Some of the founding fathers of psychology, including Sigmund Freud, believed human motivation was based on a person’s need to avoid anxiety. In the last few decades, a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist often saw it as their job to provide interventions or prescribe medications that help reduce anger, anxiety, or sadness (Seligman, 2012). Some would argue parents and teachers have taken on this role as well with their children or students—minimizing negative emotions rather than teaching people how to function well despite these emotions. Some people believe by minimizing negative emotions, one is free to achieve “happiness,” which is what many people believe the goal of life should be.
Happiness theory, as it was originally defined, measured life satisfaction. The goal of this theory was to increase one’s life satisfaction. The original author of the theory has since redefined his theory to encompass more than life satisfaction, noting that humans are more complex than one singular motivation. Well-being is now the focus of positive psychology.
Building Blocks of Well-Being
According to Seligman (2012), well-being involves five elements:
- Positive emotion: Happiness and life satisfaction
- Engagement: Total absorption in a task
- Relationships: Human connection
- Meaning: Belonging to and serving something bigger than the self
- Accomplishment: Achievement often pursued for its own sake
Each of these elements contains three properties. First, the element contributes to well-being. Second, many people pursue the element for its own sake. Lastly, the element is defined and measured independently of the others (Seligman, 2012, p. 16).
Due to this shift, the goal of positive psychology is no longer the pursuit of happiness. Instead, positive psychology seeks to increase the amount of flourishing in one’s life and the life of the planet. In addition to the above five elements, which are the core features of well-being, scholars at the University of Cambridge identified six additional features associated with well-being (Seligman, 2012). A person must possess three of them to be considered “flourishing.” These include self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination, and positive relationships.
Steps Toward Wellness
Not only has Seligman (2012) described what encompasses well-being, but he has also studied and provided interventions for people to increase their own well-being. These interventions include:
- Gratitude journals: Making a list of things to be thankful for today
- What went well: Writing down three things that went well today
- Signature strengths: Identifying strengths and uses for them
- Kindness exercise: Finding one unexpected kind thing to do for someone today or tomorrow
Focusing on the positive fits in with what scholars know about neuroscience. Due to their ancestral heritage, human brains have a negativity bias. When early humans had to hunt for food, they had to remember negative experiences for the sake of survival. Human brains are hardwired to focus on the negative rather than the positive. Dr. Rick Hansen (2013) indicates that for the positive experiences to be remembered and become neural patterns in the brain, people typically need a ratio of five positive experiences to one negative experience. If someone has a negative experience at work, school, or home, their brain is wired to remember it. To make lasting positive change, they must be able to compare that one negative experience to five positive experiences to override the negativity bias.
This new theory about well-being can give people hope about the future, especially those who have experienced traumatic events.Due to the success of Seligman’s theory of well-being, many organizations are adopting his theory, assessments, and interventions. He has helped implement initiatives such as the Penn Resilience Program, the Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum, the Geelong Grammar School Model for Positive Education, and the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.
The U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program was designed to help soldiers returning from war develop skills to deal with the impact of trauma on their daily lives. Rather than focus on the soldiers’ weaknesses, the program helps soldiers identify their strengths and use them to overcome adversity. This new theory about well-being can give people hope about the future, especially those who have experienced traumatic events.
While anxiety and sadness can be typical responses to trauma, posttraumatic growth can be achieved. A study conducted by Seligman (2012) found people who had experienced adverse events demonstrated more significant strengths than those who had not. Jay (2017) notes that individuals who experience no adversity are less satisfied, less high functioning, and less successful than those who have experienced moderate amounts of adversity.
If you are seeking to recover from trauma or you want help improving your overall well-being, find a therapist.
- Jay, M. (2017). Supernormal: The untold story of adversity and resilience. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, Inc.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Atria Paperback.
- TED. (2013, November 7). Hardwiring happiness: Dr. Rick Hanson at Ted Marin 2013. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpuDyGgIeh0