Positive Psychology

What Is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology examines what gives our lives meaning and purpose—how we can move beyond surviving to flourishing. Traditionally, psychology has focused on dysfunction—people with mental illness or other issues—and how to treat it. Positive psychology, in contrast, is a field that explores how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. But positive psychology works in tandem with abnormal psychology, not as a replacement for it. According to the late Christopher Peterson, a pioneering researcher in the field, the positive psychology movement is founded on three maxims: “What is good in life is as genuine as what is bad.… What is good in life is not simply the absence of what is problematic.… And third, the good life requires its own explanation, not simply a theory of disorder stood sideways or flipped on its head.”

In positive psychology, there is an emphasis on meaning, not just on fleeting happiness and warm fuzzy feelings. Martin Seligman, often regarded as the godfather of positive psychology, has described three paths to happiness: the Pleasant Life (Hollywood’s view of happiness), the Good Life (focused on personal strengths and states of flow), and the Meaningful Life (aimed toward a higher purpose). Being a happy-go-lucky individual is largely a matter of genetics, explains Seligman. What we should strive for is eudaimonia—Aristotle’s concept of flourishing—rather than hedonia (pleasure). Studies suggest that pursuing a good and meaningful life predicts greater life satisfaction overall.

Positive Psych 101

Identifying one’s character strengths is considered an important step on the road to the good and meaningful life envisioned by positive psychologists. Of course, there are simple positive psychology interventions one can try at home to promote well-being. One example, the “gratitude exercises,” have been studied by psychologists as a way to increase happiness over time. Just what the name sounds like, these involve such simple actions as writing down each day three things for which one is grateful. Although the focus of positive psychology is on happiness and fulfillment, it is important to understand that this does not mean people are advised to push away their negative emotions altogether; genuinely flourishing people make room in their lives for such inevitable states of mind.

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