In recent years, there has been an increase in interest in positive psychology. But what is positive psychology? Should you practice it? Can it cure mental illness?
What is Positive Psychology?
In simple terms, positive psychology is the science of happiness. Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park explain that there has always been a negative viewpoint of psychology and mental health (i.e. people are fragile and need fixing). Positive psychology instead focuses on an individual’s strength. The American Psychological Association further explains that positive psychology focuses on “psychological states (e.g., contentment, joy), individual traits or character strengths (e.g., intimacy, integrity, altruism, wisdom), and social institutions that enhance subjective wellbeing and make life most worth living”.
According to The Canadian Positive Psychology Association, Abraham Maslow first used the term in his 1954 book “Motivation and Personality”. Although there was some interest in the topic, it didn’t really stick. It was in 1998 when positive psychology would come back to the stage. Martin Seligman reintroduced the term, and the field has been growing ever since.
The PERMA Model
Martin Seligman proposed the PERMA Model to explain what makes up happiness:
P – Positive Emotions: This focuses on positive emotions that come from feeling gratitude, savouring pleasures in the present, and optimism.
E – Engagement: When you engage in a task or challenge where you use your strengths and skills.
R – Relationships: Keeping close relationships contribute to well-being. This can also include acts of kindness towards others.
M – Meaning: Revolves around activities that fulfill a sense of meaning, like practicing religion or volunteering at community organizations.
A – Accomplishments: Can be gained from hobbies, games, or sports, to name a few.
Every person can gain happiness from different categories at different levels. What is good for one person may not necessarily be good for another. Everyone is different, which makes happiness a very personal matter.
How can I practice positive psychology?
There are many ways in which you can exercise positive psychology habits in your everyday life. Peggy Kern, Senior Lecturer in Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, gives a few suggestions for those interested in practicing positive psychology:
1) Know your strengths: By knowing your strengths, you can use them to your advantage. Being aware of them and subsequently using them is related to a greater well-being.
2) Change your thinking: The more you shift your perspective in a positive way, the more chances there are that you will counteract negative thoughts and biases. It does not cure negative thinking completely, but it allows you to focus on the good rather than the bad.
3) Add more positive emotions to your life: Doing things that make you happy contribute to your happiness, so do things you love! Go take a walk by the canal. Read a chapter of your favourite book. Participate in activities that bring you joy.
4) Nurture positive relationships: It is important to foster positive and healthy relationships in our lives. Removing toxic people from our environment aids in maintaining positive emotions and diminishes negativity. This includes relationships with family members, friends, and coworkers.
5) Do something nice for someone else: Acts of kindness not only make someone else happy, they make you feel good too! No act is too small. Help a neighbour with their gardening. Call a family member. Smile at a stranger. There are plenty of ways to make someone happy.
Criticism of Positive Psychology
Although many people believe in positive psychology, there are those who have some critiques about it. Some describe it as an “oversimplified pursuit of happiness”, and others would say that life is complex and can’t be broken down into just “think happy thoughts”. There is also the fact that a lot of research findings are misleading. Another criticism suggests that positive psychology does not necessarily take into consideration different social groups like minorities and disadvantaged groups that might have different socio-economic environments and living situations that make it difficult to practice positive psychology.
Is positive psychology a cure for mental illness?
It is important to note that positive psychology is not a miracle cure for illness. As Christopher Peterson wrote in Psychology Today, “nowhere does it say or imply that the rest of psychology needs to be discarded or replaced”. In other words, positive psychology is not the ultimate strategy for recovery; it is rather a way of thinking that can benefit and improve your mental and overall well-being.
If you are interested in reading more about positive psychology, here are some suggested reads:
“Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” by Martin Seligman
“Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” by Martin Seligman
“The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work” by Shawn Achor
“The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want” by Sonja Lyubomirsky