Positive psychology seeks to identify those things that contribute to well-being, hope and evolution, not only for the individual but also for society. Happiness is probably not wealth, eternal youth or good weather, but rather the ability to engage deeply in our life and be able to install a larger meaning in our daily businesse. So, what makes us happy?
Think Yourself Thin, The Power of Positive Thinking, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People…these books stay on the bestseller lists for decades. Why? Because they hold universal truths about the power of thought.
Mind-body medicine, the Law of Attraction, Scientology…these things might all seem recent and New-Agey but the premises of positive thinking are as old as the written word.
- David, the prophet, said “As one thinketh in his heart so is he.”
- Hindu religion teaches that “all things first manifest in the mind.”
- It is written in the Talmud that “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
Positive thinking really took off in the years after the Great Depression, affecting every aspect and institution of life: business, education, literature and psychology.
- Napoleon Hill wrote the book said to have launched a million millionaires, Think and Grow Rich, in 1937 and it remains on the bestseller list today.
- William James wrote “The greatest discovery of my generation is that man can alter his life simply by altering the attitude of his mind.”
Pioneers like Emile Cou, founder of self-hypnosis, Abraham Maslow and his self-actualizing theory, and Albert Ellis with his Rational Emotive Behavior therapy injected the field of psychology with a different perspective: rather than asking, “What’s wrong? What is the cause of mental illness?” they asked, “What can be? What creates happiness and well-being?”
Today, the field of positive psychology is flourishing, due to the efforts of its founder and present president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman.
Seligman relates two pivotal experiences, epiphanies that gave impetus to his crusade to change his field.
Seligman’s daughter told him: “Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.” (Seligman, Martin E.P. 2000).
Seligman realized that raising children was not about correcting what is wrong with them (his daughter had done that herself,) but to identify and nurture their strengths.
The other experience Seligman talks about is realizing that the work of psychologists has been to raise the functioning of people from a dysfunctional state to a functioning one, “from a minus five to a zero.”(Wallis, Claudia 2005)
On his first day as president of the APA, Seligman asked, “What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?” (Wallis, Claudia 2005) He had realized that the field of psychology was “half-baked,” that mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness.
In fact, he believes that The National Institute of Mental Health should be called The National Institute of Mental Illness. The founding of the Institute, along with the establishment of the Veteran’s Administration after WWII, gave rise to the domination of pathology and suffering in the field of psychology. Seligman believes that economics are a major reason for this perspective. The Institute was based on a disease-model and many researchers realized they could get funding if they treated mental health as mental illness. Many practitioners realized they could make a living treated wounded and damaged veterans.
The field focused, Seligman says, on the passivity of people, people as victims of broken homes, broken values, political pathology, negative reinforcements and abnormal brains. The questions were “How do we alleviate suffering? How do we fix what is broken?”
After the First World Congress on Positive Psychology, David Cooperrider, creator of the Appreciative Inquiry process remarks, “In some ways we as human beings live in worlds that our questions create.” (Strutzenberger, 2009)
In Living the Wisdom of Tao: The Complete Tao Te Ching and Affirmations, Wayne Dwyer claims, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” (Dwyer, Wayne, 2008)
Just as the Law of Attraction emphasizes, if you focus on deficit you give energy and power to lack; if you think of yourself as a victim of circumstance, you disempower yourself. A recent study of journal articles in the social sciences and psychology found that 98% of them focused on negatives such as anger, fear, depression and co-dependency.
Seligman stresses, “Our message is to remind our field that psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best.” (Seligman, Martin E. P. 2000)
Nurturing what is best gives power back to people. It ignites their potentiality instead of emphasizing their limitations.
Positive psychology seeks to identify those things that contribute to well-being, hope and evolution, not only for the individual but also for society. It shares with the emerging preventive health paradigm, the idea that it would serve us best to found generations of people who fortify their health and well-being rather than treating disorders and dysfunction after damage has been done.
What are some of the field’s findings so far? What makes us happy? Money? Youth? Sunny weather? Job or social status, wealth and even health have little effect on life satisfaction. The three strongest factors in happiness seem to be:
- Getting more pleasure out of life, savoring its joys.
- Becoming more engaged in what you do, increasing the depth of your involvement in family, work, hobbies etc.
- Finding ways to make your life more meaningful, using your strengths to serve something larger than yourself.
Of the three, engagement, especially social connection, seems to be the most powerful and pleasure-seeking the least. In fact, pleasure isn’t really the right word.
Pleasure is thought of as the satisfaction of a need such as hunger, warmth, physical contact, rest. Enjoyment, which is more powerful and longer-lasting, is the feeling we get when we stretch ourselves, grow, evolve. It comes from accomplishing something, building something, connecting with someone. Although we may think having nothing to do or being alone will give us pleasure, the opposite effect most often occurs.
Pay it forward
One of the most wonderful things about the advent of positive psychology and the theories of positive thinking is that happiness and optimism are proving to be contagious.
A long-term study conducted by scientists from the University of California and Harvard found that they could measure the spread of happiness in a social network.
Their study covered over 5000 people for 20 years. What they found is that a person’s happiness affects people both directly and indirectly connected to them, that happiness has a 3-degree spread and exponential effects.
What is intriguing is how wide-spread a social network actually is. Your happiness can increase the happiness of a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend by 5.6%, more than a $5000 work bonus!
Researcher James Fowler smiles at strangers he regularly encounters and “catches a goofy mood” before he goes home to his sons. “I’m not just going to make my sons happy—I could potentially make my son’s friends happy. These little things I thought I was doing for myself turn out to be for hundreds of people.” (Dahl, Melissa 2008)
What are some of the best tools to increase well-being? Practicing gratitude, practicing altruism and investing in social connections.
- Counting your blessings helps you focus on the positive things in your life rather than its frustrations. This mindset increases the potential for more positive things to occur.
- Giving to others, “practicing random acts of kindness,” gives your life a higher meaning and helps you to recognize your power and influence.
- The stronger your social network, the more embedded and engaged in your life you are, the happier you will be.Or as Father D’Souza once said:At last, it dawned on me, that these obstacles were my life.Happiness is the way…Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”
- So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one…
- This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness.
- “For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin, real life. But, there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin.
- Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has this to say about happiness: “Every day you have to renew your commitment. Hopefully, some of the strategies will become habitual over time and not a huge effort.” (Wallis, Claudia 2005)
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