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“Probably the biggest insight is that happiness is not just a place, but also a process. Happiness is an ongoing process of fresh challenges and…it takes the right attitudes and activities to continue to be happy.”
– Ed Diener
Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that complements the traditional focus on pathology with the study of human strengths and virtues and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life.
Martin Seligman, often referred to as the founder of positive psychology, describes it as:
“The scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.”
What follows is a quick overview of positive psychology theory.
A Quick Introduction
Before the movement of positive psychology, mainstream psychology focused heavily on the negative aspects of life, such as depression and anxiety.
The manual every psychologist in the world owns is the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders). But up until early 2000, there was no such thing as a manual with the systematic classification of positive human traits and values.
Between 1887 and 2001, for every 21 research studies related to a negative topic there was only one related to a positive aspect of life.
Before the second world war, psychology had 3 main missions:
- To understand and cure mental illness,
- To improve the lives and productivity of individuals,
- To identify and nurture high talent.
However, after the second world war, given the human crisis and the demands of that period, all available resources were directed towards researching and treating psychological disorders.
And this is how the field of psychology came to operate within a disease framework. The product of this focus is a valuable contribute to humanity, given that 14 previously incurable diseases can now be treated.
Nevertheless, the failure to study talent, strength and other positive aspects of life left a gap in the field of psychology. And any science that deals with the fundamental questions of human living is incomplete if it adresses only one part of it.
Positive Psychology Theory
Positive psychology was born out of the need to scientifically study the positive aspects of life. The theory of positive psychology has evolved greatly over the last few years, as an ever growing body of research uncovered the building blocks of happiness and well-being.
Through multiple studies Martin Seligman found that the extent to which people were aware of and using their “signature strengths” (for example: courage, persistance or wisdom) greatly impacted the quality of their lives.
He spent years developing a theory of well-being he called PERMA model. The model comprises 5 elements, that create the foundation of a flourishing life:
- Positive Emotions
Each of these elements has three properties:
- It contributes to well-being.
- People pursue it for their own sake, not just to attain the other elements.
- It’s measured and defined independently from the other elements.
1. Positive Emotions
Barbara Fredrickson and her broaden-and-build theory explains that positive emotions can build our physical, intellectual and social abilities. She hypothesized that by broadening our awareness and thought-action repertoire we look for creative and flexible ways of thinking and acting. This broadening effect builds skills and resources, overtime.
Her studies show that people who experience positive emotions make more connections, create more inclusive categories and have heightened levels of creativity.
Positive emotions also help us perform better at work and study and strengthen our relationships.
Flow is an experience of optimal psychological functioning, where we are completely absorbed in a task that slightly exceeds our skill level, and therefore, require us to stretch to a new level of performance.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When experiencing flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else seems to dissapear and the perception of time is altered.
The incessant voice in our head also quiets down. Research shows that the prefrontal cortex shows less activation during states of flow. This is the area of our brain responsible for cognitive processes such as self-reflection consciousness. Which explains the loss of self and self-consciousness during this state. The result his a heightened level of performance and creativity.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author behind this theory believes happiness isn’t something that simply happens. That it is the product of individual crafting of challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for ones abilities.
As humans we are hard-wired to connect with others. We have a need for connection, love, physical and emotional proximity with others. Babies depend on others to care for them and are unable to survive on their own.
Not only that, we also develop and learn about life and the world we live in through the interactions with other people and the perspectives they offer us.
Studies have shown that the one thing that distinguished happier people was the quality of their relationships.
Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is behind one of the longest and most complete studies of adult life. The study followed two cohorts of men for 75 years since 1938. These men answered surveys regarding the quality of their marriages, job satisfaction, social activities (every two years) and were also monitored on pshysical health (every five years).
The study had one question to answer: What keeps us happy and healthy? The answer came across three aspects that all point in the same direction: good relationships.
Christopther Peterson summed this up nicely with his quote:
“Other people matter.”
Seligman believes the level of well-being we experience can be affected by our choices, attitudes and behaviors. He states however, that there are no shortcuts. It takes effort and persistance.
And while, positive emotions are necassary to a healthy life, to foster a deeper more enduring sense of well-being, we need to explore meaning.
Martin Seligman defines meaning as:
“Using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.”
He states that authentic happiness is meant:
“as a preface to the meaningful life and that while it is possible take drugs to generate the effects of positive emotion and pleasure through pharmacology, it is not possible to synthesize the positive effects of being in the flow or of experiencing meaning.”
When we constantly chase pleasure for its own sake and fail to use our strengths towards something meaningful we might squander our potential away.
But when we apply and develop our own unique strengths and virtues towards something bigger than ourselves, we experience a deeper sense of satisfaction.
Studies consistently show that people who feel personally involved in achieving their goals, indicate higher well-being and are in better health than people who lack a sense of direction in their lives.
Research has consistently found that individuals who feel personally involved in the pursuit of goals indicate higher psychological well-being and display better health than individuals who lack a sense of direction in their lives.
Nevertheless, not all goals contribute equally to well-being. Research shows that the goals that lead to well-being are personally meaningful.
In the early 1960’s, Seligman was working on Byron Campbell’s lab at Princeton University. At that time the prevailing theory of motivation was drive reduction theory: all animals act out of the need to satisfy their own biological needs.
However, in 1959, Robert White published a work that went against drive reduction theory called “Motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence”. In it, he argued that people and animals often acted simply for the sake of mastery over the environment.
Seligman found this to be true. Accomplishment is often pursued for its own sake, even if it doesn’t translate into increases in positive emotions, meaning or the quality of relationships.
Some endeavors are simply worthwile and contribute to well-being.
“I’m trying to broaden the scope of positive psychology well beyond the smiley face. Happiness is just one fifth of what human beings choose to do.”
– Martin Seligman
Lewis, T. (2015). A Harvard psychiatrist says 3 things are the secret to real happiness. Retrieved here.
Schultheiss, O. C., & Brunstein, J. C. (1999). Goal imagery: Bridging the gap between implicit motives and explicit goals. Journal of Personality, 67(1)
Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Simon & Schuster.