Positive psychology is a field of applied psychology that teaches the science of happiness. Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. reported at the American Psychological Association’s 2003 Annual Convention that university courses for these studies have skyrocketed from zero to five hundred in five years. He added that nonprofit organizations had raised over $30 million to research the new subfield.
Seligman speculated that in addition to this funding, positive psychology’s focus on building personal strengths rather than dwelling on weaknesses is a driving force behind this massive growth in interest in this new approach.
According to Dr. Seligman, there are three basic pillars to positive psychology.
The first is “the pleasant life,” which involves the pleasures of a positive attitude and personal happiness. An example of an activity to help us experience this would be to map out our ideal day, and then live it out and savor it.
The second pillar is “the good life,” which involves identifying and amplifying our unique skills and strengths, and finding the “flow” in our work, love and play. An example of this would be to identify a task that we find boring or tedious and enliven it by tapping into a personal strength.
The third pillar is “the meaningful life,” which involves taking part in activities outside of ourselves, for the good of others or society in general. Examples of this include tutoring a child in reading or math, or planning the “perfect” surprise for someone who needs it. The aim of positive psychology, says Seligman, is to scientifically study the successful balance of these three types of lives. Seligman calls this “the full life.”
Historically, the focus of psychology has been on identifying human weaknesses, failings, and pathology. Sigmund Freud, who first formalized psychology, was intensely pessimistic about human nature. He believed that our lives were controlled by deep, dark drives that we had very little control over.
Although positive psychology does not deny the flaws of humanity, the fundamental idea is that it focuses on our strengths and virtues. Harvard Magazine’s Craig Lambert gives the example that instead of studying the psychological factors behind alcoholism, positive psychologists might study the resilience of people who have maintained a successful recovery.
Nobel Prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman asked thousands of people to carry diaries and write down their activities, feelings, companions, and environments throughout the day. From these diary entries, Kahneman discovered some correlations to happiness. Nancy Etcoff, Director of the Center for Aesthetics and Well-Being at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of the book Survival of the Prettiest, concludes from this survey that things like socializing, getting enough sleep, and having intimate relations have an enormous effect on our happiness. Commuting to work, not getting enough sleep, and, surprisingly, spending time with kids, are all low on the mood chart.
Etcoff explains that our mood is also affected by environmental factors. In her study of 54 women, sponsored by the Society of American Florists, she found that a simple gift of flowers that remain in the house for a few days has a powerful effect on our energy level. We are more relaxed, have more compassion at work, and experience less anxiety and depression at home. People are attracted to natural landscapes, such as hills and forests, says Etcoff. We enjoy being around water, low canopy trees, and animals.
According to George Valliant, our brains are hard-wired for spiritual experience, and the highest form of spiritual experience is joy. He says that negative emotions such as fear and aggression are just as developed in lower animals as they are in humans. However, our limbic system, which is not present in reptiles, allows us to experience positive emotions.
Drs. Christiaan Janssens
CRO Akwa Wellness