What is Positive Psychology?

It’s often the first question I get asked when I talk about the topic. Actually in truth it’s the first question I often ask people who want to know. Mostly people guess it’s something to do with positive thinking. Some, who have read better on the topic, tell me it’s about wellbeing and focusing on strengths. I care less about right answers and am more interested in people’s perceptions so I know how to adapt what I’m about to talk about.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing, resilience and thriving. That is, it is a field of psychology which is focused on helping us better understand what can help us live a life where we feel more positive in general, how we can adopt practices that increase our ability to deal with challenging times, and how we can carry out regular activities that help us feel vibrant.

When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association several years ago, he brought insight and his own research into positive psychology to the forefront of discussion. He argued that in essence, all psychological fields are positive in their nature. All interventions and therapies are designed to improve the wellbeing and resilience of people. But not all were designed to aid thriving, and in many replicated studies, we find there are people who face and have faced the starkest of moments and yet not only do they survive, but they thrive. Seligman argued that this is an area we don’t understand well enough and that we should focus energy and resource into understanding this better so that we can share those learnings more widely and increase the capability of society and communities to be more resilient and to enable and cultivate thriving where possible.

There have been many other well respected and noted scholars who have made their contributions to the topic – Tal Ben Shahar, Barbara Ehrenreich, Barbara Fredrickson and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly to name a few. And with ongoing research and exploration of this field we are understanding more and more about what positive psychology can enable, and what it can’t.

Positive psychology is not about positive thinking. Positive thinking can be helpful to help people move passed events and can encourage day to day positive living by not focusing on the negative. However, significant life events and distressing events cannot be overcome by positive thinking alone. If you lose a book, or graze your knee from a fall, or have been asked to write a report at work, positive thinking can be fine. If, however, you are burgled, or you break your leg or you have been made redundant, positive thinking alone cannot make those things better.

Positive psychology doesn’t discount or dismiss reality. In fact it fundamentally deals with reality by supporting individuals to deal with their reality and where possible/relevant resolve issues. Only by doing this are we better able to understand the areas where we can focus on building strength and resilience.

Positive psychology is about building strength and resilience. By focusing on what is going well in our lives, what our personal strengths are and how we can be our best, we start to identify what activities we want to do more regularly, can do more regularly and are helpful to us personally as well as to others. It does not advocate in any way that we embark on behaviours which are harmful to ourselves or to others.

Too much of a focus on strengths can become detrimental because we end up neglecting other parts of our being which make us who we are as a complete person. We are not just our strengths. We are our weaknesses, our hate, our fear, our joy, our love. This is less about “all things in moderation” and more about finding optimal ways to maintain positive feeling and resilience.

Positive psychology can be used therapeutically and as part of intervention to support those suffering mental health issues. This does clearly require trained therapists in the techniques and or careful guidance on how to deal with challenging life issues or events. Be cautious about those claiming they can do everything by helping you focus on the positive. There be dragons in them parts.

Positive psychology actively encourages social activities as well as carrying out community activities that are giving in their nature. Acts of altruism and supporting others can be deeply heartening and create lots of naturally good energy that can be useful to others.

Positive psychology helps us identify regular and useful activities that when brought together aid longer feelings of positivity, better resilience and activities that can lead to us feeling like we’re thriving. I’ve only captured elements of what positive psychology is and how it can be helpful. This isn’t intended to be a catch all, more to help raise better understanding and awareness of what this field offers. Comments are very welcome as are any challenges and questions to clarify things further.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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