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What is Positive Psychology?

by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski


Unlike traditional psychology that focuses on deficits, disease, and dysfunction, positive psychology highlights human strengths and potential, celebrating what is best in life. It emphasizes goals, well-being, satisfaction, happiness, interpersonal skills, perseverance, talent, wisdom, and personal responsibility. Positive psychology is concerned with understanding what makes life worth living, with helping people become more self-organizing and self-directed, and with recognizing that people and experiences are embedded in a social context.

Founded in 1998 by Martin Seligman, while president of the American Psychological Association, positive psychology is an empirically based science. Presently The FOX Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founding director of the Positive Psychology Center, Seligman conducted ground-breaking research on the pursuit and achievement of authentic happiness. While some people are born "healthy-minded," he revealed that others can be taught to improve happiness by changing how they focus on the world and by learning optimism.

Why Well-Being Matters

Well-being, broadly understood as frequent positive emotions, regular experiences of engagement, and a satisfying sense of meaning, matters far more than was once believed. People who experience high levels of well-being are more successful across a wide range of life domains such as work, love, and health. Seligman breaks down the complex concept of well-being into three scientific paths to happiness: the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life. He paved the way for positive psychology to address getting more of what we want in life to enhance well-being. In contrast, clinical psychology focuses on decreasing what we don’t want – mental disease. But, getting less of what we don’t want doesn’t guarantee results of giving us more of what we do desire – positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. Whereas traditional psychology may help people survive, positive psychology builds strengths to help people thrive.

Increasing Happiness

The good news is that we can all make changes in our lives to improve our happiness. Whereas many people believe that life and happiness is essentially what happens to them, or they don’t think about their lives much at all, positive psychology emphasizes that we have choices as to how we live and respond events. And, it is these choices that determine the quality of our lives and create the futures we desire. While we can’t control the genes that we have inherited or the life circumstances into which we were born, which together account for about 60% of our happiness, we do have some choice about the remaining 40% that is within our power to change. It’s here where we can choose to be happy – or miserable! By applying positive interventions – willful actions with the intention of providing positive outcomes (e.g. exercising, volunteering, etc.) – to our daily lives we can increase our well-being.

You may wonder how is positive psychology different from popular self-help techniques out there in the media? It actually works! Unlike so-called quick fixes, the latest fads, and an array of self-proclaimed cure-alls that falsely promise to increase happiness, positive psychology boasts scientifically backed interventions such as Three Blessings, The Gratitude Visit, and Using Your Signature Strengths, that enhance well-being.

The Three Blessings exercise entails each evening writing down three good things that happened that day and why you think they happened.

The Gratitude Visit involves thinking of someone to whom you are very grateful, but who you have never properly thanked, and composing a letter to the person describing your gratitude, and then reading the letter to that person by phone or in person.

For the Using Your Signature Strengths intervention you must first take the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) questionnaire, created by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, to assess your top 5 strengths, and then think of new and different ways to use those strengths more in your daily life.

In summary, positive psychology equips people with the necessary tools to take active control of their behaviors and direct the course of their lives. Through conscious, willful, and focused energy, we are all capable of improving our happiness. Rather than being victims of circumstances and our environment, we can change how we respond to an event. By learning to intentionally shift our focus, we are able to see the world in a more positive light. Happiness is not something that happens to us. Rather, it’s something we choose. The science behind positive psychology demonstrates there are no "secrets" or shortcuts to happiness. Only through sheer effort and practice can we create healthy habits that will lead us closer to living the good life.

To learning more about positive psychology please visit www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu. The University of Pennsylvania offers a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) and is the world’s first graduate program in the field. For info on admissions, please visit www.sas.upenn.edu/lps/graduate/mapp

Suzann Pileggi, www.suzannpileggi.com, is a NYC/Phila.-based wellness writer, counselor, consultant, and monthly columnist for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) newsletter, ippanetwork. org, Positive Psychology News Daily www. pos-psych.com, and Wisdom. A certified holistic health counselor, Suzann works with people on nourishing their bodies and souls by helping them make better food and lifestyle choices. Suzann holds a B.A.in Communications and a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.


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