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  • Writer's pictureClaire Higgins

Martial Arts as a Positive Psychology Intervention?

Martial arts is a term that covers modern and traditional fighting arts from all corners of the globe. They include the physical practices of striking, throwing, and grappling and quite often, the embodiment of character development, and the art of philosophy.

You may be familiar with Japanese martial arts such as Aikido, Karate, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, and Kendo, which are typically practiced in a "dojo" (a place to train and awaken). These are influenced by the philosophy and practices of Zen, in particular Zen meditation.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Chinese martial arts of Kung Fu, Qigong, and Tai Chi. These may be practiced indoors in places similar to "dojo" as well as outdoors in nature, and may be more influenced by the philosophy and practices of Taoism.

You may be more familiar with other national martial arts such as Muay Thai and Thai Boxing from Thailand, Bokator from Cambodia, Silat from Indonesia, Arnis or Kali and Escrima from the Philippines, or DEFOF from the UK.

You could even be familiar with all of these styles, as well as the competitive styles of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), and the various media platforms that promote this kind of fighting such as the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC).

Some martial arts are only focused on competition, which can still develop the character of the practitioner. However, the philosophical roots or application of these may not run as deep. These martial arts are referred to as Combat Sports and are included here.

Positive Psychology, meanwhile, focuses on character strengths and virtues, how to be authentic, happy, and resilient, and how to live a "good life" that leads to self-actualisation and self-transcendence, and leaves a positive footprint on the world.

Positive Psychology also pioneers a Theory of Wellbeing, known as PERMA. This acronym stands for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. The measurement of this wellbeing model is both subjective and objective.

Positive Psychology covers the research and practice of Positive Psychology Interventions (PPI's). Its application may be a solo venture (e.g. writing in a gratitude journal) or working with a professional Positive Psychology Practitioner.

The Positive Psychology Practitioner may use coaching, counselling, training, teaching, and/or organisational facilitation skills. The settings for application vary from one-to-one, small to large groups, and translating institutional policies in to practice.

The Positive Psychology Researcher may draw on, and add value, to various schools of thought in Psychology and Philosophy. They may also collaborate with other disciplines such as education, medicine, physiotherapy, nutrition, exercise, sport, and art.

When research informs practice, and practice drives research, the outcome can be practitioners working within a strong evidence base who can adapt interventions to particular clients, and research that meets the dynamic needs of practice.

As a Martial Artist and Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher, I'm naturally drawn to notice the parallels and overlaps of these two exciting fields. There is great potential to include Martial Arts as a PPI but the questions are how, and why?

Exploring these questions, I refer to my research map above. Central to my research is the important roles that psychology, physiology, and philosophy play in improving performance, reducing stress, and enhancing recovery.

Martial arts also sits alongside my parallel interests in fitness and yoga. While I have a broad interest in various forms of exercise, sport, and movement, I am trained to teach martial arts, fitness, and yoga and therefore prefer to focus my research efforts there.

My starting point for any research is either Positive Psychology or Exercise & Sport Psychology, which are the two academic disciplines in which I am trained. Sometimes I blend the two, as I did previously here. However, this time my focus is the former.

As a qualitative researcher, I'm driven by ecological validity. Is the research question and study one that can enhance a phenomenon in real life? I also bring my biases. Is this a topic that I would find helpful in application if I were at the receiving end?

This brings me back to the core question posed by this blog post: Can martial arts be an effective Positive Psychology Intervention and if so, how and why?

As you can probably gather, this isn't a question I would be tempted to answer too quickly. Multiple terms need to be defined before they can be studied and better understood. Fundamental questions need to be asked, such as:

  • Which martial art will be the focus of this research study and why?

  • What is the history, philosophy, and practice of this martial art?

  • Which aspects of psychology and physiology are relevant to this martial art?

  • Which aspects of its philosophy resonate with Positive Psychology?

  • In theory, what could a Martial Arts-based Positive Psychology Intervention look like in terms of curriculum design, teaching practice and ethics, and outcomes for the student?

  • Which student profile/s could such an intervention be useful for and why?

  • Which similar studies may have already been conducted here?

Other questions also need to be taken into consideration:

  • Who is teaching this martial art, and what motivates them to train and teach?

  • What is the character of this teacher, and how was it developed over time?

  • How was this teacher trained to teach their martial art, and how do they teach now?

  • Does the teacher need to be trained in Positive Psychology to deliver a Martial Arts-based Positive Psychology Intervention?

  • If the teacher does require Positive Psychology training, what could this training entail, and what standards should it adhere to?

These are questions I'll be exploring on the Inner Athletics blog over the coming weeks and months. While I have many hopes, assumptions, and biases, I hope that I'll be able to park and bracket them before I dive into more structured research.

One hope is that this research question will resonate with martial arts teachers and practitioners. Would you like to be involved in a future research study that may include training in Positive Psychology? If so, please drop me a line here.


Claire Higgins is the Director of Inner Athletics. She is a Positive Psychology Practitioner with a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology, and leads operations, education and research at the Positive Psychology Guild.

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