of their clients
during service provision. Without such guidelines, applied PP risks becoming an industry
rather than a profession through the lack of: barriers to entry; regulation; formal qualification
framework; or accreditation process. PP has a significant opportunity to ‘make life better’ for
many people in manifold ways as it becomes embedded in education, business, government
policy, and beyond. Further development of such efforts towards better ethical practice will
be an important aspect of this third wave.
Broadening of Methodologies
Hand-in-hand with the broadening of scope outlined above comes an expansion of
methodologies welcomed within the fold of PP. As noted above, the first wave instantiation
of PP tended to embrace – with some valuable exceptions – a generally positivist or post-
positivist paradigm (Donaldson et al., 2015). However, more recently, there has been an
increasing openness to, and even encouragement of, other methodologies and epistemologies,
including interpretivist/hermeneutic, constructionist, phenomenological, and action-praxis
(Hefferon et al., 2017). Here we touch upon three broad methodological trends that are
making a particular impact in PP: qualitative and mixed methods; implicit approaches; and
computational social science.
Qualitative and Mixed Methods
Exemplifying the shift in PP towards greater methodological diversity, qualitative
inquiry – sometimes within a mixed methods design – is increasingly deployed to help us
gain a better understanding of the complexity of optimal human functioning. The call for
qualitative methods in PP has been around since the field’s early days (Rich, 2017), but a
special edition on qualitative research in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2017 heralded
a turning point for the use of such methods (Hefferon et al., 2017)
This special issue showcased a range of qualitative methodologies for exploring PP
topics, including: a grounded theory analysis on client-based perspectives of how hope
develops during psychotherapy (Chamodraka, Fitzpatrick, & Janzen, 2017); a case study
uncovering inductive notions of wellbeing in a job loss context (Synard, & Gazzola, 2017);
interviews that explore the constructs of love, passion, and peak experiences across cultures
(Mouton & Montijo, 2017); and a modified grounded theory analysis which surfaced the
experience of purpose among marginalized, urban, lower income, students, and furthermore
offered suggestions for how organizations can better support and enhance positive
development for disadvantaged youth (Liang et al., 2017).
By allowing for the development of bottom-up theories, qualitative approaches have
been pivotal in introducing new areas of investigation in PP. For example, Brunzell’s work
on the meaning teachers form when working with traumatized students led to the Trauma-
Informed-Positive-Education model (Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2016, 2018). Additionally,
by asking different questions of established PP phenomena, qualitative research has extended
our understanding of, and ways of working with, such phenomena. For example, Howells’
(2014) research on gratitude as an ‘action’ expanded existing quantitative approaches on
gratitude as an emotion or a strength, thereby opening the door to a wider range of gratitude
This third wave shift towards greater use of qualitative approaches has encouraged
further reflexivity about the role that PP researchers play in shaping (implicitly or explicitly)
the process and outcomes of new knowledge (Finlay & Gough, 2003). Qualitative methods
that situate researcher and participant as co-collaborators in the formation of knowledge –
including action research, collaborative inquiry, appreciative inquiry participatory action
research – are gaining traction, and look to become an important feature of the third wave
(Ludema, Cooperrider, & Barrett, 2006; Hefferon, 2012; Ebersöhn, 2014; Smith, 2015). In
that respect, qualitative methods have been invaluable in giving voice to the participants we
engage with. The participatory paradigm used in qualitative research allows us to capture
minority and divergent voices (Rao & Donaldson, 2015), and empowers research participants
in the research process, an approach that, in and of itself, is in keeping with the ethos of the
field (Hefferon et al., 2017). Finally, further capturing the complexity of human experience,
mixed methods are also emerging, providing opportunities to draw on the strengths of both
qualitative and quantitative methods, including accessing numeric summaries across larger
samples while capturing the richness of qualitative inquiries (Plano Clarke, 2017).
A second key area of methodological expansion pertains to techniques that go beyond
the limitations of self-report measures (long the staple of psychological measurement). Many
psychological phenomena of interest operate outside of conscious awareness and control, and
people are limited in their ability to identify factors that influence their attitudes and decisions
(e.g., Nisbett & Wilson, 1977; Wilson, 2002). Conscious reflection requires cognitive
resources which, for knowledge-based high-cognitive-load work, can be limited (Johnson &
Steinman, 2009). Moreover, self-report measures are hindered by desirability biases, and
struggle to capture thoughts and feelings people are either unwilling or unable to report
(Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). For example, when self-report measures address socially
sensitive topics, responses may be distorted by social desirability and self-presentation, such
as in relation to political behaviour (Burdein, Lodge, & Taber, 2006; Nosek, Graham, &
Thus, recent years have seen calls for the examination of non-conscious processes in
PP through the use of paradigms such as ‘implicit measures.’ These capture the impact of
psychological constructs that are thought to influence participants’ responses in a somewhat
automatic fashion, eluding awareness and self-control (De Houwer, Teige-Mocigemba,
Spruyt, & Moors, 2009). Among the most well-known are the implicit association test
(Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998), the evaluative priming task (Fazio, Jackson,
Dunton, & Williams, 1995), the extrinsic affective Simon task (De Houwer, 2003), the go/no-
go association task (Nosek & Banaji, 2001), and the affect misattribution procedure (Payne,
Cheng, Govorun, & Stewart, 2005).
With implicit measures being adopted in many areas of psychology (Payne &
Gawronski, 2010), they are likewise beginning to be harnessed in PP. For instance, Williams
et al. (2016) found that both explicit and implicit attitudes influenced perceptions of
organization culture and employee work-related wellbeing. Moreover, explicit and implicit
attitudes appeared to explain unique variance and were uncorrelated, replicating earlier
studies in suggesting an additive influence of implicit constructs on outcomes of interest (e.g.,
Bing, LeBreton, Davison, Migetz, & James, 2007). One explanation is that implicit attitudes
change more quickly and are less open to socially desirable responding (Roberts, Harms,
Smith, Wood, & Webb, 2006), possibly because they are processed in the automatic somatic
and affective systems of the brain (Lieberman, 2007). This means that implicit measures may
provide more timely reflections of attitude change, and so may be relatively effective in
capturing the impact of interventions.
Computational Social Science
Finally, a related methodological advance that can be both qualitative and
quantitative, as well as explicit and implicit, is the increasing use of computational
techniques. These make use of the massive amount of data generated through modalities such
as social media, electronic health records, search patterns, and mobile phone behaviours.
With people purposefully and non-purposefully documenting aspects of their lives
(Anderson, Fagan, Woodnutt, & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2012), various forms of data –
including text, pictures, behaviours, and more – are recorded each day by individuals all
around the world. In that light, computer science and related fields have developed numerous
approaches to collect and analyse such data. Considering the reach of mobile and online
technologies, so-called ‘big data’ provides opportunities to move beyond small, often
unrepresentative samples, generating insights into personal, social, cultural, and other aspects
of peoples’ lives that impact individually and collectively upon wellbeing.
For example, using tweets collected from Twitter and data from nationally
representative surveys, Schwartz and colleagues (2013) found that US regions with high
levels of life satisfaction were more likely to express language on Twitter reflecting
engagement, connection to nature, a sense of spirituality, and physical activity. Analysis of
language has included research on: the effects of power differentials on community
engagement (Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil et al., 2013); personal values (Boyd et al., 2015);
emotions (Bollen, Mao, & Pepe, 2011; Strapparava & Mihalcea, 2008); and psychological
traits (Guntuku et al., 2017; Mitchell, Hollingshead, & Coppersmith, 2015; Park et al., 2015;
Sagi & Dehghani, 2014). Other examples include geo-tagged search queries from mobile
phones being used to predict health care visit and hospitalization (Yang, White, & Horvitz,
2013), and search logs helping identify adverse drug reactions, providing timely
enhancements to the US Food and Drug Administration’s adverse event reporting system
(White, Harpaz, Shah, DuMouchel, & Horvitz, 2014). Such data can also reveal aspects of
the social or cultural context that may be variously health promoting (Eichstaedt et al., 2015).
Still, such data bring numerous challenges, and while computational social science
can complement other approaches, they do not replace them (Grimmer & Stewart, 2013; Iliev
,Dehghani, & Sagi, 2014; Kern et al., 2016). To be useful, data have to be accessed, stored,
and analysed – all of which involve processes that go beyond typical methodological training
in PP. Exception and ecological fallacies can be made, in which conclusions about groups are
made based on exceptional cases, or conversely conclusions about individuals made based on
groups. Moreover, while large in nature, data are not necessarily representative. For instance,
studies have used data available through Facebook and Twitter (e.g., Kern, McCartney,
Chakrabarty, & Rizoiu, 2019; Kosinki, Stillwell, & Graepel, 2013; Schwartz et al., 2013), but
many people are not on these platforms or are unwilling to share their information. There are
also numerous ethical issues that constantly must be negotiated. Still, big data and related
computational approaches offer opportunities for capturing the complex dynamics
emphasized by third wave perspectives.
In this paper we have sought to offer a bird’s eye view of the development of PP by
using the metaphor of waves (a common motif for describing progress in academia and
elsewhere). The instantiation of the field in the 1990s represents the first wave. From the
outset, with this emergent field immediately attracting considerable interest and enthusiasm,
it began to develop and evolve. Per our metaphor, new ripples were constantly generated,
with continual innovations in theory, research, and practice. For us, among these patterns of
development, some are fundamental or foundational enough to warrant being deemed a new
‘wave.’ For example, the scholarship that queried the conceptual basis of the field itself by
looking critically at the notions of positive and negative was identified as the ‘second wave’.
More recently, we have discerned what appears to be an equally significant shift, one
that challenges the second half of the phrase positive psychology (i.e., psychology). This
refers to scholarship that, in various ways, embraces complexity and goes beyond the
boundaries of psychology to incorporate knowledge and research methodologies from a
broad range of fields to look deeply at the groups, organisations, cultures, and systems in
which people – and their wellbeing – are embedded. Taken together, we suggest these
interrelated ripples constitute a significant ‘third wave’ of PP, reflecting as a whole a move
towards capturing, understanding, and impacting upon the complexity of the real world.
Of course, this statement is something of a conjecture. It is possible that these ripples
do not amount to a significant enough shift in the field to merit the label of a wave. Equally
possibly, they may continue to gather strength and swell, where the notion of these as a wave
becomes harder to dispute. Or, paradoxically, Gable and Haidt (2005) speculated that one
consequence of the field’s burgeoning influence and reach is that it may actually cease to
exist as a discrete field. That is, PP’s original mission was to bring attention and credibility to
research on positive aspects of human functioning. It may be that the field succeeds to such
an extent that psychology as a whole embraces this mission, thus rendering the need for a
distinct sub-discipline of PP unnecessary. But even if that were to happen, PP would not
disappear; its waters would simply have overflowed into the body of psychology more
broadly, suffusing it with its positive energy. Whatever happens, given the energy that PP has
unleashed in academia and in the culture more broadly, it is likely that new waves will
continue to be generated, taking forward our understanding of wellbeing in ways we cannot
yet even foresee. Whatever happens, these ripples and waves will have made their mark on
the shoreline of human civilisation.
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