What is un-DSM in positive psychology?

Ronald Siegel
A primary focus of positive psychology is to help people identify and build on their unique strong points. Experts are working to understand and describe character strengths as clearly as psychology has, in the past, studied the qualities that make people unhappy or unable to function. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), long considered the bible of psychiatry, describes and categorizes mental disorders and problematic behavior patterns. As a counterpart, positive psychologists have published a professional handbook jokingly called the "un-DSM" to describe and categorize positive traits. Both books are works in progress that change along with professional opinion and unfolding scientific research.

Beyond emphasizing the positive, the positive psychology movement asserts that it is legitimate for psychologists to examine strengths and virtues as part of what could be called "moral character." Previously, psychologists studying personality traits considered moral character best left to philosophers, deeming it too value-laden and subjective for psychological research. Freudian psychoanalysts were willing to look at strengths and often saw these as defenses against unconscious negative motivations such as aggression and sexuality. The problem, says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, is that there is no evidence that this is true.

In contrast, positive psychologists argue that happiness and fulfillment are as real as distress and disease, and that individual strengths and virtues are as important for psychologists to examine as are individual problems. Manifesting your strengths, they say, is one avenue to greater happiness.

Under the auspices of the VIA Institute on Character, Christopher Peterson (the institute's scientific director) and Martin Seligman undertook a mammoth categorization project with the assistance of a large group of scholars and practitioners. They began by combing the philosophical and religious literature in search of qualities that were prized across many cultures and in different eras, found in both young and old people, able to be cultivated, and believed to lead to fulfillment in life. The idea was to identify qualities that are not primarily valued as a means to another end, or considered to be inborn talents such as intelligence or perfect pitch. Seligman and Peterson published their handbook Character Strengths and Virtues to identify these strengths.

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