Positive Psychology fuels a lot of our thinking, what inspires and motivates us here at Bright. So what is it exactly?
From studying sickness to studying happiness
For the longest time, psychology focused on “what is wrong” with people and find ways to fix that. Positive Psychology turns that on its head, and studies the opposite: what makes life worth living. By looking at what makes happy people happy, we can learn about how to apply it to ourselves.
A key concept in positive psychology is eudaemonia, the Aristotelian concept of “the good life.” It reflects what Aristoteles, way back in the day, posed we should aim for: a well-lived and fulfilling life. So how did this new field come about?
Positive Psychology: the early days
The term Positive Psychology actually dates back to 1954 when Maslow’s (from the famous Hierarchy of Needs) first edition of Motivation and Personality was published. A final chapter of the book was called “Toward a Positive Psychology.”
But it almost took another 40 before the idea really came to life. This happened when Martin Seligman was asked to chair the American Psychological Association in 1998. At this point, the psychologist and professor chose Positive Psychology as the theme for his presidency. It was Seligman’s strong belief that focusing on “what’s right” would be way more powerful than focusing on “what’s wrong” with people.
He noted that with this new way of looking at psychology we would now scientifically study the strengths of individuals and communities that thrive. It’s also built on the belief that at the end of the day, everyone wants to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. And, that every person wants to cultivate what is best within themselves, to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.
Principles of Positive Psychology
In his 2011 book Flourish, Seligman expanded on some of his earlier thinking and posed that authentic happiness consists of 5 elements. Those elements are Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments, or in short: PERMA.
When we usually think about positivity, we think about emotions like happiness and joy. In Positive Psychology positive emotions like excitement, satisfaction, pride, and awe are studied as well. These emotions are often connected to positive outcomes such as a longer life and healthier social relationships.
Interested in living more positive?
Check out the Bright “Positivity 101: The Everyday Happiness Training.” In just 3 hours, we go over some of the theory behind positive emotions and how to create better habits in your everyday life.
If you’ve ever procrastinated, of felt stuck in a job you didn’t enjoy – you may have lacked engagement. The concept of engagement refers to the optimum level of involvement in what you do. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another psychologist and co-founder of the movement, explains true engagement as flow. In his influential piece “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” he describes it as “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.”
A key to a fulfilling everyday life is therefore to find activities, that are or are part of your day-to-day work and life, that will bring you in this state of flow. For a writer, it may be sitting at a desk with nothing to distract them than a blank piece of paper and an idea waiting to be narrated. If you’re thrilled with the idea of helping people it may be engaging in charity work. Whatever brings you flow, will bring you happiness.
In our 2019 Vietnam Happiness Study, we learned that for young Vietnamese, one of the most important things that lead to happiness is good relationships with parents, family, friends and romantic partners.
The Positive Psychology research echoes that. Relationships are key to your overall feelings of well-being. That’s why the R in PERMA is for Relationships. Relationships can be hard work; but they also can deliver us lots of joy and fulfillment.
We life a much more fulfilled life, when we have a purpose. Meaning are the values that are attached to that purpose, and answers the question “why”. Why am I here? Why would I be excited about life? Discovering and figuring out your “why” helps place things in your life into context. From work to relationships to other parts of life.
We also know that meaning is often about finding something that’s great than yourself. We feel like we live a more meaningful life, when we are part of something bigger. This could be religion, family or work and creative goals. Even when we face challenges, working with meaning drives people to continue striving for a desirable goal.
In our Purpose: Design Your Meaningful Life training, we did deeper into meaning. What it is for you, and how to find it in your everyday life. When we speak to our workshop attendees, it’s clear that meaning is different for everyone. But all agree that once you find yours, it truly enriches your life.
Accomplishments are the pursuit of success and mastery. Unlike the other parts of PERMA, they are sometimes pursued even when accomplishments do not result in positive emotions, meaning, or relationships.
That being noted, accomplishments can activate the other elements of PERMA, such as pride, under positive emotion. Accomplishments can be individual or community-based, fun- or work-based.
In our Life Coaching trajectories, we will work together on setting the right goals for you so that you always have a sense of accomplishment in life.
What’s next for positive psychology?
Since the field is still relatively new, there’s lot to learn about how the principles of it work. There are various researchers actively studying this every single day, and organizations like the International Positive Psychology Organization publish content and organize conferences to keep the conversation going.
If you, like us, are interested in studying Positive Psychology, we can highly recommend the Foundations of Positive Psychology Specialization on Coursera. If you want to go all out, consider the full Master of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.