2. Progress in Positive Psychology: Some Reflections from India – Positive Psychology


Progress in Positive Psychology: Some Reflections from India

Jitendra K. Singh
Defence Institute of Psychological Research, Delhi

Abstract:   The foundation of positive psychology as one of the core sub-disciplines of psychology is rooted in identifying and enhancing positive states, positive traits, positive emotions and positive relationships of the human beings. It assumes that these positive aspects of a human being facilitate his/her strengths and, hence, prevent all the behavioural aberrations which overpower his/her thinking, feeling and action. Since its inception during the late 1990s, the field has grown tremendously and has attracted attention of researchers across the world. The six virtues and twenty-four-character strengths are considered to be ubiquitous and are claimed to be endorsed by every culture. However, the conceptualization of human psychological strength within the rubric of positive psychology subscribes to the Western idea of individual. On the contrary, the religio-philosophical traditions of India, viz., Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism deal comprehensively with various positive aspects of the individual. These traditions offer substantial insight about the conceptualization of human strength in terms of attributes, emotions and relations; a practical philosophy to deal with daily life issues; and a framework of healthy human development. Against this background, the chapter at first tries to highlight core positive aspects and constituents in addition to virtue and character strength. Thereafter, it discusses in detail, some of the key Indian concepts dealing with positive aspects of human being such as anasakti, ahamkara, santosh, triguna and wisdom and its relevance to describe human strength in the Indian context.

Conceptual Root and Contemporary Development

The foundation of psychology as a discipline of human behaviour in general and a helping profession in particular, is rooted in looking into multiple facets of behaviour including behavioural aberrations and subsequently designing intervention programme to make the individual capable of adjusting with the demands of the social world. Such an approach of helping profession, perhaps, takes conceptual and methodological insights from the clinical model of the human behaviour and has flourished across the world. Over the years, assessment, diagnosis and management of behavioural disorders have become the core areas and have been able to deliver services to different sectors of the society. The predominance of disease model in intellectual thinking has made the discipline, largely, a science about healing.

The beginning of the 21st century has witnessed the emergence of a new field that focuses primarily on the positive aspects of human life in the intrapersonal, interpersonal, societal and organizational domains. The field is popularly known as positive psychology. It focuses on identifying and enhancing positive states, positive traits, positive emotions and positive relationships and assumes that identifying and enhancing these positive aspects facilitates growth and development in healthy direction.

In order to evolve a holistic understanding of the human being, the field of positive psychology classifies its role at three levels (Seligman and Csikzentmihalyi, 2000). At the subjective level it deals with valued subjective experiences such as well-being, contentment and satisfaction (in the past), flow and happiness (in the present), and hope and optimism (for the future). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits such as love, courage, interpersonal skills, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, originality, forgiveness, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent and wisdom. At the group level, it focuses on civic virtues and institutions that take individuals towards better citizenship, responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation and work ethics. Considering the saliency of all the three levels in human life, positive psychology has been defined as a science of positive subjective experiences, positive individual traits and positive institutions to improve the quality of life and prevent pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless (ibid.).

Though positive psychology has recently come into limelight, its roots can be traced to the 1930s. As highlighted by Peterson and Seligman (2004), the root of the field can be traced in Terman’s (1939) study of giftedness and marital happiness (Terman, Buttenweiser, Ferguson, Johnson and Wilson, 1938), Watson’s (1928) writing on effective parenting and Jung’s (1933) work on search and discovery of meaning of life. In later years, the influence of positive psychology has been reflected in the humanistic approach of explaining personality and behaviour. However, the birth of positive psychology as a full grown sub-discipline during the latter half of 1990s and beginning of the 21st century can be seen in the pioneering contributions of a number of scholars. Some of the concepts which received attention were positive experience (Kahneman, 1999), subjective well-being (Diener, 2000), optimal experience (Massimini and Delle Fave, 2000), optimism (Peterson, 2000), happiness (Myers, 2000), self-determination (Ryan and Deci, 2000) and relationship between positive emotions and physical health (Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower and Gruenwald, 2000).

In the field of positive personal traits, Deiner (2000) worked on subjective well-being. The study on subjective well-being focuses on how people cognitively assess their existence. He found a link between macro-social conditions and happiness. He elaborated, how a person’s values and goals mediate between external events and the quality of happiness. Peterson (2000) did valuable work on optimism and dealt with cognitive, emotional and motivational components of optimism, its mechanism and when it begins to distort the reality. Myers (2000) discussed the factors that promote happiness, religious faith, economic growth and close personal relationships. Ryan and Deci (2000) studied self-determination. They claimed that when three needs, i.e., relatedness, competence and autonomy, are satisfied, it results in personal well-being and social development. The individual is intrinsically motivated and seeks greater challenge to fulfil his potential. They have also described the social contexts that support or hinder it. Schwartz (2000) indicated that excess of freedom leads to a greater burden of responsibility which can give rise to depression, dissatisfaction, feelings of insecurity and regret. According to him, cultural values and norms are important for a meaningful and satisfactory life. Vaillant (2000), from his lifespan longitudinal research, summarized the contributions of mature defenses like altruism, sublimation, suppression, humour and anticipation for a joyful life. He emphasized that proactive and creative solutions are necessary to break the mold of victimology.

In order to position itself as an equally relevant and important sub-discipline, there has been significant amount of publications in this field for the last one decade and a half. These publications are mainly in the form of books and research articles. These publications have greatly helped the new scholars to take valuable insights for furthering research in this area. Some of these publications are—The Handbook of Positive Psychology (Snyder and Lopez, 2002), Authentic Happiness (Seligman, 2002), Psychology of Human Strengths (Aspinwall and Staudinger, 2003), Flourishing (Keyes and Haidt, 2003), Positive Psychology Assessment: A Handbook of Models and Measures (Lopez and Snyder, 2004), Positive Psychology in Practice (Linley and Joseph, 2004) and Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology (Ong and Van Dulmen, 2007) and Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology (Lopez, 2009). One of the most notable publications is Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). It is similar to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by American Psychiatric Association. Contrary to psychological disorders, the handbook describes strengths and virtues. Each chapter in the handbook of character strengths and virtues is about what is known about strengths, their definitions, paradigm, historical and cross cultural background, measurement, correlations and effects of having or lacking a particular strength, gender differences and interventions. Based on the studies on Character Strength and Virtues (CSVs), Peterson and Seligman (2004) identified six virtues and 24 character strengths that are claimed to be ubiquitous (Park, Peterson and Seligman, 2006).

During its short journey, the field has covered a great deal of conceptual and empirical plains and has incorporated a number of concepts in its fold other than virtues and character strengths. These concepts are briefly discussed in the subsequent paragraphs.

Positive Experience

Experiences are one’s interaction with immediate environment comprising objects, stimuli and persons. It shapes an individual’s emotions, positive as well as negative. Positive emotions are essential to lead a good life. Positive experiences buffer the effect of negative events and emotions and give a sense of control and mastery in everyday life. People who experience more positive events report greater well-being (Strand, Reich and Zautra, 2009). Csikszentmihalyi (1990) worked on positive experiences and developed flow theory. According to him, flow refers to a state of optimal experience with total absorption in the task at hand. Flow is a characteristic of good life. It develops positive feelings when one’s experiences become focused and other concerns are eliminated. Positive feelings result from this total focus. Flow can be understood in terms of external facilitators such as one’s location of activities and internal facilitators like concentration, happiness and attention to experiences.

Diener (2000) reported that environmental events and a person’s cognitive and emotional reaction to them are central to one’s good health and well-being. Studies have reported that positive emotions are linked to happiness and contentment, but not related to lowering down the intensity of negative emotions (Diener, Oishi and Lucas, 2009). However, it has been found that positive experiences have ‘buffering effects’ which leads to lessening the impact of negative experiences. Buffering effects of positive experiences are possible under high stress (Zautra, Potter and Reich, 1997). Positive experiences lead one to pleasurable engagement with environment and create positive feelings. It is connected with survival against odds and facilitates motivational, physiological and cognitive processes. Positive experience in the context of cognitive strategies helps to frame situation in more positive light. It expands one’s capacity to organize ideas and creative problem-solving strategies.

In addition, positive experiences help to bring people together and reinforce a bonding among them. This bonding provides a positive feeling which is central to lead a good life. So, positive experiences provide good feeling about life by resulting in personal mastery, control of the life events, and finally, opportunities for growth and well-being.

Positive Emotions

Positive emotions are essence of a good life. They are brief experiences of feeling good in present and increasing chances that one will feel good in the future (Froh, Kashdan, Ozimkowski and Miller, 2009). The study of positive emotions is a recent development in the field of positive psychology. One of the initial studies in this area was conducted by Isen (1987) which dealt with the role of positive emotions in cognitive processes. It showed that when people experienced positive emotions, they demonstrated broadening of thinking by associating more unusual words with neutral words, flexible thinking and creative problem solving. Another study suggested that positive emotions and broad-minded coping have positive relationship (Fredrickson and Joiner, 2002). Thus, positive emotions make one feel good in present and create chances of feeling good in future (Fredrickson, 2002). It was also reported that gratitude appeared to be one of the most commonly experienced emotions at the time of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh and Larkin, 2003). The archival data of newspaper account showed children to be thankful after 9/11. It revealed that gratitude play an important role in coping with adversity. Thus, positive emotions function to broaden one’s thinking pattern as well as contribute to well-being.

From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to give more attention to negative event than positive ones. We tend to form bad impressions and stereotypes more quickly than good ones. This is because negative events tend to have lasting negative impact, which is not found in the case of positive events. However, the idea here is to use positive events such that they can have lasting good/positive effects. Positive emotions can predict future resilience and improved coping by broadening one’s cognitive and behavioural domains. Fredrickson (2002) proposed that positive emotions can broaden thought–action repertoires that later build enduring physical, intellectual and social resources. Physical skill/resources are acquired in play. They aid in one’s survival. Intellectual resources can be developed by experiencing positive emotions like joy and happiness. Joy motivates a person to explore environment and gather greater knowledge about it. This helps to acquire basic knowledge (e.g., to learn who is in the environment) and applied knowledge (e.g., to learn who is approachable enough for help in future).

Social resources can be developed by learning to express gratitude. It is a way to replay kindness. Thus, repaying of kindness results in strengthening relationships and building social capital (Fredrickson, 2001). Also, this has lasting impact on one’s social relationships. A study in this area also reported that happy individuals live longer, earn more and enjoy loving relationship (Lyubomirsky, King and Diener, 2005).

Positive Ethics

Positive ethics shifts the focus from wrongdoing to more balanced and integrative approach that includes aspiring for the highest ethical potential (Handalsman, Knapp and Gottlieb, 2002). It guides individuals to be morally correct in their conduct. Ethics represent a dynamic enterprise that allows psychologists to respond better to changing conditions and situations. They may include idea of what is good, valuable and best of tradition. Ethics are often understood from the point of obedience to rules, but positive ethics mean striving for highest level of ethical excellence. It urges individuals to live up to high ideals such as (1) to integrate personal values and professional ethics; and (2) to encourage individuals to fulfil their highest personal idea through their career.

Emphasis on positive ethics allows drawing upon philosophical and scientific perspectives for judging an action and choosing the best way to promote ethical ideals. Apart from this, positive ethics provides the psychologist with a framework that gives meaning to their work. Hence, the purpose of positive ethics is to relook all aspects of professionals and scientific aspects form ethical perspective. It has implications for creating a workforce which values ethics and morality in all walks of life, thereby creating responsible and morally upright individuals.


Empathy is the ability to understand events/situation from other persons’ perspective, so as to acquire insight into their psychological world. Empathy includes two distinct activities. First, it includes imagining what other person is thinking or feeling as a result of a situation, considering the values and goals of that person. The second point involves visualizing oneself in others’ situation (Stocks and Lishner, 2009). Empathy involves listening to the other person in order to become aware of his/her internal states. It is a feeling about what another person is feeling such as experiencing anger in the context of the other person’s suffering or unjust treatment.

Studies have shown that empathy results in pro-social behaviour and is inconsistent with anti-social behaviour. It is also related to conflict management, improves communication among partners, relationship satisfaction and consideration towards partner’s needs (Stocks and Lishner, 2009). On the other hand, the way attribution is made regarding other person’s behaviour, affects empathetic feelings. An individual tends to explain his/her own behaviour as a consequence of situation and explain behaviour of others as a consequence of personality traits, particularly in case of negative event. However, in case of empathy, the observer makes situational attribution for others’ behaviour.

Thus, empathy augments the value of the other person and reduces the likelihood of blaming and derogating the victim. In addition, empathy shapes the attitudes towards stigmatized groups and social causes. It reduces prejudice and discrimination against racial minority groups. Hence, empathy is a potential force to improve relationships and attitude towards environment.


Hope is a positive mental state that enables one to achieve goals in the future (Edwards, 2009). It also indicates the expectation of an individual to attain a goal. It is also described as an emotion that is guided by cognitions and influenced by environmental conditions (Averill, Catlin and Chon, 1990). Hope is also defined as ‘a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (1) agency (i.e., goal-directed energy), and (2) pathways (planning to nut goals)’ (Snyder, Irving, and Anderson, 1991, p. 287). Snyder (2000a, 2000b) conceptualized hope as having cognitive and motivational components which jointly facilitate goal-setting behaviour, its pathways and finally goal-directed thinking. For hope, goals need to be sufficiently important to individuals and with probability of attainment component so that individuals can imagine themselves being able to reach goals. Another component of hope is will power that motivates individuals to begin and sustain their efforts toward the goals.

Studies on hope have reported that it is related to well-being and several positive outcomes of life such as psychological adjustment, physical health, academic and athletic performance. It is linked to coping behaviours among individual surviving illness and health outcomes such as perceived health and sense of vigour. Hope is related to positive outcomes in adults like better performance on standardized achievement tests and belief about ability to achieve goals. It has been reported that hope is linked to improved mood and treatment outcome. Thereby, it becomes evident that hope is a useful construct in life.


Optimism refers to an explanatory style that attributes positive events to personal, permanent and pervasive causes, and negative events to external, temporary and situation-specific ones. In contrast, pessimism explains positive events through external, temporary and situation-specific attributions and negative events through internal, permanent and pervasive ones (Seligman, 1991, 2002). Optimism is generally described in terms of expectancies from self and others. People with optimism expect good things to happen. Their ways of problem solving and coping differ from pessimistic individuals who expect bad thing to happen. This orientation has implications for psychological and physical well-being.

Studies on optimism have generally viewed optimism and pessimism as bipolar dimension. It has been reported that optimistic individuals experience less distress at the time of adversity than pessimists. Optimism was found to be associated with beneficial changes in distress over time. It has been found that optimistic individuals are confident to attain a goal, continue to try, whereas pessimistic individuals are doubtful and try to escape by using temporary distractions or even stop trying. Optimists have greater psychological well-being due to better coping strategies. They report fewer physiological symptoms at the time of distress and more adaptive immune functioning than do pessimists. They engage in problem-focused coping and proactive process to promote well-being. They make effort to reduce risk and safeguard their health. Therefore, such individuals make themselves less vulnerable to health issues. However, too much optimism is damaging because it might lead people to ignore potential threat or overestimate their capability to deal with it resulting in poor outcomes. Thus, an individual can obtain better outcomes by maintaining a positive and realistic view of situations. In contrast, pessimists tend to give up in face of serious problems and may indulge in substance abuse, excessive alcohol use as form of escapism. In some cases, people give up not just on problems they face, but also their lives, by committing suicide. Hence, pessimism is even stronger indicator of suicide than depression. These coping tendencies used by pessimistic individuals can obstruct their psychological well-being.

Psychological Capital

Psychological capital refers to the ability of a person to allocate attention so as to generate positive experiences in the present, and in ways that are likely to provide positive experiences in the future as well (Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura, 2009). Thus, the ability to choose desirable focus of attention and keep one’s attention on desired objects become the psychological capital. The concept of psychological capital is based on research on flow which is a subjective state of involvement in any activity. Some individuals are able to find such subjective state (flow) and enjoy even in difficult situations of life. The presence of this trait in individuals came to be called autotelic personality and the same was extended into a lifespan concept called, ‘psychological capital (PsyCap)’. PsyCap is based on the premise that one’s quality of life is determined by where a person chooses to invest his/her attentional resources (Luthans, Youssef and Avolio, 2007).


Mindfulness is an alert state of mind characterized by noticing new things. It is a feeling of engagement or involvement and awareness of what is there in present. In contrast, mindlessness, is an inactive state of mind characterized by reliance on past, outdated categories, lack of awareness of one’s social and physical world. Mindfulness results in better learning, more intelligent and creative products such as positive effect. Also, people are more attracted to individuals who are mindful. Mindful learning is similar to learning probable truth as opposed to mindless acceptance of statements. Learning mindfully results in improved creativity, high attention level and improved memory (Langer, 2009a and 2009b). To become mindful, one needs to learn to switch models of thinking about ourselves and the world. In addition, meditation is one way to attain mindfulness. The idea of mindfulness has importance for one’s health and well-being.


Self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s ability to produce desired outcomes. It determines how much effort one wants to put in to overcome obstacles. It focuses more on what one will do particularly under changing and challenging situations. It is not a motive to control, but conviction in one’s ability to perform effectively. It is defined as ‘one’s conviction (or confidence) about his/her abilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources and courses of action needed to successfully execute a specific task within a given context’ (Stajkovic and Luthans, 1988: 66).

The development of self-efficacy beliefs in an individual is influenced by two factors. First, the development of symbolic thought and capacity to see cause and effect relationship facilitates self-reflection. This creates an understanding of how one’s actions affect environment and increases one’s self-awareness. Second, family and environment play a major role in facilitating or inhibiting the development of strong self-efficacy by responding to child’s actions. Self-efficacy beliefs shape throughout life as people integrate information from different sources. It is influenced by performance experiences and one’s attempt to control a situation.

Influence of self-efficacy beliefs has important consequences for psychological functioning especially in the domains of psychological adjustment, physical health, self-regulation and psychotherapy.

Psychological Adjustment

A person who has a sense of control over environment, behaviour and thought experiences happiness and well-being. On the other hand, lack of such control may lead to psychological problems like depression and inferiority. Low self-efficacy in threatening situation may lead to dysfunctional anxiety and avoidant behaviour, problem of substance abuse and eating disorders.

Physical Health

Self-efficacy encourages one to adopt healthy behaviour and facilitate behavioural change in the face of difficulty. It influences biological processes and effects the body’s physiological responses to stress and immune system.


Self-efficacy influences self-regulation of one’s behaviour. It impacts how an individual sets goals. It also influences people’s choice of goal-directed activities, expenditure and persistence in the face of challenge. This produces desired results and strengthens self-efficacy that also facilitates problem solving and decision making. People who have confidence in their ability to solve problems can effectively use their cognitive resources and arrive at a better solution and greater achievement than those who doubt their abilities.


Psychological intervention may be effective in enhancing self-efficacy. It can be done by identifying experiences that strengthen behaviour which contributes to self-efficacy. The strategies to enhance self-efficacy are based on five sources of self-efficacy. These are: performance experience, vacations experience, imagined experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological as well as emotional states.

Collective Efficacy

The notion of collective self-efficacy is based on the idea that in order to accomplish goals in groups, organizations look for ability to identify the strengths of other persons. A group that has confidence in its abilities to accomplish goals is more satisfied. The collective efficacy beliefs of a group or team can be increased or reduced by commenting on their abilities. In case of businesses, organizations and government success depends on the ability to coordinate efforts to achieve goals or resolve conflicts. An individual’s happiness is also dependent on his/her ability to cooperate and negotiate with other people. So, in the present scenario of collaboration between commerce and government, the notion of collective self-efficacy becomes more important.


Resilience refers to one’s ability to positively adapt to adversity and recover from challenges. It involves functioning well in times of adversity, bouncing back from disturbing experience and achieving new level of positive or normal adaptation when conditions improve (Masten, Cutuli, Herbers, and Reed, 2009). It is also defined as ‘the capacity to rebound or bounce back from adversity, conflict, failure or even positive events, progress and increased responsibility’ (Luthans, 2002a: 702).

Studies on resilience began with studying people who were at risk of developing problems, e.g., children at risk due to hazardous rearing condition. Resilience research was facilitated by emergence of developmental psychopathology. The findings of the studies revealed that resilience was the key factor in preventing problem and leading to positive adaptation (Masten and Reed, 2002). Resilience develops from many resources and processes that lead to positive outcome. This is because the pattern of behaviour results from many interactions within the person and between person and environment.

The notion of ‘positive adaptation’ is based on two broad domains called psychopathology and competence. Positive adaptation from the perspective of mental health is viewed as developing effective coping skills for healthy adjustment and well-being of the individual. At the same time, it also ensures the absence of any clinical disorders or symptoms in the individual. Positive adaptation from the perspective of mental health is viewed as developing effective coping skills for healthy adjustment and well-being of the individual. At the same time it also ensures the absence of any clinical disorders or symptoms in the individual.

Developmental scientists define adaptation in terms of competence in developmental tasks (Cutuli and Masten, 2009). As per developmental psychology, achieving competence in one development stage facilitates the development of later competencies. One stage instills the fundamental skills on which future competence is developed.

Threats to positive adaptation may result from individual’s attributes or situations. Researchers have found certain factors that lead to positive outcomes in face of risk or adversity. These factors are called promotive and protective factors. Promotive factors refer to good outcome in general regardless of presence of risk. Protective factors result in moderating risks when adversity is high. It has been found that most common protective and promotive factors include individual attributes and their relationships such as secure attachment. Close relationships have been found to moderate risk across all age groups. Such relations provide warmth, security and reassurance in the face of adversity. One key protective factor is one’s social connections with people other than family such as teachers, mentors and peer relations. These relations provide certainty to one’s life if one is living through adversities and they provide life-long social support throughout life. In addition, people with good problem-solving skills and regulation of emotions, attention and actions are better able to adapt to the adversity. So, prevention practices can be designed to set positive goals and strategies to increase resilience and protective factors.


The term virtue is derived from Greek word ‘arte’, which means excellence. Its meaning is rooted in cultural and religious traditions of the world such as Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. It describes the moral strength that enables a person to lead an ethically ideal life. A virtuous individual is attracted to knowledge, good relationships and will act in a manner to reach the desired goals. Thus, the essence of virtue is to attain harmony between duty and desire. Socrates identified four virtues: courage, justice, temperance and intellectual resourcefulness. Aristotle expanded this list to include virtues such as liberty, pride, honesty, wit and friendship. He emphasized the use of practical intellectual resourcefulness in enacting these virtues. Aquinas (ca. 1265 CE/1966) added three theological virtues—faith, hope and clarity to Socrates’ list of virtues. Confucian virtues include reverence, love within the family, righteousness, honesty, benevolence and loyalty to the state. All the above-mentioned categorization of virtue presents diverse perspectives as far as the saliency of virtue in life is concerned. However, none of them can be completely accepted because such perspective varies with time, situation and culture of its proponents. So, enactment of virtues varies with the worldview and is mostly situation dependent.

Positive Psychology in India: Some Reflections

It is generally observed that the conceptually and empirically driven psychological theories and models developed in Western cultures often become a source of inspiration for furthering research in the relevant areas in non-Western cultures. The studies carried out in non-Western cultures with the basic premise of universal acceptability or non-acceptability finally establish the extent of universality of the particular theory or model across cultures. Perhaps this is one of the dominant trends of research in the 21st century psychology (Singh, 2009). The development in the field of positive psychology in non-Western part of the world including India follows this trend. In recent years, positive psychology has become one of the core areas of enquiry being observed in the sudden shift in the interest of scholars. The manifestation of which is being witnessed in the form of empirical studies, conferences, associations, journals and magazines in this area.

India being the cradle of one of the rich intellectual traditions of ancient civilizations along with Babylonia, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome (see Mayer, Lin and Korogodsky, 2011; Millon, 2012) offers a suitable vantage point to discuss the three levels outlined by Seligman and Csikzentmihalyi (2000) in order to develop a holistic understanding of the human being. In recent years, the revivalist tradition being advocated within the rubric of Indian psychology has made significant developments in this direction (see Cornelissen, Misra and Varma, 2011; Misra, 2011; Rao, Paranjpe and Dalal, 2008; Salagame, 2011). Some of the key concepts which deal with the holistic understanding of human beings are discussed in this section. These concepts are indigenous in origin and offer a relatively better conceptualization of human being in terms of strength, well-being and happiness.

The ancient texts such as Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Charaka Samhita, Mahabharata, and Kamasutra often mention terms like prakriti, jiva, purusa, svabhava, atman, ksetrjna and pudgala, for describing a person (Dwivedi, 2002). Advaita, a sub-school of the Vedanta system of Indian philosophy mentions the term jiva for the term ‘person’ (Paranjpe and Rao, 2008). In the literal sense, the term jiva is used to characterize any form of living being. Jiva is conceptualized as a multi-layered entity constituting of five layers nested in one another. The outermost layer of the jiva is called annamaya kosa or ‘sustained by food’ and designates body. The second layer is called pranamaya kosa or ‘sheath of the vital breath’. It activates breathing and other bodily processes necessary to keep the organs functional. The third layer is manmaya kosa or ‘mental sheath’ which includes the sense organs and their functions, as well as various processes collectively called ‘mind’. The fourth layer is vijnanamaya kosa or ‘cognitive sheath’ and includes intellect involving ideas, concepts or constructs used to explore the world. The fifth and the inner-most core of the jiva is called anandamaya kosa or ‘joyous sheath’ or the sheath of bliss. This layer is called ‘the seat of joy’ because it reflects bliss (ananda pratibimba) which is characteristic of the true self that is Atman, which is claimed to be identical with the Brahman, the core of ultimate reality. A person can reach this highest stage of evolution through continuous spiritual practice and experience a complete alteration in the sense of identity. In such a stage, the experience of bliss and the experiencer no longer remain separate. In essence, the Advaita Vedanta conceptualization of person is perhaps one of the earliest descriptions of the whole person in terms of composition of five integrated layers.

The neo-vedantic tradition pioneered by Sri Aurobindo has also developed a framework rooted in consciousness and has articulated a structure of the being. Sri Aurobindo has advanced two systems, one is concentric and the other is vertical. The concentric system consists of the outer or surface being, the inner being, and supporting both of these, the innermost being or the psyche. The first two have three parts: mental, vital and physical. The vertical system consists of various levels or gradations of consciousness below and above ordinary consciousness. These levels of consciousness constitute the inconscient, the subconscient, the physical, the vital, mind, higher mind, illumined mind, intuition, overmind, super mind and sacchidanand (Dalal, 2001; Varma, 2011).

Dwivedi (2002) has discussed the concept of purusa as mentioned by Charaka the great physician of ancient India. Charaka discussed three types of purusa, viz., sadadhatuja purusa, cetanadhatuja purusa and caturvimsatitattvatmaka rasi purusa. Among these three categories of purusa he emphasized on sadadhatuja purusa. According to Charaka, purusa is an assemblage of sadadhatus (six elements) which is condensed form of 24 general elements of purusa. Being avyakta (the premier substance), ksetrajna (the knower), sasvata (the eternal), vibhu (glorious) and avyaya (imperishable) are the characteristics of purusa. Charaka described that the purusa evolves from the avyakta; from the avyakta, buddhi (intellect) emerges which gives rise to ahamkara (the selfhood) and, thereafter, from ahamkara five mahabhutas evolve. According to Charaka, the five basic elements (e.g., ether, air, fire, water and earth), buddhi (intellect), avyakta and ahamkara constitute mahabhutas or the grand elements. In addition to these, mahabhutas are also characterized by 16 vikaras which constitute five budhindriyas (sense organs), five karmendriyas (motor organs) and five elements along with the manas. Buddhism and Jainism which form part of the ancient Indian religio-philosophical tradition also deal with conceptualization of human being. Buddhism discusses an aggregate model and a network model in this regard. The aggregate model offers a holistic conceptualization of a person. It proposes that all the experiences are analysed and categorized in five aggregates (skandha) such as form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (samjna), formation (sanskara) and consciousness (vijnana). The network model discusses main-mind (citta) and mental episodes (caitta) which determine cognitive and behavioural dynamics (Ananda and Prasad, 2011; Duerlinger, 2008).

In Jainism the term jiva (self) stands for a living organism, a biological being, a conjoint psycho-somatic, psycho-physical and conscious entity (Jain, 2008). Jiva is conceptualized as knower, enjoyer or experiencer and active agent. The characteristics of jiva as discussed in Kundakunda’s Panchastiykayasara are: (1) it has bio-energies or external manifestations of life; (2) consciousness is the essence and internal life source of jiva; (3) upayoga (i.e., conscious attentiveness, psychic exertion, function or manifestation of consciousness) is the characteristic of jiva, which distinguishes living from non-living; (4) the self is the lord or architect of his own destiny (prabhu), who through own efforts obtains full freedom bearing full moral responsibility for conduct; (5) the self is an active agent (karta) contrary to the concept of passive spectator purusa, as developed in Samkhya system; (6) since jiva is karta and bhokta it is responsible for its own action; and (7) jiva is of the same dimension as the body in which it resides, with the result that sensation (samvedana) is felt in all parts of the body (ibid.).

Indigenous Constructs Dealing with Positive Aspects of Human Being

In addition to conceptualization of human being in the religio-philosophical traditions of India, there are indigenous constructs which have been empirically examined in Indian cultural context. These constructs in some way or the other also deals with positive aspects of human beings. These constructs are briefly discussed in subsequent paragraphs.


Anasakti, in the Indian philosophical thought, is defined as intense activity performed without much concern about success or failure which results in task excellence through unification of the actor with the act (Pande and Naidu, 1992). Pande and Naidu (1992) delineated some of the core characteristics to conceptualize anasakti. These were effort orientation, emotional equipoise while confronting success or failure, low concern for obtaining extrinsic rewards, and intense effort to achieve excellence. They developed a scale to assess anasakti based on the construct of Sthitaprajna (man of steady wisdom) described in the Gita. This scale taps features such as outcome vulnerability, attachment, effort orientation, endurance and equipoise and physical sensual non-identification. They reported that anasakti (a dispositional attribute) was a more powerful predictor of strain scores than stress.


The term ahamkara, in Indian context, is often translated as ego, egotism or egoism. The term ego is more close to the term abhimana, or garva than ahamkara. On the other hand, ahamkara refers to the sense of doer-ship and ownership which represents cognition and feeling associated with ‘me’ and ‘mine’. The Vedanta tradition uses ahamkara along with buddhi, citta and manas as the aspects of antahkarana catustya, the quartlet of the internal organ. Ahamkara also denotes a feeling of individuality or uniqueness, one’s identification and the sense of differentiation of oneself from the other, the ‘I’ from ‘not-I’. Thus, ahamkara refers to the subject in subject–object duality in the realm of mind/psyche and, hence, nearer to the term ‘self-sense’ (Salagame, 2011). The empirical studies on ahamkara outline its four components, viz., identification, individuality, agency and separation (Salagame et al., 2005). The concept represents a meta-construct which embraces many of the concepts associated with self and identity such as locus of control, self-efficacy, self-esteem, individuality, relational self, individualism–collectivism, ego-boundary and autonomy (Salagame, 2011).


In Indian thought, limiting the needs is frequently considered as the most valued manageable affair to make sustainable progress in life. Liberation (moksha) as the ultimate goal of life is attained in this life (jivanmukta) by following the path of karma and dharma in everyday life. The notion of karma in this regard, stands for dedication towards work without excessive concern with rewards. The concept of dharma emphasizes limited assets (aparigrah) sufficient enough to sustain one’s life.

Within this perspective the notion of santosh (translated as contentment) is approached from an attitude of restraint as well as the experience of need satisfaction. It is also a subjective experiential state of lack of dissatisfaction where the person does not expect much from others but feels contented and happy with his present conditions. The experience of subjective wholesomeness (santosh) leads to real pleasure, happiness and satisfaction, and endows the person with inner strength and power to strive for progress and development. Extending this conceptualization the notion of santosha (contentment) in everyday discourse was explored by Singh and Misra (2000) using young adults, older people and saints as participants. The connotations of contentment were somewhat different for the common men as compared to the saints. The latter shared a rational worldview while viewing contentment in different facets of life.


Triguna which characterizes mental attributes of the person, viz., sattva (goodness, harmony), rajas (passion, mobility, energy) and tamas (dullness and mass/inertia) has been one of the most popular constructs. Among these, sattva deals with positive aspects of human being. The Sankhya system states that increasing sattvic characteristics from tamas to rajas is important for spiritual evolution. Purification of mind and lessening of tamas are considered achievable goals through methods such as tapas (penance), jnana (intuitive knowledge), brhamacharya (restraining and turning the sense inward) and shraddha (dedication and devotion to realize the self). Over the years triguna has received much attention from scholars. A number of studies have been carried out to conceptualize it and to develop measures to assess triguna (see Murthy and Salagame, 2007). It is now empirically established that triguna is an indigenous personality construct and is more relevant to understand personality in Indian context (Singh and Misra, 2013; Singh, Misra and DeRaad, 2013).


Attempt has been made to conceptualize wisdom in Indian context using its description in Bhagavad Gita as well as layman understanding of it in contemporary Indian society (Jeste and Vahia, 2008). The study has identified 10 domains of wisdom, viz., knowledge of life, emotional regulation, control over desires, decisiveness, love of god, duty and work, self-contentedness, yoga or integration of personality, compassion/sacrifice and insight/humility. Srivastava and Misra (2001) reported that in the Indian culture, the meaning of intelligence as shared by people constitutes not only cognitive competence, but also social, emotional and competence in action. The Indian notions about the construct of emotional intelligence were examined by Sibia and Srivastava (2003), and it was found that emotional intelligence in India is understood in terms of being high on pro-social values, social sensitivity, action tendencies such as discipline, persistence, practical and responsible as well as affective states such as happiness and optimism.

Srivastava and Misra (2003) conducted an analysis of suktis in Sanskrit related to happiness and wisdom. They reported that in India happiness and wisdom can be organized around the following themes.


Renunciation of craving for what is not obtained and being satisfied with what comes unsought.

Control over Desires

This included interrelated concepts such as jitendriya (control over impulses, emotions and actions). Jitendriya literally means one who has conquered the senses. Chittaavriti nirodha (regulation of mental activities) is considered of paramount importance in yoga.


An attitude of surrender to /union with the divine will is seen as a means of ending suffering.


Focus on working constantly without being attached to outcomes and reserving the power of detaching from everything. Equanimity in opposites—maintaining composure across circumstances and giving equal treatment to joy and sorrow—is considered valuable in cultivating stable happiness.


Selfless service and hard work are valued as a means to attainment of goals.

On the whole, it appears that the indigenous constructs rooted in the Indian religio-philosophical tradition present a somewhat broader epistemological space to conceptualize human beings. Such concepts can provide a suitable alternative to look at the positive side of human life. Effort should be made to further explore these constructs so as to develop an indigenous model which can complement positive psychology perspective in vogue.


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