What is Positive Psychology and How Can It Help?

Published on: 10 May 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
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One of the biggest questions of the age and any age is: How can one be truly happy? This is the question positive psychology and its related research aims to answer.

The endless pursuit of happiness and the tireless quest to live a fulfilled life have led to the growth of an entire industry dedicated to prioritizing our well-being by providing countless programs, guides, remedies, and tips on how to live a positive and optimistic life.

Recent global developments — including the coronavirus pandemic and witnessing the killings of unarmed Black people at the hands of police — have brought many of us to a state of misery and despair. Many of us who feel the weight of these events are seeking to focus on ways that we can emphasize positivity in our communities and in ourselves — highlighting the very things that give life more meaning. This is where positive psychology can play a role in your mental wellness.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is the science and study of life’s positive qualities — well-being, happiness, satisfaction, and the ability to thrive in our day-to-day lives. The field studies what goes into building a life of purpose, rich with meaning that allows the individual to flourish.

In his TED Talk on positive psychology, Martin Seligman, a leading authority in the field, highlighted three aims of psychology, stating their importance to the overall study of happiness.

“Psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness,” he said. “It should also be as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and it should just be as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling, and with nurturing high talent as with healing pathology,” he added. Generally, these aims form the basis of positive psychology.

Christopher Peterson, another renowned psychologist, defined positive psychology simply as the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behavior while emphasizing strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life while repairing the bad, and making people’s lives great rather than adequate.

Positive psychology focuses on influences like optimism, hope, happiness and joy, but it is more than just dealing with positive emotions. This field of psychology also covers traits like character strengths, self-esteem, and well-being, how such traits can be applied to our life, work, and interpersonal relationships, and how all those aspects come together to contribute to the attainment of a meaningful life.

What are the Three Levels of Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology isn’t limited to feeling a sense of individual well-being itself, rather proponents of this science often refer to the “Three Levels of Positive Psychology”:

  • Subjective level: the subjective level centers around feelings of happiness, well-being, optimism, and similar emotions or feelings as they relate to your daily experience.
  • Individual level: the individual level combines the subjective level feelings of well-being with the qualities or virtues that make you a well-rounded person, such as forgiveness, love, and courage.
  • Group level: the group level focuses on positive interaction with your community, and includes traits like altruism, social responsibility, and other virtues that strengthen social bonds.

Why Positive Psychology is Important

Positive psychology’s main aim is to encourage people to discover and nurture their character strengths, rather than channeling their efforts into correcting shortcomings. Positive psychology highlights the need for one to shift their negative outlook to a more optimistic view in order to improve quality of life.

According to the theories of positive psychology, positivity is one of the main driving forces of life. Each of us routinely experiences both good and bad outcomes , but it’s often feels easier to focus on the negative outcomes, ignoring the ways we could harness the effect of good things to remedy the bad. For much of its history psychological research focused on psychological defects and anomalies that make some of us different from others, the diagnoses that explain negative actions and patterns of behavior. These diagnoses include the mental health challenges that many of us struggle with including anxiety and depression.

Research into positive psychology, however,focuses more on scientific explanations for positive thoughts and actions. Positive psychology does not deny the existence of flaws and foibles in our thoughts and behavior, but it argues that equal consideration should be given to people’s strengths and virtues.

Positive psychology is important because discovering what leads people to live more meaningful lives can translate to better strategies for managing mental illness, correcting negative behaviors, and increasing our happiness and productivity. For example, rather than analyzing the underlying traits associated with drug addiction, a positive psychologist might study the resilience of those who have managed a successful recovery and promote such resilience among future patients.

Positive Psychology and the PERMA Model

Fostering well-being is a primary focus in positive psychology. Higher levels of well-being are linked to increased productivity, a longer lifespan, and more satisfying relationships. In this regard, Seligman proposed the PERMA model to explain and define well-being in a broader sense. PERMA is an acronym for the five elements of well-being, and it has become a widely recognized model in the field of positive psychology. Below is a quick breakdown of the PERMA theory:

P – Positive emotions:

Experiencing positive emotions has a major impact on boosting well-being. Positive emotions may spring from fostering gratitude and forgiveness about past events, enjoying oneself in the moment, and being optimistic about the future.

E – Engagement:

To enhance your well-being, it is also important to develop a sense of engagement. You can do this by completely absorbing yourself while doing something you enjoy and excel at. This sense of engagement produces an experience known as ‘flow’, a sensation you have when your skills are sufficient for a particular challenge with a particular goal in mind. The concept of “flow” was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a leading figure in the field of positive psychology.

R – Relationships:

As social beings, individuals often rely on building connections with other people to thrive, and the support we derive from these connections can give life purpose and meaning.

M – Meaning:

Experiencing positive emotions alone is not enough to lead a happy life. Seligman suggests that finding meaning is the highest form of happiness. Meaning can be achieved by applying your personal strengths to the service of something larger than you — like a social cause — a substantial contribution to a community you’re a part of, or a charitable duty.

A – Accomplishment:

There is no doubt that when we achieve our goals and succeed, we feel a sense of fulfillment. If the drive to accomplish these goals doesn’t exist, a true sense of well-being is difficult to attain.

Experiencing the Personal Benefits of Positive Psychology

The theory of positive psychology suggests that building on the positive aspects of actions or situations can create the conditions for a generally happier and more fulfilled life.

Happiness cannot only be built on amplifying pleasant experiences or living a life of engagement, however, but also by living a life filled with purpose and meaning. Therefore, you can improve your engagement by pursuing hobbies that you are interested in, taking the time to use your skills to excel in your interests, and opt for a career path that’s suited to the things you’re passionate about.

What is an Example of Positive Psychology?

According to Seligman’s suggestions, you can enhance your sense of authentic happiness by focusing on doing more of the things that make you happy, so that you can enjoy your daily routines and experience more positive emotions. You should also work to improve the quality of your relationships and work on building stronger bonds with your friends and loved ones.

If you feel as though you aren’t finding meaning in your work or relationships, Seligman also recommends that you turn to personal hobbies or volunteering and discover new ways in which you can find purpose by impacting the lives of others. Most importantly, focus on achieving your goals while maintaining a healthy balance between your ambition and the other elements that matter in life, such as self-care and companionship.

How is Positive Psychology Applied?

Positive psychology has also been a subject of criticism and accused of advancing misleading ideas about positivity. As a result, the principles of positive psychology are sometimes dismissed as bearing more in common with self-help tactics than scientifically-proven theories.

However, positive psychology techniques are now being utilized in other traditional aspects of therapy, with confirmed results supporting its effectiveness. The practice of well-being therapy, developed by psychologist Giovanni Fava from the University of Bologna, focuses on the self-observed well-being of the patient, rather than solely on their self-reported distress.

Carol Kauffman, director of the Coaching and Positive Psychology Initiative At Harvard University’s McLean Hospital, outlined four techniques for integrating positive psychology into traditional therapy methods in the Harvard Mental Health Letter. These techniques mainly involve reversing the focus of therapy from negative events and emotions to more positive ones, developing a language of strength, balancing the negative and positive aspects of certain actions or situations, and building strategies that foster hope, such as identifying skills to tackle a particular problem and shifting focus to those skills.

Though the principles of positive psychology suggest that success can be built on personal strengths, it’s also important to work on your weaknesses and achieve a healthy balance, so that you can attain a more fulfilled life. If you’re interested in more information about positive psychology and a more personalized and tailored approach to living your best life, try the convenience of working with a licensed online therapist.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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