P is for Positive Psychology
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
P is for Positive Psychology
One of the first online courses I took was “Positive Psychology” via the ‘Coursera’ site in August 2015. Since then I have continued to explore the idea and concepts behind this via courses on the subject on YouTube eg Harvard Open Course Positive Psychology by Tal Ben-Shahar plus various Ted Talks and books.
What is Positive Psychology?
“Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions.”
Gable, Shelly L., Haidt, Jonathan, What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. It focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses, building and focusing on positive events and influences in life instead of examining and focusing on the bad i.e. it looks at what we need to add to our life to make it better and is not just concerned with removing the negative.
"Positive psychology is...a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology," Christopher Peterson
Positive Psychology concentrates three central areas (or pillars):
3. Positive institutions i.e. it also looks further afield by applying positive principles within organizations and institutions.
The founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, thought that psychology focused too much on the negative: mental illness, abnormal psychology, trauma, suffering and pain etc and relatively little emphasis and research was dedicated to happiness, flourishing, our strengths, what makes us unique and well-being.
“The aim of positive psychology is to catalyse a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life”
What are the benefits of Positive Psychology?
"If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all, and no one lacks it all". Chris Peterson
The greatest potential benefit of positive psychology is that it teaches us the benefits and power of shifting one’s perspective. A relatively small change in one’s perspective can lead to dis-proportionately positive shifts in well-being, quality of life and help us to flourish.
“Being a positive person doesn’t mean you don’t feel negative emotions. It means you have faith in your ability to get through tough situations, hope for better days and the willingness to see beyond the drama.” Leticia Rae
As with everything balance is important just focusing on positive emotions will not help you to see the wider picture and develop a comprehensive understanding, sense of well-being or positive relationships with others.
Positive psychology was not established to replace traditional psychology, but to complement it with a positive bias that’s equal to the traditional negative bias employed in psychology in the past.
We have a natural negativity bias which means that something positive will generally have less of an impact on us than something equally emotional but negative which is why it makes sense to pro-actively look for positive opportunities and focus on things that will give us positive experiences and allow us to flourish.
So what does flourishing mean?
“We flourish when we cultivate our talents and strengths, develop deep and meaningful relationships, feel pleasure and enjoyment, and make a meaningful contribution to the world. We flourish when we find fulfilment in life along with achieving more traditional objectives related to success when we are truly living the “good life”.” Martin Seligman
Another good description by Dr. Lynn Soots describes flourishing as the following:
“Flourishing is the product of the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, being connected with life passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.”
She states that flourishing is not simply a state you either have or don’t have, rather it is a process that requires action. It might not always be easy but anyone can flourish with effort and contribute to a greater sense of their well- being.
“PERMA” is an acronym for the five facets of well-being used in a model to help explain and define well-being by Martin Seligman.
P – Positive Emotions: Part of well-being is enjoying the moment, seeking and experiencing positive emotions i.e. do more of the things that make you happy and bring enjoyment daily. It is about experiencing optimism and gratitude for your past, acceptance and contentment in the present and hope for the future
E – Engagement: When we become completely absorbed in something we enjoy and excel in, we lose track of time because we are 100% engaged this is known as ‘flow state’. In order to do this more often, we need to pursue hobbies that interest us, develop different skills and look for activities/jobs that we are passionate about.
R – Relationships: Having deep, meaningful positive connections with others is vital. We need to constantly work on building more positive and supportive relationships with our friends, family, and significant others
M – Meaning: When we dedicate ourselves to a cause or recognize something bigger than ourselves, we experience a sense of meaning. We can do this by looking to improve the quality of our relationships with others; looking for meaning in our activities e.g. we could do this via work, in volunteering opportunities, personal hobbies or leisure activities or acting as a mentor for others in person or via various online organisations
A – Accomplishment / Achievement: We all thrive when we are succeeding and achieving our goals and bettering ourselves but it is important to keep our ambition in balance with the other important things in life
To tie the two concepts, we flourish and build up a solid sense of well-being when we pay attention to each aspect of the PERMA model.
"The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention". Sharon Salzberg
Positive Psychology is more than just positive thinking. It is about acknowledging the whole gamut of our emotions and experiences whilst choosing to look for opportunities whereby we can experience life fully.
“We have the power as individuals to create a different perspective. We can physically rewire our brains to see our work and lives in a more positive light. We can reduce our stress and increase our peace and happiness. We can use our minds to change our brains for a better life.” Tina Hallis
In Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” Frankl argues that we are not bound to our environments and we always have a choice despite our circumstances. Our environment can be a determiner of our actions but it is not fate; there are always opportunities within our limitations.
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.” Viktor Frankl
You may not always be able to choose the circumstances or environment you find yourself in, but you do always have a choice in how you react to those things imposed upon you.
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way". Viktor Frankl
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
Where would you place yourself on the negative -positive continuum?
What makes you feel positive?
What makes you feel negative?
If you want to find out more on this subject, here are a few links to get you started:
Harvard Open Course Positive Psychology by Tal Ben-Shahar