Positive psychology and the study of happiness

Positive psychology is an emerging branch of psychology that seeks to better understand the dynamics of happiness and well-being. positive psychology

Any guidance that it offers aims to be rooted in good science ….. In other words, through the use of well-conducted research it aims to gather data that identifies what enables people to flourish and to lead more fulfilled, meaningful lives.

Positive psychology is in contrast to the traditional focus of psychology, which has been more about the study of dysfunctional behaviour and the nature of mental illness. It could be said that the intention behind this type of research in the past had been to contribute to the alleviation of human suffering.

Although there are unfortunately significant numbers of people in our communities that suffer from mental disorders such as depression, various phobias and schizophrenia for example – the vast majority of the population are free of such psychological conditions. Yes, many people experience levels of stress and anxiety – but not to the point of it becoming debilitating.

Just because you’re not miserable, doesn’t mean you’re happy

Neither the absence of misery nor being free of a mental disorder necessarily translates to being happy. Similarly, if someone is not physically “sick”, doesn’t mean that they experience robust health, fitness and vitality.

Would you like to be happier?

Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania University, has been a leader in the field of positive psychology for over a decade. However his early work was actually in the field of clinical depression, and he developed the theory of “learned helplessness” derived from laboratory studies and from which he asserted that depression partly the result of a perceived lack of control over the outcome of important situations.

Learning how to flourish and move from “surviving” to “thriving”

The author of many self-improvement books, a notable best-seller being Learned Optimism, Seligman has also  recently published another book titled “Flourish”. He refers to research that shows that happiness is less about how much money you have, or how you look or the car that you drive …… Instead it’s more about whether you have found a sense of meaning in your life and whether you feel connected with the people around you.

positive pschologyHe identifies five essential pillars of developing a positive sense of well-being and fulfilment (sometimes referred to as the PERMA foundations).

  1. Positive emotions – for example, experiencing times of pleasure and enjoyment – be it through nature, music, poetry or exercise. Feeling good about who you are and what you do is also important – and this can come from acts of kindness and feeling grateful for what you have. It can come from the simple act of visiting a sick friend in hospital
  2. Engagement – the feeling of being in “flow” through having opportunities for you to effectively apply your skills, strengths and utilise your abilities in meeting challenges. The feeling of being involved, absorbed and immersed in what you are doing, especially when this is something of importance to you.
  3. Relationships – the feeling of being connected with, and sharing intimacy with, friends and family that care for you and for whom you care. Feeling secure that there are people around you whom you can trust and rely upon for support and encouragement – and for whom you will express affection
  4. Meaning – the sense of belonging to something bigger than one’s self and thereby instilling a sense of higher purpose. Research has confirmed that people who hold some type of religious or spiritual belief  tend to report more meaningful lives. People who dedicate themselves in some way to serving a higher good tend to feel they are living more meaningful lives.
  5. Achievement – the sense of fulfilment that comes from accomplishing your goals. Bo matter how small these goals might initially be (for example, simple exercise routines to complete for a period of time, or moderate savings goals that you set), there is the feeling of both satisfaction and self-affirmation that comes from seeing your efforts rewarded by having made measurable progress.

The book offers many examples of positive psychology in action, finding a balance between both science and story-telling. Seligman describes how the U.S army is now training its’ soldiers in emotional resilience; how corporations are running well-being programs for employees and how schools are educating children for fulfilment in life and not just success in the workplace. The book also contains exercises and activities aimed at assisting the reader to gain deeper personal insights into each of the five happiness building-blocks.

From his research, Seligman asserts that these five foundations for living a happy life provide for an enduring sense of well-being.  By way of contrast, he refers to many popular diets for people that seek to lose weight. Long term studies reveal that a high proportion of people that do succeed with their wright loss goals in the short term, within three years have regained that same weight loss. In other words, there won’t be sustainable change on the “outside” unless this is accompanied by a genuine change on the “inside”

A happiness that comes from a well-lived life

The following video clip  features Dr. Seligman speaking at a conference in Australia, sharing some of the studies done on the causes and treatment of depression – and the research identifying the foundations for happiness …..

More than two hundred years ago, William Penn wrote “The secret to happiness is to count your blessings –  though others around you choose to add up their troubles”. In his own way, Penn was an early advocate of positive psychology.

The act of gratitude helps elicit positive feelings. So too do acts of kindness – to which Penn wrote “I shall pass this way but once, so any good that I can do or any kindness that I can show,; let me do it now; For I shall not pass this way again” …… In a nutshell, positive psychology is about identifying the thoughts and actions that make you feel good – so you can repeat them. Seligman asserts that too many people spend too much time focusing on what’s going wrong – and not enough time appreciating what’s going right Excessive time spent on thinking about what’s gone wrong in the past, or what might go wrong in the future creates fertile ground for depression and anxiety.

You might like to check out some other related pages – Mental Toughness and Personal Development

Also, another highly respected thought leader in the field of positive psychology is Dr. Daniel Goleman – and here is an overview of his work relating to Emotional Intelligence. Goleman asserts that there is a considerable body of research demonstrating that EI can be a predictor of success in business.

For an academic article providing an overview of the emerging field of Positive Psychology,  then follow this link to Australian Psychological Society  And for a short animated video that offers an introduction to the field, then check this out ….