For generations, marketing has mostly been about fulfilling people's physical and material needs. And since the end of World War II, people have had a lot of needs. We needed food on our table and a roof over our heads. We needed a car and a house in the suburbs. We needed refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, bigger and nicer houses, faster cars, more food on our table, then better quality food. We needed beer, then wine, then a nice Pinot Noir from the California Central Coast.

Yet, even as our lives have become filled with stuff and activity, they have become increasingly devoid of meaning. If you think about it from a psychological point of view, it's easy to see that the agglomeration of all this stuff is perhaps a way to fill an emptiness inside. This was an emptiness that once might have been filled by by family, religion, or other spiritual matters, but as Americans have become more materialistic, they've also lost meaning and purpose.

Into this void between the desire to acquire and the drive toward meaning comes positive psychology seeking to bridge the gap. But what is it, and why might it be the future of marketing?

What IS Positive Psychology?

According to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, positive psychology is "the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play."

Positive psychology is based on two ideas: that people seek meaning, and that they possess strengths that can help them find it. In other words, people want to do more than survive, they want to thrive. They have the ability to live the lives they want, even if they might need a little help to do it.

This orientation moves psychology beyond the realm of fixing problems or treating disorders, to helping people be their best selves and lead better lives. Marketing is beginning to recognize these ideas and build on them, giving rise to positive psychology marketing.

A New Spin on an Old Idea?

Since the 1940s, psychology students (and marketers) have looked at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a guideline for human needs. At the lowest level are physiological needs and security needs, such as food, water, shelter, air to breathe, rest and feel safe. Once those needs are met, humans have psychological needs, such as the needs for love and friendship, and the need for accomplishment or to feel good about one's self. These orders of need are sometimes called deficiency needs, or D-needs.

These levels of need are all about deficiency, or lack. And marketing has generally always played to these lower order needs with a "problem - solution" orientation. You have a need, we have a product or service that can fill it. Buy our product and you'll be less miserable.

But the highest order need - the need for self-actualization, or the need to fulfill your highest potential - is one that psychologists and marketers have only recently begun to recognize. These are sometimes referred to as B-needs because they are not just about filling a need but about being; becoming a better person.

Positive Psychology Marketing Catching On

According to Maslow, as one level of deficiency needs became fulfilled, humans would inevitably discover new levels of need until they finally reached the level of self-actualization. For instance, if your need for food, shelter and security was fulfilled, you might then notice your loneliness, and become aware of your need for love and friends. Once you were no longer lonely, you might begin to feel that you ought to accomplish something.

For the last 100 or so years, most marketers have been focused on fulfilling deficiency needs. For the most part, this has worked in spectacular fashion. Consumers have purchased products to fulfill needs for food, shelter, security, friends, family. Even accomplishment needs can be marketed: think for-profit universities and career coaching.

But still, people yearn for more. They're now looking to enhance their state of being; marketing is beginning to reflect this. Several recent marketing campaigns have demonstrated how positive psychology is increasingly being incorporated into modern-day marketing. Dove soap once marketed itself as a product that could help you have softer skin, now it is about "Real Beauty," promising to help you "embrace your natural beauty," which is more about self-acceptance and self love than it is about cleaning your skin. A few years back, Olay promised to help you "love the skin you're in." Again, this is not just about moisturizing the skin; it's about loving yourself.

Marketers, of course, are experts at identifying and jumping on board when a concept is having its moment, and positive psychology is definitely having one. There's a shift taking place where people are no longer seeking fulfillment through simply acquiring more stuff, but through ideas like mindfulness, acceptance and purpose that are more likely to lead to real happiness. Brands are no longer just touting what they do, and why they do it, but the purpose behind what they do.

The signs are there that positive psychology could be marketing's future, leading marketers away from a focus on simply solving problems with a product, towards the meaning behind the product - why does it exist? How can it help customers become the person they want to be and lead to true personal fulfillment?