What is Positive Psychology and why should it matter?

Psychology is a very recent science that studies human behavior, cognition, causes and cure for mental ailments like depression, PTSD etc. and in general recognized as a tool to either understand or predict human approaches to various situations or contexts. Psychologists beginning from Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Wundt were always busy in researching how to solve the human miseries related to the mind and were fairly successful in resolving a lot of mental ailments, either through counselling (these days the word therapy is more in vogue) or medication and in many cases, both. Psychology hence was focused on “what was wrong in the human condition” rather than looking at the other side, factors that made people lead a life which was engaging and thriving or how were they using their strengths in looking at life from the prism of emotions like optimism, hope and joy. In postwar years, a movement of “Humanistic Psychology” was taking shape where Psychologists like Abraham Maslow were looking at the human condition in the perspective of the positive factors like self-esteem and self-actualization among many others. Positive Psychology in a way is an organic successor to Humanistic psychology.

Let us come to what Positive Psychology is all about. As mentioned earlier, psychology was not able to focus on the positive factors because psychologists were preoccupied with solving miseries and to reiterate, there have been great successes in solving mental health challenges. In 1998, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania became the president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and he brought the topic of “Positive Psychology” where he spoke of expanding the horizon of psychology from the focus on mental ailments or illnesses towards ideas and constructs like human triumphs, empathy, hope, future-mindedness and so on. In nutshell, he was talking about what makes us happy which led him to write the book, “Authentic Happiness”. His APA address led to a wider discussion about what he proposed and many psychologists including Ed Deiner (who was already researching on positive traits), Barbara Fredriksson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi took up the mantle of writing papers and books on Positive Psychology which evolved into an entire discipline of itself, with Universities like the University of Pennsylvania and various universities in Europe already offering a masters degree in Applied positive psychology.

Finally a broadly accepted phrase which explains positive psychology is that “positive psychology is a science of well-being” which is more inclusive and preventive in nature while the existential psychology is more therapeutic and “problem solving” in its essence. If we build upon the positive factors in life that bind us, we may not need therapy in the long run. However positive psychology does not prefer prevention of mental illnesses as a goal but to create flourishing human beings who use their strengths and positive traits to create well-being in their personal lives as well as in their organizations or even in areas like sporting and entertainment. So, it is all pervasive.

Seligman gave to the world his well-researched PERMA model of well-being that says that if all the five elements that make the acronym are in harmony (i.e. we are on a higher average score on these elements), we tend to be living a good life or to say we are at the peak of well-being.

While well-being is a construct, all these elements in themselves are embedded in the construct individually, contributing to the whole. For example, an individual may be high on positive emotions but if she lacks meaning and purpose or even a sense of belonging, the well-being construct may not shine through. In all the five elements, an individual has to be at least at an above average level for a sustained well-being. PERMA model is recognized as one of the path breaking models in Positive Psychology, along with the ethos of character strengths and virtues.

What positive psychology is not?

People misunderstand positive psychology as “positive thinking” or other self-help jargon is increasingly being associated with positive psychology (which is unfortunate). Positive thinking is a small piece in the puzzle that may help a little in enhancing positive emotions but is not sustainable in the log run. However, if we apply some of positive psychology interventions, including small activities like Gratitude journaling or compassion meditation, we may in the course of few days get attuned to a life of higher life satisfaction. Positive psychology is an empirical science backed by research hence the interventions are clinically experimented. Positive psychology is definitely not a self-help jargon but a empirically researched branch of Psychology.

Why should it matter?

Positive psychology is helpful for ourselves as individuals, for the family and loved ones as well as for workplace. When we build on our repertoire of positive traits, utilize our innate strengths, connect with meaning and purpose, our lives become flourishing and way better than we imagine it would be.

It matters because from the smaller challenges of workplace stress and burnout to the bigger global epidemic of mental illnesses, we need a more sustained approach to make people aware of what they can be best at and hence create a life which may possibly not lead to any major mental stress. I emphasize on the word “preventive” again in this context.

Also, a point in context is that Positive psychologists do not negate or disapprove of the negativity in our lives. We do not need to emphasize on the positive all the time while ignoring the fact that we indeed go through a lot of negativity. Rather than in denial, we can admit that the negativity does occur in our lives from time to time, including emotions of hatred, jealousy, self-pity and others. Positive Psychology recommends that we acknowledge these emotions and through positive psychology interventions like connecting with people who uplift us and help us foster long term relationships or writing a journal we can find the way through life in a better way. In fact, finding your meaning and purpose, which is beyond what you are experiencing in your life is an important aspect of creating well-being in your life.

Hence, positive psychology does matter, whether someone is a homemaker or a Human Resource professional or even a medical practitioner in terms of how we live our lives in an individual fashion or what we do in terms of enhancing well-being of others.

I have been a Visiting faculty of Workplace Positive Psychology at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore and I conduct workshops and programs through the International Institute of Positive Psychology. If you want to know more about positive psychology, please feel free to email me at info@sandeep.com.co

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