Exploring the Concept of Positive Health
Evaluations and Assessments
Learning Across Global Borders
Learn how we're actively learning about what’s working in other countries so that we can curate a Culture of Health with purpose and leadership.
The field of medicine has long focused on the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cure of disease. But health is more than the mere absence of disease.
The emerging concept of Positive Health takes an innovative approach to health and well-being that focuses on promoting people’s positive health assets—strengths that can contribute to a healthier, longer life.
What is Positive Health?
According to Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Positive Health encompasses the understanding that "people desire well-being in its own right and they desire it above and beyond the relief of their suffering." It builds on Seligman's advances in the field of Positive Psychology, which applies validated interventions to boost the strengths and virtues that help individuals thrive emotionally in daily life.
From 2008-2015, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Seligman and a team of researchers conducted studies to help identify which specific health assets lead to lower disease risk and longer, healthy life. These assets might range from biological factors such as heart rate variability, to subjective or functional factors, such as optimism or a stable marriage.
Some Key Findings
- Men and women with high levels of negative emotion were more likely to die prematurely than those with lower levels of negative emotion.
- People with higher life satisfaction are likely to be more optimistic, socially engaged, and supported—and manage health problems better.
The below sampling of articles provides an initial body of analysis on the potential for personal health strengths to provide a buffer against physical and mental illness and path to better overall health. Additional research and resources are available on the Positive Health project website.
- Life Satisfaction and Frequency of Doctor Visits (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2013). Whether healthy or ill, people with higher life satisfaction (sometimes called happiness) visit the doctor less than those unhappy. Pursuing the link between positive psychological factors and health care use may reveal innovative ways to contain health care costs.
- Perceived Neighborhood Social Cohesion and Stroke (Social Science & Medicine, 2013). Perceived neighborhood social cohesion and physical health may play an important role in protecting against stroke.
- Social Relations, Health Behaviors, and Health Outcomes (Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2013). This paper summarizes current evidence on social relations and health, specifically how social integration and social support are related to health behaviors and health outcomes, using results from published reviews.
- Purpose in Life and Reduced Stroke in Older Adults (Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 2013). A higher rating of purpose in life was associated with a reduced likelihood of stroke during this study’s four-year follow-up.
- A Prospective Study of Positive Early Life Psychosocial Factors and Favorable Cardiovascular Risk in Adulthood (Circulation, 2013). Protecting and enhancing early life psychosocial assets lay the foundation for adult cardiovascular health.
- Psychological Well-Being, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Long-Term Survival (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2010). While low levels of negative emotion or high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are predictors of long-term survival in men and women, being both fit and not unhappy provides a strong combined effect.
- A Prospective Study of Positive Psychological Well-Being and Coronary Heart Disease (Health Psychology, 2013). Positive psychological well-being, desirable in itself, may have far-reaching consequences for cardiovascular health.
- The Promise of Well-Being Interventions for Improving Health Risk Behaviors (Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 2012). People who have positive psychological well-being may be more likely to exercise, eat a healthy diet, and avoid smoking, all behaviors that also reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.