Toward a Positive Psychology of Mental Retardation


  • Elisabeth M. Dykens PhD

    Corresponding author
    1. Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, Vanderbilt University
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      I thank Robert Hodapp, PhD, for his very helpful comments on a previous version of this article, as well as Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, and Elizabeth Roof, MA, for their enthusiastic responses to a draft of the manuscript. I appreciate all that I have learned about mental retardation from affected individuals and their families, and from Donald Cohen, MD, Ed Zigler, PhD, James Leckman, MD, and Beth Rosner, PhD. I am very grateful for learning about positive psychology from a class taught by Marty Seligman.

  • This work was partly supported by National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development Grants P30HD15052–24 and R01HD135681–06.

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, Peabody #40, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203–5721. E-mail:


Researchers and practitioners alike have long focused on the external life conditions, adaptive behavior, and inclusion of persons with mental retardation. Using breakthroughs in positive psychology, this article proposes a new research agenda focused on the positive, internal states of those with mental retardation. It shows how major movements in the mental retardation field—quality of life, dual diagnosis, personality motivation, and families—have succeeded in some arenas but failed to address happiness and well-being. Examples of happiness—of positive emotions, flow, strengths, and virtues—are offered in people with genetic causes of mental retardation. Complexities related to etiology, measurement, flow, and a meaningful life are described, as is the vital role that mental retardation can play in the emerging science of positive psychology.