Positive Psychology: What it is & How it Can Improve Your Life

In the early days, psychology was mainly about research. They wanted to understand how reflexes worked (touch a hot stove… Ouch! Move your hand away), perception worked (I see an old lady… now I see a princess...) and how behavior worked (dog sees food… it salivates).
When psychology started it had 3 aims: treat and cure mental illness, support ‘creative genius’ or prodigies which back then may have been mistaken for mental illness, and help every day people live better lives.
Mental illness became a popular topic after WWI and WWII. Psychologists who used to play in labs and give lectures all day had new career opportunities. They could treat people who were coming home from war plagued by mental illness.
And poof…
A lot of funding and money poured into studying how to fix what was wrong with people.
Well in 2008, we now know A LOT about what is wrong with people. We have treatments for most mental illnesses and even some cures. We also know a lot about creative genius, but as a whole psychology did not know a lot about your every day Joe. So in 1998 Dr. Martin Seligman created a new field in psychology… positive psychology.
Seligman spent most of his life studying depression and proved that depression is learned. Then he asked, what about optimism?
For a long time, psychologists thought that if you took a person who was depressed and took their depression away, you’d have a happy person. But that’s not true.
Just because you don’t have a cold, doesn’t mean you are optimally healthy. Just because you aren’t depressed doesn’t mean you feel vibrant, joyful and love your life.
The field of positive psychology, sometimes referred to as the science of happiness, uses the same scientific rigor that has been applied to studying what’s wrong with people and how to fix them, to understanding the breadth of human potential. Positive psychologists conduct research on things like optimism, resilience, grit, hope, joy, awe, strengths, happiness, flow, prayer, and humor.
Anyone can apply the research that has come out of positive psychology into their lives and careers. Practitioners such as psychologists, therapists and life coaches, use positive psychology to find what is already working with clients and help them build their strengths, find engagement and meaning in their life. They help them feel happier and more fulfilled.
Positive psychology is different than “happiology”. We are not advocating people be happy, happy, happy all the time. It’s extremely important to feel angry, frustrated and sad when it is appropriate. Positive psychology is about what Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar calls, “the permission to be human.” That is, feeling all the emotions that human beings feel as opposed to trying to tell ourselves we should be happy all the time. It's about allowing yourself to feel all emotions as they come up without getting stuck.
For a long time, psychology did not give people the permission to be human. The field was heavily skewed on the side of mental illness, positive psychology is about evening out the scale. Bringing as much focus to the positive side of life as we have to the negative.
The research coming out of positive psychology is fascinating. Never before have scientists ran double-blind placebo studies on things like happiness, gratitude and optimism.
Now, you might be thinking, why bother conducting a research study to find out that doing good things for others can help you feel better? I completely agree with you. Inherently we know those things are good and we should do that. But, how many miserable or slightly unhappy people do you come across in your life? How many people do you know that go out of their way to do something nice for someone else? Even better, go out of their way for a complete stranger?
Research shows that you can dramatically and instantaneously improve your happiness level just by doing something nice for someone else. These people are happier, have better relationships, are more liked by others and feel better about themselves.
Yes, we know that doing these things can benefit our lives. But we forget. Or we don’t realize the impact it can have on us.
Sound scientific research is powerful stuff. A study showed that sales people who learn skills on becoming more resilient and optimistic were three times more successful than their depressed counterparts. If you’re a company owner, that’s a big deal.
Research shows that engaging in work that enables you to use your strengths and what you are naturally good at not only enables you to be happier but also more effective. Makes sense right? But how many people do you know that actually get to do what they are good at and love to do every day?
Positive psychology is unique from self-help and pop psychology. Its founder Martin Seligman is very clear that positive psychology should be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Meaning, rather than doing research about what increases happiness and then telling people what to do with their lives, positive psychology should describe the research on these topics. According to Seligman, people conduct sound studies on topics such as resilience, gratitude and prayer, figure out how these things affect people and the mechanisms by which they work.
Then they educate people on what the research shows. For example, studies show that expressing increases your experience of positive emotions and reduces symptoms of depression. Grateful people are more optimistic about future events, feel more connected with others and even report better quality sleep. As scientists conduct these studies they aim to understand the mechanisms involved in gratitude: how does it work? Why does it work?
Positive psychologist say, “show people the research, help them make informed decisions about what would work best in their life.” This is powerful and profoundly different from prescribing or telling people how to live their lives.
As a positive psychology based life coach, I combine both a descriptive and a prescriptive approach. I describe positive psychology based approaches for creating the positive change clients want to see, and I make suggestions based on what has worked for me and others.
As a field, positive psychology has taken off. Just Google “happiness” + “study”
and look at how much happiness has been in the media recently. Try words like resilience, joy, humor, strengths, grit, life satisfaction and you’ll see that positive psychology is rapidly expanding. The formal definition of positive psychology, a la Wikipedia, is “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Every month there are more and more fascinating studies coming out in the field. We have barely scratched the surface of what we understand to be these strengths and virtues, nevertheless, positive psychology is transforming people’s lives worldwide.