Mostly, if you think about going to a psychologist, it’s about dealing with problems. Perhaps marriage problems or emotional problems, neurotic thinking or behaviour, anxiety and depression. This is really how traditional psychology developed historically. As a means of helping people deal with problems.
But what about happiness – a scientific study of happiness instead of all this focus on misery? This is what Positive Psychology is all about. It was started and made popular by American psychologist, educator and author Professor Martin Seligman. Here is how it’s described on the official positive psychology website.
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.
A practical approach
Below is a summary of the 5 components of happiness that Seligman discusses in his 2012 book Flourish together with some excellent practical exercises from Mindtools. Make sure you work on all 5 to maximize the effect on your level of happiness in your life.
1) Positive emotion
In order to be happy and experience a feeling of well-being we all need positive emotions in our life. Psychologist Doctor Barbara Frederickson has found that the following positive emotions have the greatest beneficial effect in peoples lives.
Joy, Gratitude, Serenity, Interest, Hope, Pride, Amusement, Inspiration, Awe and Love
Focusing on these and other positive emotions helps you realize what you may be missing in your life and take appropriate steps. Here are two excellent practices recommended by Seligman.
- Smile – When you smile some amazing things happen. Not only do you instantly become more attractive and likable but changes actually occur in the brain. According to Psychology Today smiling releases the feel good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin as well as endorphin which is a natural pain killer produced in the brain. Serotonin relaxes your body and can even lower your blood pressure and heart rate. Serotonin is also an anti depressant and mood lifter. So when you have almost nothing to smile about smile anyway and enjoy the benefits without needing to take anti depressants or drugs.
- What went well – Every night for the next 7 days write down three things that went well. Remarkably studies have proven that just by doing this even 6 months later you will have statistically significant lower incidents of depression and anxiety as well as higher life satisfaction.
Another term for this is “Flow” and it has been studied by Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t even try pronounce it – you’re sure to damage your tongue!)
These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you “forget yourself” and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as “being in the zone”).
Seligman has found that people experience flow when they use their best strengths to accomplish something that they find to be worthwhile. Examples of this are sportsmen and musicians or any other highly skilled performers. But anyone can experience this – what you need to do is discover what your signature strengths are then discover creative ways of using these strengths in your everyday life.
You can discover what your signature strengths are by completing the questionnaire here
Seligman gives a good example – one of his students works packing bags at a shop to earn money while she studies. Although she hates this one of her signature strengths is Social Intelligence. So she tries to make each encounter with a customer the highlight of the customer’s day. Although she may not always succeed just by trying she becomes engaged in her job and enjoys it much more.
Humans are social beings and experience many positive emotions when they have good relationships with people in their life. Marriage is an area that can be a powerful source of positivity when it is going well as well as a source of much stress and sadness when it’s not. Seligman jokes that the role of the marriage guidance practitioner is to change the insufferable into the almost bearable. There is however an easy exercise that you can do to improve all the relationships in your life. Engage in Active Constructive communication.
Breaking the habit of making passive or destructive responses can be difficult. To begin, try to make only active and constructive responses for one full day. Over time, it will become natural to respond actively and constructively to others’ good news. Remember to make eye contact, smile, and use affirmative nonverbal communication. By making these positive responses, you will make others feel good and will feel genuinely excited about their successes.
Apart from being social creatures humans are always engaged in the act of finding and making meaning and although some selfish pursuits might appear to be meaningful, people find engaging in a cause or purpose that is greater than themselves to be the most rewarding. Seligman describes the pursuit of meaning as using your signature strengths in the service of something much larger than you. Studies have in fact shown that people who volunteer to do social, educational or charitable work have a longer life expectancy than people who don’t – so there you have it – doing good is good for your health.
The final element to a happy and meaningful life is accomplishment. It’s important to realize that what is important here is your own sense of accomplishment and not any external signs such as awards, praise or money. Studies conducted by Seligman and his team have compared the influences of intelligence vs. self discipline and grit in leading to self reported successes in life. They found that self discipline and grit were twice as important as intelligence in determining a successful life.
So choose to do what will make you proud of yourself and pursue it with dignity and courage – and look forward to the great feeling when you can sit back and feel pleasure over a job well done.
I hope that the above practical exercises lead to an increase in the amount of well being and happiness that you experience in your life!