top of page

The Role of Positive Psychology

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008).

Founded by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behavior, with a focus on strengths (as opposed to weaknesses). It focuses on:

  1. Positive experiences (happiness, joy, inspiration, and love).

  2. Positive states and traits (optimism, wellbeing, gratitude, resilience, self-confidence, hope, and compassion).

  3. Positive institutions (applying positive principles within organizations and institutions).

So how does happiness fit with behavioral economics? Well, in the last decade, several ideas from positive psychology frameworks have been successfully applied to behavioral economics experiments.

"Nudges designed with inputs from positive psychology make for positive, long term behavioral change. In contrast to nudges using merely financial gains or other extrinsic goals, those with elements of positive relationships, grit, mindfulness, and social support seem to show promise in sustaining desirable behavior. "
Fahima Mohideen, "The Decision Lab"


  • In a study aimed to improve student achievement, the Behavioural Insights Team, UK, designed exercises to cultivate grit: passion and persistence needed to reach a long-term goal (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Students who received training showed a ~10% boost in attendance with respect to those who did not receive training.

  • In the ongoing study Project College Success (Groot & Sanders, 2017), students nominate a "study supporter", who receives scheduled text messages with conversational prompts related to school work. These prompts guide the development of a supportive, positive relationships which, in turn, is understood to reduce stress (Cohen, 2004), and promote development and achievement (Marcon, 1999).

Health Promotion:

  • In a study to help patients keep their diabetes, the strategic pairing of mentors & mentees was a more successful intervention than using financial incentives. (Long, Jahnle, Richardson, Loewenstein, & Volpp, 2012). The peer support helped patients stay on track and be accountable, and also helped cultivate optimism, trust, and a sense of community/unity.

Habit Formation:

  • The app Fabulous (Center for Advanced Hindsight) used mindfulness (i.e., paying purposeful attention to the present in a non-judgmental way) to encourage habits such as healthy eating, exercise, productivity, and more. For each habit, users list reasons why the behavior matters to them and can opt to pre-commit to the behavior. Users reported increased frequency in exercise, higher likelihood to continue exercising, and greater enjoyment in both exercise and the preceding ritual.

Yale Professor and cognitive scientist Laurie Santos is fun to watch and insightful regarding how to nudge ourselves to happiness. You can get a preview of her work from this Nudgestock video below:


bottom of page