What Everyone Should Know About Positive Psychology

Written by Paula Watkins, PhD

Happiness isn't merely the absence of suffering. Happiness is a big concept to define, and I won’t even attempt a thorough exploration here (there are entire — and really big — books on that topic for the interested reader), but thanks to developments in positive psychology in recent decades, we can determine some key factors that foster freakishly high levels of happiness, vitality and well-being. They include:

  • optimism
  • realization and cultivation of character strength
  • insight and self-awareness
  • purpose, passion and meaning
  • mindfulness of moments

Knowledge of these facts and virtues is one thing, but in many ways happiness means swimming upstream against some pretty ingrained biological and cultural patterns that take us in the opposite direction.

Optimism is great, but the human brain has a negativity bias. Thankfully, optimism can be learned, because brains can be (re) trained.

Cultivating personal strengths is awesome, but modern culture tends to celebrate (and push us all toward) a concentrated few that fit with current concepts of efficiency, productivity and practicality. Thankfully, we can make bold moves to better bring our strengths within our current contexts or mindfully move into new spaces where our innate offerings are valued, enhanced and activated.

We humans are meaning-makers. We're happiest when we have a sense of purpose and passion in relation to how we spend the moments of our lives, yet many of us experience a sense of emptiness and diffuse dissatisfaction with how we spend our days.

The problem here is twofold. First, many of us haven’t established clarity around what it is we truly value. Second, we often live and act in ways that are incongruous with our deepest values and visions for ourselves and others. Too many of us linger in relationships and work environments that are incongruous with our individual ideology because we don’t know what that ideology is, and we're not sure how to go about making change.

But we don't need to fret! Psychology has dedicated decades to understanding how we can cultivate self-awareness, insight and, yes, behavior change.

Life is comprised of moments, and these moments are the only possible source for the materialization of our happiness. If we’re mindful, we can enjoy them. If we’re on autopilot, they often pass us by. The obvious issue here is our society's epidemic-like obsession with distraction, newness and constant stimulation.

I teach people basic neuropsychology because this knowledge is power — we need it to activate the necessary motivation and develop the ability to make conscious choices about what we give our attention and energy to. Mindfulness is a skill. Meditation is mind training. We can learn simple strategies to cultivate the mind, mindfulness and moment-to-moment awareness. We can, in short, train our minds to shape our brains and shift our life experience in the direction of happiness. That brings us to positive therapy.

Positive therapy isn’t about blaming, berating or beating up on our parents or society. It isn’t necessarily about addressing some super-serious crisis. Positive therapy isn’t even really about moving from unhappiness to happiness. It’s about shifting from today’s accepted standard of “doing OK” into the fullness of our human potential and flourishing. Does this sound a little selfish and grandiose? It isn't.

Positive therapy isn’t a self-indulgent first-world pastime. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve come to believe that positive therapy is about human potential, not just “individual” potential. No one truly wins when anyone is losing. Peace within promotes peace without. We do ourselves, our families, our workplaces and our communities a disservice when we don’t bring our best (and I mean our very best).

Happy people breed happiness. I’ve never seen a truly happy person intentionally harm themselves or others. They just don’t do it, because the interconnected nature of happiness seems to resonate in their happy bones. Positive therapy promotes happiness and I have to say it’s an utter privilege and joy to help people create shifts in that direction.

So … if you feel an inner fire burning, if you’re aware that you’ve got more to give, and if you’re ready for positive change, then I encourage you not to hold back any longer. Bring your light, know yourself and be the change you wish to see.

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