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Positive Psychology Degree Programs and Career Opportunities

Although much of the focus of psychology in the 20th century was on identifying abnormal behavior and treating mental illness, some psychologists promoted the idea of concentrating more on the positive aspects of human nature. Their work, in part, laid the foundation for Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, and researcher Christopher Peterson to create a positive side to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Martin Seligman founded the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he currently serves as director. In a 2004 TED talk he explained: “I thought, when I first became a therapist 30 years ago, that if I was good enough to make someone not depressed, not anxious, not angry, that I’d make them happy. And it turns out the skills of happiness, the skills of the pleasant life, the skills of engagement, the skills of meaning, are different from the skills of relieving misery.” Read on to learn more about positive psychology and how you can be part of this optimistic field.

What Is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is a scientific study that focuses on helping people build on their strengths rather than try to “fix” what is wrong with them. It is the science of “what makes life worth living.” Tal Ben-Shahar, former Harvard professor and co-founder of the Wholebeing Institute, defines it this way in a WOBI presentation: “The aim of positive psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worse things in life to also building the best qualities in lives. It focuses on strength rather than deficiencies; on what works accentuating it rather than on what doesn’t work.” Shahar also provides an illustration of the application of positive psychology by looking at case studies about why at-risk populations in poor areas often have trouble succeeding in school and life. Many studies have been done about this topic, and they ask questions such as “Why do so many in this population drop out of school?” “Why do they turn to drugs?” These studies have yielded little helpful information. However, more recent studies have instead focused on the question, “How is it that some people in this population overcome barriers and lead successful lives?” When looking at the issue that way, scientists came up with useful data. The positive psychology approach is built atop three pillars:

  1. Understanding positive experiences: What’s the effect of being at peace with the past, joyful in the moment, and optimistic for the future?
  2. Understanding positive individual traits: How can we help people use their strengths—such as courage, love, and creativity—to lead fulfilling lives?
  3. Understanding positive institutions: How can our individual strengths radiate outward to build workplaces, schools, and communities that nurture individuals?

According to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, some of the goals of positive psychology are to “…build a science that supports:

  • Families and schools that allow children to flourish
  • Workplaces that foster satisfaction and high productivity
  • Communities that encourage civic engagement
  • Therapists who nurture their patients’ strengths
  • The teaching of Positive Psychology
  • Dissemination of Positive Psychology interventions in schools, organizations, and communities.”

What Does a Positive Psychologist Do?

Positive psychology is an approach to psychology. Although some professionals call themselves positive psychologists, others simply apply the method in their chosen profession. This could include researchers, school psychologists, or clinical psychologists. Counselors and therapists, who are not actual psychologists because they don’t hold a doctorate, may also use the approach in working with their clients. Essentially, however, the role of a positive psychologist breaks down into two categories: research and clinical application.


Researchers who focus on positive psychology work to answer questions that can be used in clinical applications. They might explore why some people are more resilient, how learned helplessness can be an obstacle to positive growth, and how to help young children build self-control. Researchers are often also postsecondary teachers. They conduct their studies at the school they teach at, often with the aid of their graduate students. You can find current research in positive psychology at U Penn’s Positive Psychology Center.

Clinical Application

Practitioners in nearly every clinical profession in psychology can incorporate positive psychology into their practices as a way of breeding hope and focusing attention away from negative aspects. According to Martin Seligman, positive psychology techniques may be most effective when used as a complement to traditional therapy: using a “build what’s strong” approach to augment the “fix what’s broken” approach. So, for example, school psychologists asses students not only for areas in which they need improvement but for strengths that can be nourished. School counselor Sara Solemani-Alizdah comments, “Instead of looking at the child and assessing deficits, I have taken the perspective of ‘looking at wellness not illness,’ which is has been the influence of strength-based approaches [such as] positive psychology.” Counseling psychologists might use exercises that help people focus on what they are good at and identify the positive elements in their lives. Those who work with couples might first ask the couple, “What is good about your marriage?” rather than “What is wrong with your marriage?” Seligman suggests that couples devise a “strength date.” He says, “We get couples to identify their highest strengths on the strengths test, and then to design an evening in which they both use their strengths. We find this is a strengthener of relationships.”

How to Become a Positive Psychologist

To become a psychologist of any kind, you need to earn a doctorate. There are few degrees offered in positive psychology, but some schools provide positive psychology concentrations, while others offer courses on the topic. We provide a list of programs later in this guide. Once you complete the program, you will probably need to get a license. Some states don’t require researchers to become licensed, but all states require those who work with patients to have a license. Here are the general steps for licensure:

  1. Get a doctorate in psychology. As mentioned previously, you can complete a program that focuses specifically on positive psychology or one that incorporates courses about positive psychology into their program. It is important that you research schools carefully to ensure that they have coursework you want to pursue.
  2. Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Each state has its own score requirements. The standard minimum passing score is 500. States also may require exams on ethics and/or law.
  3. Complete supervised clinical hours. States require anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 hours of direct, supervised contact with patients before they can practice on their own. The standard is 2,000 hours during their doctoral internship and 2,000 hours from a postdoctoral fellowship.
  4. Apply for licensure as a psychologist. This is done on a state level. Those who graduate from an APA-accredited program may have an easier time getting credentialed in other states.

For specific information about getting licensed in your state, contact your state board.

Positive Psychology Programs

Few colleges offer a positive psychology degree. However, the field’s foremost proponent is an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. That alone may have been enough to bring individual courses to many of the top schools in psychology, including Stanford and the University of North Carolina. Below we highlight schools with certificates, bachelor’s degrees, graduate degrees, and doctorates in this emerging field.

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania was the first in the world to offer a graduate degree in the field of positive psychology. The director of the program is Dr. Martin Seligman, who many see as the founder of positive psychology. Students in the low-residency master’s program will have the opportunity to work with him directly; cohorts gather ten times at UPenn’s Philadelphia campus throughout the program. Degrees offered

Sample courses

  • Research Methods and Evaluation
  • Foundations of Positive Interventions
  • Humanities and Human Flourishing


  • $28,024 for fall and spring semesters
  • $7,006 for summer semester

Claremont Graduate University

Claremont Graduate University is a small graduate-only institution that offers a number of prestigious master’s and doctoral programs. In its positive psychology programs, students will conduct cutting-edge research under the supervision of faculty who are renowned in their field. Degrees offered

Sample courses

  • Child Development: Traditional and Positive Perspectives
  • Positive Contexts
  • Positive Leadership


  • $2,000 per credit hour (48 hours needed for master‘s programs and 72 for Ph.D. programs)

University of Missouri

Mizzou Online offers in-state tuition rates to all learners. Its program is geared toward life or career coaches, teachers, managers, and others interested in spurring individual and organizational excellence. Degree offered

Sample courses

  • Community and Stewardship
  • Life/Career Coaching and Development
  • Meaning in Work


  • $386 per credit hour (for 15 credits), plus fees

Hodges University (Naples, Florida)

Hodges is a small, private university that runs a mix of on-site and online degree programs; the applied positive psychology degree is one of the latter. Online programs employ an eight-week course format to accommodate work schedules. Degree offered

Sample courses

  • Behaviorism
  • Motivational Enhancement
  • Positive Psychology Applied to Administration/Supervision Skills


  • $750 per credit hour (for 30 credits)

Positive Psychologist Salary and Career Outlook

Because most positive psychologists do not identify themselves purely as such, there is no data about salary and career outlook for this career. However, the O*NET Online website (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor) reports that career the outlook for postsecondary psychology teachers as well as school, clinical, counseling, and industrial-organizational psychologists is bright, with a projected 11% growth in jobs from 2018 to 2028. Salaries will vary depending on what specialty you go into. O*NET Online reports the following median salaries as of May 2018:

Positive Psychologist Salaries

Clinical, school, and counseling psychologists


Industrial-organizational psychologist


Psychology teacher, postsecondary (research)


Positive Psychology Resources

The resources that follow will help you learn more about positive psychology—what it is, how it is applied, and current research in the field.

  • Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania: Martin Seligman promoted the concept of positive psychology at UPenn. Now, the university’s Positive Psychology Center publishes original research, disseminates others’ findings, and maintains an extensive catalog of video lectures by eminent psychologists. Aspiring positive psychologists may find its professional directories helpful when looking for programs.
  • International Positive Psychology Association: The International Positive Psychology Association‘s student division, SIPPA, arranges mentorships and broadcasts webinars with experts. Members can access a learning library of video presentations covering everything from cross-cultural views of wellbeing to the benefits of nature.
  • Division 7 (School Counseling) of the American Psychological Association, Positive Psychology website: Division 7 of the American Psychological Association focuses on one of the APA-identified specialists in psychology, counseling psychology. They offer a website that provides information about positive psychology research, teaching, events, strengths-based books, and other resources.
  • Positive Psychology News: Geared toward MAPP students and alumni, Positive Psychology News is more focused on connecting people to coaches than disseminating Ph.D.-level research. Contributors from various fields write accessible articles on applying the discipline to work, relationships, health, and other areas.
  • Psychology Tools: The Amazon of psychology resources, Psychology Tools has created handouts on mindfulness and assertive communication, as well as a gratitude journal and values worksheet.
  • TED Talk: The new era of positive psychology by Martin Seligman: This video is an excellent introduction to positive psychology.