Traditionally, Psychology was meant to achieve three things; 1. cure mental illness, 2. improve ‘normal’ lives and 3. identify and nurture high talent. Unfortunately, following World War 2, the focus of Psychology has been on the first, and fixing lives that needed help. This is obviously critically important for those suffering mental illness, yet the approach fails to look at the complete picture of mental health.
As a result, there had been little research into what makes life worth living and what makes individuals, communities and organisations thrive. That is, until Positive Psychology came in.
Positive Psychology aims to find ways to make life better for people, and ensure they’re the most mentally healthy person they can be. The way I talk about Positive Psychology to those who ask, is to describe it as getting someone somewhere between zero and plus ten. Whereas, I see traditional Psychology as focused on getting people from negative ten to zero. It does not fall under the self-help or “pop psychology” categories but is a field backed by research, theories and evidence that aim to improve wellbeing.
Positive Psychology was founded by Martin Seligman around 20 years ago, yet the interest in this space has really ramped up over the last ten. Seligman is determined to move Psychology away from the traditional focus and look at the positive in life rather than the negative. Seligman states that Positive Psychology is the “scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive” (Seligman and Csizksentmihalyi, 2000).
Positive Psychology however, is not a new concept. But rather, it can be traced back to the days of Aristotle, and has links with Buddhism and Hinduism including the practise of mindfulness, yoga and meditation.
Of course, it does not aim for us to be happy all the time. We know this is impossible given the ups and downs we all face. But the field wants us to be able to deal with the roller-coaster of life by drawing on our inner resources such as resilience, mindset, gratitude and positive emotions.
In other posts, I will discuss tested Positive Psychology Interventions (PPIs) that increase wellbeing such as random acts of kindness, strengths finders, letters of gratitude and the list goes on. Unfortunately you can’t achieve happiness and wellbeing from just thinking good thoughts… What I have noticed lately is that PPIs are being brought into workplaces and schools (Australia is currently the leader in positive education!) to help people feel good and be more productive, which has resulted in some incredible outcomes.
For more detail on Positive Psychology, I recommend Ilona Rabley’s book “Positive Psychology in a Nutshell”, which will give you a good overview. I will also reference a number of authors, blogs and links in my posts too.
I am excited by this field as I have seen how it can improve the lives of people including me. Personally, I have been challenged to focus on the positive in life rather than the negative, which often comes more naturally. I am using Positive Psychology to work out how to obtain the good life, how people can flourish and reach their highest potential and not just accept ‘normal’. Because I tried ‘normal’ and it wasn’t for me.