This field focuses on how people can make themselves happier.
Most people seek therapy to get help with a problem. But what if the research and techniques in the field of psychology could be used to build upon existing strengths and personality traits to help people become happier and more engaged in their lives?
This is the primary question behind the work of researchers and psychologists in the field of positive psychology, which goes beyond positive thinking to a deeper understanding of what makes people happy.
“You can do things to make yourself happy,” says Debbie Swick, MBA, associate executive director of the International Positive Psychology Association and associate director of education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Positive Psychology: Areas of Focus
Positive psychology is focused on three basic areas of study and practice:
- Positive emotions, consisting of contentment with the past, current happiness, hope for the future.
- Positive traits, such as courage, resilience, curiosity, self-knowledge, integrity, compassion, and creativity.
- Positive institutions, such as community institutions, which can benefit from focusing on the tools developed in positive psychology research.
The research that has contributed to the field of positive psychology has been going on for decades, says Swick. Positive psychology, as a specialty, arose about a decade ago and is now applied in a variety of settings, from clinics to corporations.
Positive Psychology: How It Differs From Positive Thinking
Positive psychology can be easily confused with the idea of positive thinking. However, there are several important differences, including:
- Positive thinking emphasizes positivity in all situations, whereas positive psychology offers a variety of tools for success.
- Positive psychology draws from the knowledge of experts who have studieddepression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
- Positive psychology is evidence-based, meaning it is based on research.
Positive thinking could be loosely termed as optimism, which has been shown to be very helpful for people in a variety of situations. However, experts in positive psychology also believe that there are times when a realistic or even negative view of a situation could be more helpful.
“There is a ratio of positive to negative that is a healthy ratio — it’s three to one,” says Swick. “[But] there are times when it is just not appropriate to plaster a smile on your face.”
Positive Psychology: The Evidence on Happiness
Here are some research results that contribute to the field of positive psychology:
- Activities bring more happiness than possessions. A survey of 150 young adults showed that when asked to rate the happiness value of purchases they hoped would be pleasurable, experience-type purchases, such as trips or meals, outranked objects.
- Being wealthy does not make you more likely to be happy than other people, as long as everyone’s income is above the poverty level.
- Grateful people are more likely to be healthy, helpful, and have a greater sense of well-being.
- Seeing other people do good things makes us want to do good too.
- An optimistic outlook reduces the risk of physical and emotional healthproblems.
Positive Psychology: How to Nurture Happiness
Here are some exercises to help you nurture your own happiness:
- Practice gratitude
- Allow yourself to enjoy what you enjoy — whatever it is, savor it!
- Practice optimism — find the positive spin
- Argue with yourself about negative beliefs about the past
Swick recommends trying this exercise for a taste of positive psychology’s approach: at the end of the day, write down three good things that happened during the day and why they were good.
“Eventually you start to notice the positive things. It changes you,” she says.
People who are interested in learning more about positive psychology may want to read the books The How of Happiness (Penguin Press, 2007), Positivity (Crown, 2009), and Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2004).