Positive Psychology 101
Me: I'm going to grad school!
Other person: Oh, cool! To get an MBA, of course!
Me: Nope! A Master in Positive Psychology.
Other person [bemused]: Oh... interesting! Is that different from Negative Psychology?
What is positive psychology?
I fundamentally believe that each of us is aimed at, or at the very least attempting to locate, the same target: call it by any name you choose, but we all are seeking some incremental progress towards a richer, more fulfilling, more meaningful, more joyful, more peaceful way of living. None of us truly wants to suffer. The man hogging the armrest on the airplane, a stranger you pass on the street, your colleague who speaks too loudly on the phone, your beloved child – each of them want to be happier, fulfilled, whole. But how can one be happy? And when? And why? And where? And with who?
These are the big questions in life. For most of history, the answers to these questions – and the right to even inquire – were considered to be the province of religion, culture, and philosophy. There have been so many perspectives and contexts that have approached this fundamentally human question, from the broad dictates of religion or culture to the individual perspectives that each of us shapes over a lifetime. Happiness is a highly valued outcome in nearly every culture, but it is practically impossible to wrap our arms around its scope, complexity, individualization, cultural nuances, and not least of all, personal manifestation.
About two decades ago, scientists turned their attention to these big questions through the development of the field of positive psychology, which has been defined as “the study of positive subjective experience, traits and institutions” and as “the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions”. By taking a new scientific lens upon this question, researchers have concerned themselves with better understanding human flourishing, using their expertise on measurement and process, as well as their unremitting commitment to investigation through rigorous testing.
While people are often being clever with their questions about negative psychology, there is some basis of truth. The founding father of psychology, William James, was very concerned with questions related to well-being, arguing that the greatest thing that we can do in life is to make our habits our allies instead of our enemies, which enables our flourishing. However, much of psychology’s history since his time has been focused not on flourishing, but on suffering. It has been hypothesized that there are three core reasons for this focus. First is one of compassion, for those who are suffering need more help more urgently. The second is historical, as following World War II, funding agencies were funneling the majority of their resources towards research that looked to address mental illness, with a special focus on returning veterans. The third is that we seem to have a natural tendency to focus upon the negative. For example, one review of abstracts from 1887 to the present found that references to negative emotions outnumbered positive emotions by 14 to 1!
When Martin Seligman was elected as the President of the American Psychological Association in 1999, he began to publicize what he had noticed: that psychology was neglecting one side of the coin. In a call to action in a special edition of American Psychologist, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi asked their fellow psychologists to also study those things that made life worth living, hopefully creating a more whole and complete picture of the experience – both good and bad – of life. Importantly, positive psychology does not neglect to acknowledge that negative emotions and experiences do occur; it simply asks that we also bring our attention to those things that are positive, designing research that uncovers insights that matter for the vast majority of the population who does not suffer from psychological disorders.
In a short time, we have learned a great deal of interesting new information about concepts such as gratitude, hope, awe, societal well-being, mindfulness, and positive relationships. Research from this field has been successfully applied in many settings, from schools to businesses to government. An even more exciting evolution is only just unfolding, as positive psychology seeks to partner with other disciplines within academia, such as the humanities, leveraging what is known within both fields and exploring how the two can elevate one another. Fascinating studies have begun to investigate topics such as the relationship between engaging with literature and well-being.
In explicating the scientific findings of positive psychology, it is important to emphasize the word scientific. Positive psychology is a science, based on the empirical findings that arise through research. It leverages the scientific method, one of the greatest discoveries that humanity has made: asking a question, completing ethical and methodological research, drawing logical conclusions, ideally undergoing a peer review from other leading researchers, and only then communicating results. It is not self-help, nor is it a Pollyanna-ish approach to life that attempts to gloss over struggles: researchers are concerned with uncovering information and then describing that information to the public, rather than prescribing that one person be one way or another. However, every researcher I have ever met has a strong desire to use this knowledge to help real people, like you and me, to experience greater well-being.
My Journey to Positive Psychology
It changed my life. It showed me how to be happier, experience more well-being and understand what brings me alive. I used it as a manual, a guide to address the holes in my life. It was the book that helped to point me in the direction that I wanted to move towards. It helped me to articulate what mattered most to me and also to identify what my reason for living was; I remember reading it and knowing in my very soul that I wanted to be able to help people to use this information, even before I had applied it in my own life.
And once applied in my life, everything changed. I have cultivated within myself and within my life the experience of authentic well-being: a positive state of being that has the space for pain, sadness and frustration, that accommodates heartbreak and confusion. I have never felt like I was off path. I have never felt like I was lonely, even when I was alone. I have, indeed, flourished. This experience convinced me that positive psychology works, that it matters and that everyone deserves to benefit from it. It also led me to the University of Pennsylvania, where I pursued a Master Degree in Applied Positive Psychology under Dr. Seligman himself.
The Study of Positive Psychology
During my Master Program, I found my calling, the work that is personally meaningful to me, beneficial to others, and a part of my very identity. The study and application of this knowledge is what I will happily spend the rest of my life pursuing.
I also had the chance to learn about so many wonderful topics, information that needs to be shared with people so that they can apply it in their own lives. Topics like motivation, performance, character, well-being, mindfulness, vitality and energy, creativity, positive institutions and societies, coaching, resilience... the list goes on.
My hope is that I can use this website to share these findings with you. Every recommendation that I make will be backed by research. I will share the most relevant and simple ways that you can translate it to you life. And I will also acknowledge the ways in which I have applied it for my own.
I offer no magic potion that will alleviate your suffering or transport you to your dream state with a painless swallow. However, what I hope to offer is a path forward to help you investigate what it means to live a flourishing life, sharing what I have learned in both my personal experience and academic research. I hope to present a compelling new alternative to traditional conceptions of happiness to you, in case the one that you are currently living is no longer serving you. Most importantly, I promise an expedition, the greatest adventure, for you, if you are willing to venture forward, walking courageously forward into the pursuit of living.