When I finished my graduate training in 1997, my head was filled with all kinds of facts and theories about what causes, and what relieves, psychological distress. Truth be told, I had learned a great deal about pain, pathos, and struggle, but very little about psychological health, resilience, and happiness. Armed with a strong toolbox of techniques from various schools of psychotherapy, I took pride on focusing on and treating the negative symptoms of anxiety and depression. I had a great deal of success right away, and my clients were sleeping better, working more productively, crying less, and experiencing fewer episodes of panic. I helped those who had endured loss or trauma go from viewing themselves as victims to defining themselves as survivors. I “bought into” the goal of psychotherapy as a reduction or elimination of the conditions that interfered with living productive lives and relating well to others.
But something was nagging at me in those early years of practice; I had an intrinsic belief that the same focus that drove me in my personal life–the pursuit of happiness, not simply the absence of sadness–was what everyone desired and deserved. Before too long I became determined to provide more for my clients, and they in turn wanted more for themselves. I began to concern myself with this greater goal; I was not merely interested in relieving suffering, but in helping my clients create joyful, meaningful lives. It wasn’t enough for people to simply be surviving; I wanted to help them truly thrive.
Enter Positive Psychology
Positive psychology was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 (just after I’d finished my formal training, which is why I’d never learned this stuff in school), by psychologist Martin Seligman. This branch of psychology focuses on the scientific understanding of what makes life most fulfilling and rich, then quantifies these elements. It is commonly misperceived as self-help, a Pollyanna-ish approach to looking on the bright side, or the power of positive thinking. It is none of these.
Rather, positive psychology is an academic and scientific field of study interested primarily and specifically in what makes individuals, families, and communities flourish. It does not ignore the devastating effects of mental illness, nor deny the role and ubiquity of life’s pain and negative experiences. It does not serve to replace those schools of psychology focused on uncovering and alleviating the cause of psychological suffering, but to further them. Positive psychology suggests that instead of merely asking, “what causes emotional distress?” we contemplate the question, “what constitutes the psychological good life?” We use those findings to inform a science of well-being.
What It Means to Flourish
In recent years, positive psychology has gained great popularity, as it has been able to offer a multitude of empirically proven methods of bringing more joy, satisfaction, and meaning to people’s lives. Thus, therapists like me who are encouraged by the findings of this field can aim beyond merely bringing clients from languishing to stagnating, and help them create lives that are truly flourishing.
To define what it means to be flourishing, positive psychologists have studied and categorized the traits and behaviors shared by the happiest among us. They have discovered that folks who are flourishing are optimistic and resilient; they expect the best and develop good strategies for coping even when life hands them lemons. Happy people regularly engage in pleasurable activities, create and nurture social relationships, and seek to find meaning in their work and/or leisure pursuits. Those who take good care of their bodies and minds through regular exercise, meditation, and activity are apt to thrive psychologically, as are those who express gratitude, practice forgiveness, and engage in acts of kindness. While these traits can seem unattainable or far-fetched to people in the midst of hardship, there are abundant exercises, strategies, and methods for integrating all of this and building up your own positivity.
Happiness is a result of the interplay of genetic factors, life circumstances, and personal choices. No one can, or should, be happy all of the time. Some people find it easy to be naturally happier and more positive than others. Others work hard and practice in order to remain positive, even in the face of difficulties. Life can be filled with times of turmoil and tragedy, and negative emotions are something we all experience as part of the human condition. Nonetheless, positive psychology teaches us that the good in life exists, even alongside the bad, and is no less valuable, important, or powerful. It promises that much of what makes for well-being can be learned, even when some of what makes life hard cannot be easily altered.
This column will focus on what has been discovered in recent years about what makes for a rewarding, thriving existence. I will share ideas, activities, and methods that readers may incorporate into their own lives to increase their personal levels of happiness and well-being. My goal is to help readers recognize the power we each possess to make the most out of life, and in so doing, maybe even inspire those around you to do the same.
Practicing on Your Own
To get you started, I suggest a simple, but powerful exercise you can try right now. Simply think of three things that went well for you in the past 24 hours. Regardless of what challenges you may have faced or difficulties you endured throughout your day, focus on those few things that actually were good. These things can be big or small — anything from enjoying a hot cup of coffee to sharing a laugh with a friend to getting a job promotion. Jot down these three good things in a notepad, a journal, or in your phone, and look at them often. Repeating this exercise on a daily basis will help you begin to help you develop a more positive mindset.
In future articles, I’ll tell you more about the compelling research associated with this exercise and others. Until then, notice for yourself how focusing on the good in your life can help you recognize and relish in the positive that already exists in your world, no matter what else may be happening for you.
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