I’ve spent the last several months pouring over research, trialing out various activities and “interventions,” and writing dozens of journal entries, papers and reflections in a graduate course called “The Science and Application of Positive Psychology” offered through Harvard.
Still in the midst of a quarter-life crisis and career change, I signed up for the class because I knew I wanted to pursue a path somewhere in this large and mushy arena they called “positive psychology.” I was also so energized by my yoga teacher training and recent explorations in self care, mindfulness and meditation, that I developed an insatiable desire to learn and understand all the science and theory that was out there behind it.
While I failed to provide ongoing updates throughout the course of the semester as I had originally promised, I thought that the summer would be a perfect time to review the material and share thoughts and resources for others to leverage. After all, the desire to be happy, fulfilled and live a meaningful life is pretty widely applicable to most people who will come across this blog.
A Quick Review: Positive Psychology
“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children…their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither wit nor courage; neither our wisdom nor our teaching; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
- Robert F. Kennedy
Historically, for very understandable reasons I won’t go into around what research got funded after WWII, the academic field of psychology predominantly focused on understanding and treating mental illness and psychiatric disorders. There are many exceptions - especially in the humanistic discipline - but by and large it was felt that psychology was primarily focusing on “how to bring people up from negative eight to zero but not so good at understanding how people rise from zero to positive eight” (“What (And Why) Is Positive Psychology?”).
Now, the first critique you might make is that a more “positive” approach only addresses the privileged, which I wholly admit is a challenge that should not be ignored. But I also argue that the tools and techniques studied in positive psychology still apply to all, as it broadens the focus from mental illness to the much larger arena of mental health. You may have experienced grief, loss, anxiety, trauma, or even have been diagnosed with a mental “disorder” at some point yourself. But I can guarantee that you’ve also experienced love, joy, meaning and some sort of success at some point in your life. Psychology and the human experience encompasses a wide spectrum. None of it operates in complete isolation.
Below I provide several of the concepts and frameworks that offer just a brief and simple introduction to looking at life through the lens of positive psychology research to-date. I hope that wherever you currently find yourself, you find something relevant and of use.
Much of Your Happiness is a Within Your Control
“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.” - Oprah
Several of you may be familiar with the statistic to the right, but it’s worth re-emphasizing that life circumstances account for an almost negligible part of happiness, and almost half of our happiness lies within our own control - whether it’s our thoughts, mindset or the intentional actions we pursue.
It doesn’t mean that the “power of positive thinking” is the magic bullet, but our experience of life (and arguably reality) is largely shaped by our perceptions and the plethora of choices we make on a daily basis. On the flip side, we largely become habituated to circumstances. Just think of the last time you thought that that raise or new relationship would be the final key to your happiness, only to come back to baseline a few months later.
It may sound trite, but the things that make us happy are truly often the simplest. Being mindful and savoring moments or little pleasures. Reframing negative situations into positive ones. Practicing gratitude. Spending time with friends and family. I will share many of the evidence-based practices for increasing happiness and well-being we explored in future posts, but just see what happens when you try out a few of the ones you’ve heard your whole life. You might find yourself surprised.
What could you do that is within your control in this very moment to be happier?
Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model of Well-Being
“The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness, joy, rapture, comfort, and ecstasy, rather than be entitled to these feelings by the exercise of personal strengths and virtues, leads to legions of people who, in the middle of great wealth, are starving spiritually.” - Martin Seligman
Still, the field of positive psychology strongly suggests that “happiness” is neither the single nor necessarily even the most important indicator of well-being. We all experience loss, disappointment, and those peskily random bad days. Albeit hard, grief, mourning and a good cry can be a healthy, natural and absolutely beautiful part of the human experience. Would we sacrifice this entirely to be “happy” 100% of the time?
Martin Seligman, the contemporary “father of positive psychology,” developed a framework for human flourishing that expands the components of well-being into several additional dimensions, as follows:
Positive Emotion: Exactly what it sounds like. The experience of positive emotions such as happiness, joy, interest, excitement, gratitude, content.
Engagement: Interest and deep states of involvement, such as in a hobby, or at work. This can occur when strengths and values align with the projects we commit ourselves to. Oftentimes when we are fully engaged, we lose track of time and experience a state of “flow.”
Relationships: Positive and supportive friendships, romantic relationships, family bonds, and the like. Having people to lean on in times of need and even enhance life’s experiences.
Meaning: A sense of purpose, fulfillment, or commitment to a shared value or belief. An understanding and making meaning of the world and life’s circumstances.
Accomplishment: A sense of mastery or contribution. Continuous growth and achievement.
What I love most about this model is that Seligman doesn’t suggest it is a one-size fits all approach. He recognizes that different people will place different value and importance on different areas within their own lives. The idea is to recognize that well-being and a positive human experience spans across multiple domains of life, and to optimize to what’s important to you.
Take a minute to reflect on each domain. What areas do you value most? How are you doing in each?
What Type of Life to Pursue?
“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” - Viktor Frankl
Another age-old question: What type of life do you want to live? One that makes a difference? Or one that provides the most for you and your family? One of freedom and adventure? Or stability and financial security?
Well, Seligman also studied 3 different different approaches life, each focused on a different element of well-being. The answer? It’s a balance (hot tip: balance is always the answer).
Let’s look at the different lifestyles he outlined:
The Pleasant Life: This approach to life is mostly focused on optimizing for positive emotion. It seeks experiences that will keep you feeling good - from more hedonistic drives for pleasure and novel experiences, to more subtle routes such as savoring and practicing mindfulness.
The Good Life: This is a highly engaged life. One in which a person finds his or her strengths and actively uses them to enhance life in the realms of family, love, work, and more. It is cognitively and emotionally stimulating.
The Meaningful Life: This life strives for deep sense of fulfillment, employing personal strengths such as in the “good life,” but for a purpose greater than oneself (religion, politics, etc.)
In his research, Seligman found that life satisfaction was related to combination of all three approaches. However, a Meaningful life was the strongest predictor, followed by the Good (engaged) life. The Pleasant (pleasurable) life had little to no measurable contribution to life satisfaction, but served as a cherry on top when experienced alongside the other two.
Once again, there is no right or wrong answer here, as I would argue that even Seligman’s results still only reflect averages. I myself have subscribed to each of the three different camps at different points in my life, and everyone will have a different experience and a unique perspective on what makes his or her life worth living.
Ask yourself: What type of life are you living right now? What life do you want to be living? How can you optimize toward it? How can you balance all 3?
More to Come…
As you can see, there are so many ways to describe, define, and outline one’s quality, satisfaction or “flourishing” in life, and that doesn’t even begin to take into account what you might personally add to the blueprint based on your own experience. This is only the surface of layers and layers or more tools and research I hope to be able to dive into in future posts, alongside further thoughts and ideas around areas in which science is still limited.
As for me post-class? I am currently in the process of applying to go back to school for a Masters in Clinical Psychology. I admit that when I started the course, my primary agenda was to find a career that only stuck to the “positive stuff.” However, after this last semester, it could not be farther from the truth. If there’s anything this course has shown me, it’s how connected these concepts are to other psychological study and psychotherapeutic practices. I want to help people across the spectrum holistically, while still continuing to dive deeper into the growing approaches from the positive movement.
Today there are many new therapies designed specifically around the issues positive psychology aims to tackle, including:
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
Quality of Life Therapy
Clinical Approaches to Post-Traumatic Growth
And there are even practitioners who straddle the worlds of both therapy and coaching. In addition to continued interests in fulfillment, consciousness and spirituality, I also plan to continue to teach and further train in more modalities of yoga, mindfulness and meditation, and find connections among all these interrelated spheres. With so much ahead, it finally feels like I have made a return to “flourishing” in my own little world.
I hope you’ll continue to join me along the journey.