Positive Psychology is a recently developed branch of psychology that, unlike other branches, turns away from the focus on treating those deemed “mentally ill,” and instead shifts its attention on what makes individuals, and communities, thrive and live happily.
It first began through the theories and practices of humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, who is famous for his theory on the hierarchy of needs (1943), Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm.
However, Positive Psychology really first got started in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme of his presidential term at the American Psychological Association. Seligman has been previously known for his work on the theory of “learned helplessness”, and is now the current director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania (which offers a compact one-year Masters in Applied Positive Psychology for professionals in the domain of psychology, education, business, health, life-coaching, and research.
What positive psychology researches
Positive psychologists research interests include:
- 1. Research into the Pleasant Life, or the “life of enjoyment”, examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.).
2. The study of the Good Life, or the “life of engagement”, investigates the beneficial affects of immersion, absorption, and flow that individuals feel when optimally engaged with their primary activities. These states are experienced when there is a positive match between a person’s strength and the task they are doing, i.e. when they feel confident that they can accomplish the tasks they face.
3. Inquiry into the Meaningful Life, or “life of affiliation”, questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g. nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems).
Theories of positive psychology
Positive psychologists have theorized three main components to building positive experiences: mindfulness, flow, and spirituality.
Positive psychologists characterize mindfulness using terms such as non-judging, non-striving, accepting, patient, trusting, open, letting go, gentle, generous, empathetic, grateful, and kind. Researchers believe mindfulness can lead to physical and mental health benefits including reduction of stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. It is a skill that can be developed to some degree in all individuals.
Flow is referred to as state of absorption, and can be characterized as intense focus, concentration, and being in the moment. Flow is considered a rewarding experience to have and has also been shown to optimize skillful performance in achieving one’s goals.
The concept of “flow” was first formulated by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (who now teaches at Claremonte University in California, which also offers graduate degrees in applied Positive Psychology). Colloquial terms for flow include: “in the zone,” “on the ball,” and “in the groove.”
The concept is comparable to the Buddhist notion of jhāna meaning “states of absorption”, or samadhi, a technical term for a high level of concentration where the subject “becomes one” with the object of attention (leading to the loss of self-awareness).
Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following nine factors as accompanying an experience of flow:
- 1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
Lastly, the research into the benefits of spirituality in positive psychology has shown that more spiritually adept individuals are more likely to find purpose and meaning in their life. Positive psychologists use the concepts of spirituality to evoke ecological well-being, to get individuals to consider there important relationship with the world and universe as a whole.
Positive psychologists have also suggested integrating theories of self-efficacy, learned optimism, and hope.
Applications of positive psychology
Despite the growing amount of empirical research done in the name of positive psychology, the field is largely an applied science, especially in forms of education, counseling, business, and health.
Much like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in clinical psychology, positive psychologist developed something known as the Character Strength and Virtues (CSM) manual. Positive psychologists challenge moral relativism, and instead promote the idea that man has an intrinsic and biological disposition toward certain moral virtues.
Positive psychologist have identified six main virtues in the cultivation of happiness:
1. Wisdom and Knowledge: curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, creativity
2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality
3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control
6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality
These principles of positive psychology have been applied to numerous settings: mental health, efficiency in the workplace, personal development, education and learning, skill-building, achieving goals, and finding meaning and purpose in one’s life.
The future of positive psychology
Positive psychology at first focused on achieving excellence and happiness in the individual. It is still very much about the individual, but it is also now slowly taking an ecological approach. Positive psychologists are now asking questions on how this research can affect economic and governmental policy.
Ed Deiner at Claremont University says instead of just using GDP to measure economic growth, why don’t we measure the actual happiness and well-being of individuals? All this emphasis on material economic growth seems to have clouded the picture on how we should use our knowledge to benefit the psychological well-being of humanity.
Deiner gives one example of how recent research has showed that increasing “green space” in a town (public space dedicated to flowers, plants and nature) has shown to increase the level of happiness in a community. What other implications does this research have on improving society as a whole? Perhaps the lessons of positive psychology could raise the awareness of individuals to take better care of the environment and each other. Positive psychology, in a way, is slowly becoming an interdisciplinary science between psychology, morality, economics and spirituality.
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