Positive Psychology Theory and Practice

Positive Thinking

by Jayaram V

Summary: By changing your negative thinking and beliefs and by positively interpreting your perceptions and experience, you can greatly improve your wellbeing and the quality of your life and experiences.


Definition

According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi positive psychology is “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.” Christopher Peterson defined positive psychology as, “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.” In other words, positive psychology is about making the most out of life by focusing upon the positive aspects of life, potential and personality.

Origin

The study and focus upon the positive aspects of human life and the efforts to improve human behavior and personality are as old as our civilization. Almost all religions focus upon improving the spiritual side of the human personality and help them cope with human suffering and cultivate life supporting virtues which lead to physical and mental health and wellbeing. However, positive psychology as a scientific study and a branch of psychology is a recent phenomenon.

The term “Positive psychology” was first mentioned by Maslow in his book, Motivation and Personality (1954), floating the idea that psychology should not be a mere study of mental illnesses but should also deal with the promotion of mental health. Martin Seligman is considered the father of Positive psychology. He made it as the theme for his term as the president of the American Psychological Association (1998). In his book Authentic Happiness, he felt that for nearly half a century psychology remained preoccupied with mental illness as its single topic while the right approach should have been “to continue the earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.”

Ever since, the idea took firm root and Positive Psychology emerged as an important focus area of psychology. "The first positive psychology summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002. More attention was given by the general public in 2006 when, using the same framework, a course at Harvard University became particularly popular. In June 2009, the First World Congress on Positive Psychology took place at the University of Pennsylvania." 2

The International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) was set up in 2007 with a tri-part mission, which is reproduced below from their website:

  1. To promote the science of positive psychology and its research-based applications.
  2. To facilitate collaboration among researchers, teachers, students, and practitioners of positive psychology around the world and across academic disciplines.
  3. To share the findings of positive psychology with the broadest possible audience.

In all of these endeavors, the organization wants "to create rigorous standards for positive psychology, so that the field always represents the very best levels of current knowledge.” The IPPA community now spans more than 70 countries and countless professional disciplines, such as psychology, business, education, law, coaching, and health. It is well advanced in the United States and Western Europe.

Main concepts

In simple words, the main aim of positive psychology is how to promote and enhance peace and happiness through a good life, or better life, and help people achieve their goals and potential through controlled actions and better responses. As Maslow pointed out, human beings are not merely satisfied with the fulfillment of their basic physiological and love needs. They expect more from life and from themselves by exploring their self-worth and potential through self-actualization.

Positive psychology helps them achieve their higher goals and build a positive self-image so that they can experience fulfillment and purposefulness. It focuses upon empowering people to experience peace, happiness, well-being, and positive feelings rather than mental abnormalities and mental illness, which constitute the focus of psychoanalysis and abnormal psychology. With the help of positive psychology, people can focus upon the positive aspects of their lives and lead a happy, active, purposeful and fulfilling life.

Boris Cyrulnik, a French Psychologist (1937-) proposed that some people develop resilience in the face of problems and bounce back from the tragedies they face, while some are crushed by them and continue to suffer. He also suggested that resilient people find meaning in hardship and use humor and positive emotions to wade through difficulties. They are able to see positive outcomes even when the current situation is not in their favor. Resilient people are not less emotional, nor do they suppress their emotions. Instead, they accept the challenges they face as learning opportunities and use their strengths to move forward. Hence it is not useful to label children who have faced trauma as hopeless when they are going through difficulties or coping with their past injuries.

In his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman suggested how people learn to become optimistic or pessimistic as their grow up and how habitual optimism and pessimism positively or negatively affects their lives. Their mental attitudes depend upon the “explanatory style” or how they explain the negative events in their lives to themselves. Positive people tend to downplay their negative experiences, while negative people tend to exaggerate them through negative self-talk and experience helplessness. Seligman also suggested that since the explanatory style was a learned habit, people could overcome their negativity and become optimists by changing their thinking habits and self-talk, for which he suggested several techniques.

Positive psychologists have suggested a number of ways to foster individual happiness. The following are a few important approaches and focus areas, where positive psychology aims to make a difference.

  1. Changing the way people explain the negative situations and experiences to themselves and deal with their thinking habits and their  learned optimism or pessimism.
  2. Acknowledging that people can greatly improve their health and happiness by developing new ways of thinking to overcome their learned pessimism
  3. Establishing and nurturing relationships with family members, friends, colleagues and others, including members of social clubs and professional associations to which one belongs.
  4. Looking at problems as temporary, specific to the situation and externally caused rather than as permanent, general and internally caused.
  5. Knowing that both optimism and pessimism are mental habits or learned patterns of thinking, which can be changed through positive self-talk and countering associated beliefs and explanatory style.
  6. Knowing how pessimism and optimism impact our health and Wellbeing and our success and failure, and how with effort one can achieve healthier and happier life, using practices such as physical exercise, good eating habits, meditation, yoga, etc.
  7. Exploring ways and means to achieve success, improve knowledge, education and skills, and increase financial stability through increased professional competence and productivity, so that one can build a positive self-image and lead a life of fulfillment.

Positive psychology is not a substitute for traditional psychology. It does not ignore the human vulnerability to mental illness or behavioral problems. It aims to provide new avenues to human beings to improve their thinking and attitude and maximize their potential for happiness within the limitations to which human life is subject and without ignoring the reality or minimizing health issues.

Critical analysis

One of the chief criticisms aimed at positive psychology is that it ignores the harsh realities of life and creates in the minds of people illusions about themselves and their ability to resolve problems or achieve their goals. Such distortion of reality often renders them incapable of facing difficult situations or contingencies.

Negativity has its own importance in the survival of the specifies. It effectively prepares them to remain on guard and deal with the threats. Excessive emphasis on positive psychology lulls them into a false sense of security or wishful thinking and distracts them from real problems. Adversity and negative situations have their importance and relevance in building human character and potential.

Conflicts, hostility, failure, setbacks and disappointment open our eyes to the harsh realities of life and toughen us. Positive psychology ignores their value and contribution to human growth and potential and the growth of our civilization. You cannot teach a hungry person happiness unless his hunger is resolved first. So is the case with a person who is angry, hostile or chronically depressed. Such problems cannot be wished away with positive thinking.

It is true that positive psychology has its own limitations. It cannot resolve every human problem or help us with 100% certainty to achieve peace and happiness. Yet, its value and contribution cannot be brushed away. It fills an important area in our understanding of human behavior and complements our effort to find remedial and effective solutions to deal with the problems and predicaments people face in their lives by drawing their attention to those areas where they can empower themselves to lift up their spirits and rise from the morass in which they often find themselves.

Books on Positive Psychology

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Suggestions for Further Reading

References

1. Learned Optimism by Marin Seligman

2. Positive Psychology, Wikipedia

3. The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Anchor

4. Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson