Positive psychology is a relatively new field that was born out of its complete opposite: depression and “learned helplessness.” Applicable in modern days in almost every area of life, the principles of optimism, resilience, a focus on happiness, well-being, and character strengths have resonated with many researchers, producing theories backed by science. The principles of positive psychology are used by life coaches, therapists, workplaces, prison systems, and more, and the effects on a person’s outlook on life are translated into real, physical health benefits. A change in perspective has the power to change us deeply from even the molecular level.
Martin Seligman’s research in the 1960s and 1970s laid the groundwork for what came to be known as the theory of “learned helplessness,” which is connected to depression and backed by decades of research. Although this was quite a significant contribution to the field of psychology already, Seligman knew there was more he wanted to offer. Thus, he changed perspectives and focused on “the positive, the uplifting, the inspiring,” as PositivePsychology.com notes. Determined to focus on resilience and learned optimism and to shift the focus of psychology from trauma, suffering, and pain, Seligman proposed a new subfield of psychology. When he became president of the American Psychology Association in 1998, Seligman’s call to focus on that which is life-giving instead of life-depleting brought about thousands of research studies on positive phenomena. With a base for the application of positive principles established, positive psychology is now applicable in coaching, teaching, relationships, the workplace, and every other life domain.
According to PositivePsycholoy.com, the commonly accepted definition of the field is: “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008). Positive psychology focuses on the positive events and influences in life, including positive experiences (like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love), positive states and traits (like gratitude, resilience, and compassion), and positive institutions (applying positive principles within entire organizations and institutions). Topics like character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, well-being, gratitude, compassion, self-esteem and self-confidence, hope, and elevation tend to be the focus of this field.
According to the experts, the greatest potential benefit of positive psychology is that it teaches us the power of shifting our perspective. Perspective is the focus of many techniques, exercises, and entire programs based on positive psychology. Research has shown that a relatively small change in one’s perspective can lead to wondrous shifts in well-being and quality of life. Infusing life with more optimism and gratitude is a simple action that can radically yield a more positive outlook on life.
As with everything we do, balance is important, and focusing only on the positive is unrealistic. Positive psychology was established to complement traditional psychology with a positive bias that is just as strong as psychology’s negative bias over the last several decades.
In our area, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implemented a program called Whole Health a couple of years ago, which utilizes principles from positive psychology. Licensed psychologist Faith McGowan shared, “At the VA we started using a program called Whole Health that incorporated some of their principles of bolstering meaning for veterans beyond traditional health models that treat after a disease has formed. We incorporated the use of exercise, improving sleep, mindfulness, faith, etc., to make overall improvements in functioning and health.” McGowan led the meditation/mindfulness practice during her time at the VA. The Whole Health program was promoted to help veterans understand how comprehensive, integrated, holistic services can contribute to the development of behaviors motivated by self-empowerment, self-healing, and self-care.
Positive psychology in practice can take the form of positive habits that we adopt in our everyday living. The remainder of the article gives some specific examples, but it is by no means exhaustive.
Experience Sampling Method (ESM) or daily diary method, uses a sound cue such as a phone alarm, that goes off at a random time of the day. This cue invites you to pause and notice what you are thinking, feeling, and doing in that moment, and write it down. This method aims to help people notice the positives in their day.
A gratitude journal is another practice that gives you a chance to identify and reflect on the good things to be grateful for in one’s life. This type of journaling requires you to write down three things you are grateful for each day, with the only condition being that you write three different things every day. Within a week, many people experience a boost in well-being along with an increase in gratitude, according to PositivePsychology.com.
A gratitude visit or letter consists of identifying one person you are grateful for, and writing a letter to this person where you express and explain your gratitude. A phone or video call can take the place of writing as well.
Well-Being therapy is a holistic approach to therapy similar to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) but focuses on both promoting the positive and alleviating the negative in the person’s life. It is founded on Carol Ryff’s model of well-being, which recognizes six facets or factors of well-being: mastery of the environment, personal growth, purpose in life, autonomy, self-acceptance, and positive relationships (Harvard Health Publishing, 2008).
Being optimistic is not just a fleeting state of mind but rather a quite sophisticated mental exercise to change our perspective and then our outlook on life. By changing our perspective and focusing on our character traits and strengths and the goodness in our daily life, and by expressing gratitude, the body responds along with the mind. The experiences we live are therefore a test to how we respond: are we defeated by hardship, or do we choose the power to dig for the positive amid the struggles? We have a choice.
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