Positive Psychology is a word that is slowly filtering through into our work, social and personal lives. However, few people know what it is, where it originated, and why it has become such a much-talked-about concept. People often think that Positive Psychology is a new trend, industry or hype that has recently emerged. But if you trace its roots, you’ll find that it goes as far back as 400 BC to the ancient Greek times where Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics spoke about the importance of human happiness, virtues, fulfilling one’s potential, and living ethically. Since then, the idea of happiness has been a common thread through the eras of the Stoics, Christianity, Renaissance, Existentialist philosophers, right up to the beginning of the 21st century before WWI after which it lost its direction for a while.
Before the outbreak of WWI, the science of Positive Psychology had three distinct intentions:
- to cure mental illness.
- to make people happier.
- to study geniuses and highly talented people.
So, Positive Psychology already had an umbrella function back then, but with the outbreak of the war psychology got stuck on focusing on mental illness and spent little time on mental health. The reason for this was twofold: The war produced many war veterans and family members who needed to be treated and cured of the gruesome traumas, and institutions provided sponsorship funding for curing mental diseases. The result was that for 50 years psychology has honed in on curing mental illnesses, and this pathology has taken its toll on society and human science. This changed in 1998 when Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, who at the time was the President of the American Psychology Association, rebirthed the concept of balanced positive living, fulfilling one’s potential and having meaning and purpose in life. Seligman was purely bringing to light what past philosophers and scientists such as Freud, Jung, Skinner, Watson, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Maslow and Rodgers had been working on for decades. In a nutshell, one could say that Positive Psychology has a short history but a long past.
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning. It hones in on what is right about people by uncovering their strengths and promoting positive thriving. It focuses on factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive such as: building positive emotions, optimising character strengths, setting meaningful goals, being mindful and present in life activities, nurturing trusting and deep relationships, developing a growth learning mindset, and cultivating resilience strategies.
So, if Positive Psychology is “happiology” that only focuses on the optimistic side of life, especially with stats relating to the high levels of depression, anxiety, burnout and other mental health challenges, is it a naïve unrealistic science? No, it’s not. Positive Psychology doesn’t deny or ignore the existence of negative emotions, feelings, situations or life events. It accepts and embraces them as being a normal part of life. However, what it does do is make individuals aware that they are not living from their optimal level, and then gives them practical tools and resources to pull them out of a downward slope quicker. Positive Psychology is an applied science that offers people balance to their previous skewed weakness or disease-orientated approach. It’s a holistic science that explores people’s strengths alongside their weaknesses. As it’s a science, the activities and exercises provided have undergone rigorous scientific testing and peer reviews. It isn’t self-help which is a critical distinguishing point; what is provided works. As much as Positive Psychology is about scientific theories, models and practical exercises, it is also about transformation and personal development. It has the ability to grow people to reach their level of optimal flourishing; a level very few people have experienced, but one each and every one can and has the right to.
Positive Psychology versus Traditional Psychology
Positive Psychology and traditional psychology complement each other and are not in competition with one another. They simply have two different focal points which are both extremely necessary and needed in the modern world. Traditional psychology focuses on mental illnesses, commonly referred to as the disease model of what is wrong with a person, and aims to remediate the situation. Positive Psychology tries to work from the approach and build on what is strong.
In the words of Abraham Maslow, “The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half.”
Bringing the two psychologies together allows us to work with people in a complete and holistic manner. Another main distinguishing point is that traditional psychology is responsible for making a person function and Positive Psychology to make a person flourish – it’s like working with minus and plus signs. Both psychologies complement each other and a person can successfully engage with both modalities at the same time.
The Benefits of Positive Psychology
Now that you have some background on the roots and definition of Positive Psychology, let’s explore why this concept has become invaluable to our life. Positive Psychology, otherwise known as “happiness science”, has the following benefits:
- It teaches us to shift our perspective from an overly negative bias to a balanced viewpoint.
- It is present-orientated living in the here and now.
- It instils an open-mindset of continuous learning and development.
- It assists us to be more grateful and mindful of our surroundings and activities, thereby removing us from the debilitating autopilot mode.
- It deepens our ability to savour positive life experiences.
- It helps us to build trusting and meaningful relationships with family, friends and work colleagues.
- It teaches us to have more positive emotions and moods than negative ones.
- It opens our hearts to volunteer work and acts of kindness.
- It helps us to find meaning and purpose in tasks and activities.
- It allows us to be engaged and fully participate in life.
- It enhances our social and emotional intelligence.
- It strengthens and develops neurons through the process of neuroplasticity.
- It assists us to use our character strengths more often.
The end result is that we don’t overthink things, are able to bounce back from adverse daily situations, and it enhances our overall well-being. From a work perspective, we become more productive, find meaning in tasks through having flow moments, experience job satisfaction and cope better with stress, anxiety, feelings of overwhelm and frustration.
The best news is that happiness drives success and not the other way around. Becoming happier in life is a journey, not an outcome to ever accomplish, so it’s a path that can be learned and practised by everybody.
In our fast-moving world, Positive Psychology and happiness are not things to be ignored, but rather very important tools that can help you to flourish, to manage your life better, to act as a buffer against physical or mental illness, and to lead the authentic life you are born to lead.