What is Positive Psychology, And Why Am I Studying It?

positive psychology coaching

Burnout. Anxiety. Quarter life crises. These aren’t just the challenges I’ve faced over the past few years, but they’ve also been the problems that have slowly begun to define our generation (recommended reading: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation). Many of us have worked tirelessly toward dream jobs only to wrap our entire identities up in our work, internalized productivity so much that compromising even our self care routine is guilt-inducing, and watched countless others “successfully” juggle side hustles, passion projects, exotic trips, and daily salt baths across social media.

But I also believe that it is exactly these qualities that illustrate the power of our generation. We seek soul-filling careers. Political and social activism. Love. Purpose. Spirituality. Something more. The problem is, we don’t really know what it is.

The Dalai Lama was once asked about the meaning of life. His reply was simple, “the meaning of life is happiness.” But he went on to say that that was the easy question. The hard question was, “what makes people happy?”

And so thus has been my own journey over the past few years. I realized that when it came to measuring my life, my definition of success wasn’t my next promotion, recognition by my peers, or the meals, cities or vacations I worked so hard to afford. Even after starting National Fitness Day to make an impact and inspire people across the country (we’re in our third year, check it out!), hustling nights and weekends to do something more meaningful still left me feeling completely out of gas.

As I continued to experiment - quitting my job, backpacking across Southeast Asia, diving into a yoga certification - I picked up more and more perspectives around what made me happy, what the point of it all really was at the end of the day. And so in the same way that I wanted to share what fitness had done for me - creating an upward spiral of empowerment, health, and growth - I wanted to find more answers and more ways to share what else I’ve learned since. So I dove into the emerging world of positive psychology.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing. When Martin Seligman became President of the American Psychological Association in 1998, one of his major objectives was balancing out the attention and resources that had been dedicated to studying mostly what was wrong with people, and promoting further research around what was right. What makes people happy? What exercises and interventions make them happier? What creates meaning? How do we define well-being, or a life well-lived? It’s a little bit like studying the meaning of life, with some actual scientific support.

Now, of course science has it’s limitations, and there are many, many individual, cultural, and ideological differences and influences when it comes to even discussing these topics in the first place. But what drew me to the field was still the evidence-backed theories based on real research, as compared to many of the self-improvement books, coaches, and wellness tactics out in the market. Over the last few decades, scientists have actually studied the impact gratitude has on well-being, fitness has on mental health, and some of the pop psychology trends and self-help techniques that actually don’t hold up. All of this and more I’m currently immersing myself in through Harvard’s popular class, “The Science and Application of Positive Psychology,” with Dr. Stephanie Peabody and Dr. Linda Addante.

With that, I want to be clear in addressing that the growing field of positive psychology does not want nor intend to diminish the incredible importance of studying mental illness, or treating hardships such as loss, divorce, grief, and depression, and it does not by default define any of these focuses as “negative.” As I continue to explore my own career transition, I myself have gone back and forth on the idea of going into the field to help people in more serious need. But I also believe that so many of today’s problems still stem from everyday people and everyday issues that can be prevented. If we could give everyone in the world - the CEO’s, the politicians, the bosses, the decision-makers, the teachers, the moms, the dads, and even high school and middle school kids just trying to figure it out - just a little more perspective, I do believe the world would be a better place. It’s all connected.

I already can’t wait to share more of the actual insights and ideas I have taken away from both my class and my experiments over the past few years. If you’re interested in hearing more, make sure you sign up for my newsletter to get new posts and pass along to a friend!