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Marie Jahoda

“...the absence of mental illness is not a sufficient indicator of mental health.” (1958, p. 15).

With these words the Austrian psychologist Marie Jahoda (1907-2001) formulated the basic premise of what has come to be known as “positive psychology.” In her masterpiece Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health, Jahoda criticized psychologists for focusing almost completely on mental disease and not paying enough attention to mental health and well-being. She argued that the concept of mental disease was itself scientifically problematic, given that what is considered “mentally ill” depends largely on social conventions rather than something inherent in the human mind. Far more encouraging, she believed, was the concept of mental health which is the normal functioning of the mind in the appropriate social context. She identified 5 characteristics of healthy people: they are able to manage time well, they have meaningful social relationships, they are able to work effectively with other people, they have high self-esteem, and are regularly active. In her landmark studies on the psychology of unemployment, she found that unemployed people are “unhappy” largely because they do not have many of these qualities (and not simply because they are poor). Needless to say, many contemporary positive psychologists have confirmed some of the essentials of her research, especially the importance of meaningful work and close social relationships in achieving subjective and psychological well-being.