Consider yourself a happy person with no need for therapy? Positive psychology offers even the most joyful people methods to gain greater happiness.
Let’s talk about happiness. Ask anybody what happiness is and they will give you a different answer. To one person, it may be marriage with two kids and a dog; to another it could be solitude on a beach with a good book.
But what can we expect when we ask the question, “How do you achieve happiness?” Though we’d also expect the answers to be subjective, it turns out it might not be the case. There is an actual science of happiness called positive psychology, which has quickly risen in prominence in recent decades.
It is a relatively new field of study, pioneered by American psychologist Martin Seligman, who was inspired to find out what makes people happy while he was studying the behaviour of dogs in the 1960s. He not only came up with a theory about what makes people happy but also employed scientific methods to test his hypothesis.
According to the International Positive Psychology Association, “positive psychology is the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive”. It is a branch of psychology that concentrates on the positive traits and strengths of a person or group, and finds out how these qualities help people to lead happy and fulfilling lives.
We talked to clinical psychologist at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Health Psychology Clinic, Farah Puterinegara Ahmad Bahrom, who explained that the science of positive psychology operates on three levels – the subjective level, the individual level and the group level.
The Subjective Level
Here, studies concentrate on examining pleasant experiences such as joy, satisfaction, happiness, and optimism. This level deals with what makes a person feel good within themselves.
The Individual Level
At this level, the study pinpoints factors that make any one individual “good”. It studies qualities such as wisdom, interpersonal skills, courage, perseverance, forgiveness and the capacity to love.
The Group Level
This level studies civic virtues, social responsibilities, tolerance, work ethics and other characteristics that add positive development to communities.
The main principles of positive psychology are easy enough to understand – they are directed towards improving a person’s quality of life by concentrating on what is going right in their lives.
However, concentrating on the positive aspects of a person’s life isn’t done at the exclusion of the negative. Positive psychology does not deny that bad things happen in life. Instead, while it acknowledges that things don’t always come up roses, it studies methods for being able to navigate through life with more confidence and ease, whatever comes our way.
“Positive psychology is based on the premise that despite all the difficulties of life, a majority of people manage to live with dignity and purpose. Therefore, this branch of psychology adopts a more optimistic perspective on human potential, motives, and capacities,” adds Farah.
It would be very easy to mistake positive thinking with positive psychology, but there is a key difference. While both focus on what is going well, positive thinking is what we would describe as “looking at the bright side” or optimism.
Positive psychology, however, is not just about looking for silver linings or being equipped to handle the bad stuff that comes up in life. It is about continuously and consciously working on the best parts of a person or group. It identifies character traits and aspects of life that make people flourish, and teaches us how to use them to thrive.
Making positive psychology popular
Mainstream psychology has focused on an individual’s problems and challenges and developed ways to overcome them. It about fixing areas of your life or yourself that aren’t going the way you want them to.
This newer branch of psychology looks to improve things that already seem to be fine, to make the bigger picture even better. Farah offers a simple example to illustrate the difference in approach: “If you were to say to your friend that you wanted to see a psychologist, the most likely response would be, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ instead of ‘Awesome! Are you planning on concentrating on self-improvement?’”
Through positive psychology, we learn not only how to be become happy, but how to stay happy. It can help prepare people to face challenges confidently and calmly; it empowers others to overcome bad patches they’re going through; and best of all, it makes happy people even happier. Now we don’t have to mull over why our lives don’t seem as blissful and content as others around us. Whatever our state of mind, we can learn and acquire tools through positive psychology to obtain our own bliss and keep it going whenever and wherever we need it.
Putting Positivity into Practice
Positive psychology can be learned and practised so that it becomes a part of our lives. Here are a few pointers to get you started:
- Savour the moment
- Share your experiences: Putting your experience into words and telling someone about it is a good way realise how much you value an experience.
- Be proud: Don’t shy away from feeling proud about doing something you’re genuinely pleased about. Giving yourself a pat on the back now and then is a good thing.
- Absorption: When listening to your favourite music, close your eyes and fully immerse yourself in the melodies and lyrics. Blocking one sense usually sharpens others, giving you a renewed, richer awareness of the experience.
- Avoid forming ‘happy routines’: Our brains are wired to react to fresh experiences. Constantly seeking pleasure from the same experience can lessen the satisfaction you get from it. So try new places to eat, learn a different skill or take up a new hobby.
- Engage with your environment
- Be mindful: There are a lot of activities we perform without full concentration. Being mindful of everything we do can remind us of the small joys we get from completing easy tasks.
- Identify and use your strengths: Think about your positive traits. Are you curious? A natural leader? Do you work well in a team? Pinpoint your capabilities, cultivate them and use them at work, with friends and family.
- Nurture relationships: Investing quality time with family and friends will give you deep satisfaction in life.
- Seek “flow” experiences: Being “in the zone”, where there is total joy and involvement in whatever you’re doing, is often referred to as “flow”. Activities that consistently “flow” include, sports, arts and hobbies.
- Create meaningful moments
- Be grateful: Keep a diary to list the things you are grateful for every day and to recall why you appreciate them.
- Thank someone you look up to: Call or write a letter to a mentor, thanking them for inspiring you.
- Forgive: Think of someone who has hurt you and consciously forgive them. Let go of negativity so you can focus on happier things.
- Offer small acts of kindness: Do something nice for someone every day. This gives you a sense of accomplishment and enhances your relationships.
- Take stock of your life: Take a step back to look at how you are progressing in various parts of your life. Make changes to align with your priorities and goals.
Black Dog Institute, http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/