For many years mental health support has focused on looking at problems and seeing if anything can be done about them—in other words, “fixing.” As a result, so much focus seems to have been on what’s wrong rather than what’s right with people.
Somehow people have become victims of their genes, environment and circumstances; the best they can hope for is to learn how to tread water. Offering more than this with a new way to think about psychological care is positive psychology.
This approach teaches people how to swim and to swim well. People do not just have to ‘float’. Positive psychology recognizes and supports people while knowing they are capable of real growth and change.
Positive psychology is not a self-help movement or a re-packaging of “the power of positive thinking.” Nor is it the North American-style “happy-ology,” or a passing fad.
Positive psychology is an actual scientific field of study that has brought about psychological theory, research and techniques to understand the more positive and emotionally fulfilling aspects of human behaviour. Positive psychology focuses on the factors that make life worth living and more fulfilling, rather than simply looking at the problems.
It has also been defined as the study of strengths and virtues that enable people, communities and organizations to thrive.
In 1998 Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, suggested that psychology turn toward understanding and building human strengths to complement the traditional emphasis on mental illness. He thought that psychology had neglected the positive side of life, having spent much of the last half century primarily concerned with mental illness rather than mental well-being.
As a result, psychologists and psychiatrists can now measure with considerable precision, and effectively treat, a number of major mental illnesses. However, this came at a cost. Relieving life’s miseries meant quality of life was less of a priority.
In the years since, researchers in the field of positive psychology have used empirical methods to study the factors that have people create their own happiness and flourishing as a result. Even more exciting, these researchers have translated their findings into concrete strategies that anyone can use to improve overall well-being—no winning lottery ticket, tropical vacation, fantasy romance, high powered job or even therapy (what??) required.
Seligman, in his most recent book Flourish (2011), argues that the concept of well-being is made up of five measurable elements: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment. In this way, well-being is a combination of both feeling good and doing good. Seligman contends that when people maximize all five elements they thrive emotionally, mentally and physically.
The evidence supporting just how beneficial optimism and happiness actually are continues. Studies show people who are optimistic are less vulnerable to anxiety, depression, PTSD and other forms of mental unwellness. Others demonstrate that happy people are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, cold, flus, and other illnesses.
Those with high levels of life satisfaction cope better with stress and tend to sleep more fully. Positive people live longer. Other benefits of happiness include higher incomes, superior work outcomes and greater social rewards.
Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007) demonstrated that happy people are more creative, helpful, charitable and self-confident and have better self control.
Positive psychology also has shown that life satisfaction is not elusive, genetic or largely dependent upon external events.
Certain simple, intentional activities can be learned and lead to substantial positive changes in one’s life. Moreover, when people start to bring positivity into their lives it tends to become a self-perpetuating cycle. Well-being is within reach.
Sometimes no matter what you do, making a change remains difficult. Speaking with a doctorl or a therapist/counsellor may be helpful.
Pamela Ana MA & CCC, owns Wellness Matters Counselling and Psychotherapy. Call 778-419-3300.