Too often we see psychology as only studying what hurts us or holds us back. What if instead of focusing on failure, sickness and unhappiness, psychology had a branch to study the sciences of joy, mental strength, and overall well-being? So that rather than trying to find relief or feel better, we could help ourselves reach happiness and feel good?
This field exists and is called Positive Psychology. Where did it come from? What does it study? Has it found anything you can use? (Spoiler on that last question, it has!) Read on to find out.
The Positive Pioneers
Abraham Harold Maslow, while studying human potential in the 1950s, used variations of his expression “Positive Psychology” when describing a desire to balance the field of psychology. Essentially, he was calling for as much attention to be put on human flourishing as was given to human afflictions. Maslow heaped praise on famous individuals with good mental health such as Albert Einstein and Henry David Thoreau.
Aaron Temkin Beck promoted using evidence-based strategies to counter catastrophic thinking with his Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He was a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and mainly published books on depression and anxiety which would influence other writers in the field of Positive Psychology.
In the 1980s, Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi was testing his Experience Sampling Method when he found what he called “the psychology of optimal experience” or in other words the mental state of highly productive focus known as flow. Csikszentmihalyi was a Distinguished Professor, and a department head at the University of Chicago as well as at Lake Forest College. He first wrote about flow in 1975, then published “Optimal Experience” in 1988, “Flow” in 1990, and several more books on flow until his death.
In 2002, Martin E.P. Seligman published his influential book “Authentic Happiness” and essentially brought the niche field of Positive Psychology into wider study. Seligman is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, a former Director of Clinical Training, the Director of the Positive Psychology Center, and was elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1998. He had already published books such as “Learned Optimism” in 1990 and “The Optimistic Child” in 1995, and went on to publish “Flourish” in 2011 and “The Hope Circuit” in 2018.
Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman were joined and followed by many others such as: Barbara Lee Fredrickson, who started studying positive emotions and is now a professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology … Angela Lee Duckworth, who argued that success requires grit over talent in her 2016 book “Grit” … Shawn Achor, who authored “The Happiness Advantage” in 2010 and discovered that dopamine and serotonin fill the brain in response to optimism and happiness … and Laurie Santos, a professor of Psychology at Yale, who created the course “Psychology and the Good Life” to help students at the university learn how to deal with their own anxiety and stress.
To learn more about incorporating positive psychology in your daily life and practice, click here.
Happiness In Science
When psychologists study positivity, they tend to focus on a small but relevant sub-topic. They also try to remain evidence-based with contemporary social science, brain imaging and hormone measurement, longitudinal experiments, case studies and meta-analyses.
Csikszentmihalyi’s optimal experience and flow state research somewhat brought about studying happiness as a science, or what makes happy people happy. The doctoral program he created at Claremont Graduate University in Positive Developmental and Positive Organizational Psychology was the first of its kind in 2007.
Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness” defines Positive Psychology as studying positive emotions, signature human strengths, and how a community can thrive. He has also gone on to build an entire curriculum of Positive Psychology, allowing students at the University of Pennsylvania to earn a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology.
The goal of Seligman’s Positive Psychology is to find how happiness can be measured and taught. This covers Positivity, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. He hoped to make individuals stronger, partnerships closer and organizations more productive by declaring that happiness comes from a mix of genetic factors, life circumstances, and what you do to help yourself.
The Values in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths Survey is widely used in business, education, and therapy. The test helps someone rank their individual strengths for the purpose of self-knowledge and career guidance. After being taken by millions of people, Seligman’s reputation and field of study was deemed scholarly and important.
Case studies for Positive Psychology have included: finding schoolchildren become happier after a basic course on Positive Psychology, discovering that optimism correlates with success in sports or living longer with a serious medical condition, predicting who would remain resilient and recover faster in difficult situations, and more. Serious problems like cancer are not defeated with positivity, but there is evidence for it helping against cardiovascular disease and some infections. Critics say the field has created a perception that people can stay healthy with optimism alone.
Other studies have found interesting mirrors of Positive Psychology, such as how forcing positivity on someone who use pessimism as a mental defense can hurt their performance, or that people with very low self-esteem can actually feel worse after repeating positive self-statements. Seligman and his colleagues in Positive Psychology say their research shows most people benefit from positivity, like a sort of immunization that benefits the majority even if some have an allergic reaction.
Primary schools that teach “Positive Education” have spread from the US into other countries. They are believed to improve achievement and mental health for everyone at the school. Teachers and students learn to challenge their own catastrophic thoughts and keep a positive mindset of empathy and optimism. Some challenge this as promoting emotions over critical thinking, and further studies have shown that optimism and positive thinking cannot help everyone.
Studying happiness extends beyond psychology to areas such as how social media affects happiness, how exercise improves mental strength, focusing on national well-being over GDP as a measure of national strength, and such diverse topics as civics, gender studies, history, journalism, literature and religion.
Practical Steps For Positivity
What’s been learned about positivity after numerous studies? Mainly that there are a large number of things you can do to become and remain more positive. Some of these have long been known, while others are new and still under research.
- Genetics are not your destiny. Your biology may shape your personality and mood, but only to a degree. By learning about positivity and yourself, you can improve over time
- Eat well. Recent studies have shown: a connection between the gut and the brain, links between processed foods and mental health, and the benefits of a high fiber vegetable diet.
- Exercise regularly. Movement and physical exercise are known to improve depression and overall mental health.
- Every study of sleep-deprived people has shown they are unhappier and having difficulty with other areas of happiness. Good sleep is regular, neither too short or too long, and often starts earlier rather than later.
- Search for your strengths. Whether you know them already or need to ask the people who know you best, you should then use these strengths for a goal bigger than yourself. Seligman, who studied individual strengths, viewed this as the basis for Positive Psychology. His 2004 book “Character Strengths and Virtues” lists many such as bravery, curiosity, humor, leadership, modesty, persistence, social intelligence, spirituality, and vitality.
- Pursue activities that bring you into flow. Hobbies and work that challenge you with a goal while also using your skills to the fullest tend to bring about a flow state. Creating music or art is well known for this, but also consider activities such as playing sports and games, fixing things or teaching. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as an intrinsic motivation, helping us to do what we do because we like doing it, and improving our memory for the task. Positivity improves creativity, which helps us be more positive.
- Practice virtues and gratitude. A positive mindset often includes hope, mindfulness, optimism, wisdom, courage, humanity, justice and temperance. Try to remember the good things in your life and count your blessings. Above all of these, gratitude has been seen to improve emotional outlook, lower depression and stress, and bring about greater belonging.
- Find meaning in your life, whether through spirituality or humanistic purpose. Religious practice or the belief in causes greater than the self can lead to a greater sense of happiness.
- Volunteer on a regular and frequent basis, or simply find ways to care for others. This can include anything from random acts of kindness to joining a serious volunteering club, and many positive benefits have been observed from helping others who seem to be struggling.
- Seek out close friends and relationships. You don’t necessarily need a large network of friends, but you should take part in group activities and share personal feelings. Plus, happiness can multiply between people; each person’s happiness can make others happy too.
- Get better at “Active-Constructive Responding” or in other words expressing interest in what other people do and say, then responding with encouragement.
A Positive Psychology
The field of Positive Psychology, created in the last century and popularized by Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, has a bright future of further study and like many other fields has discovered truths everyone can learn and benefit from.