Unlike traditional psychology that focuses more on the causes and symptoms of mental illnesses and emotional disturbances, positive psychology emphasizes traits, thought patterns, behaviors, and experiences that are forward-looking and can help improve the quality of a person’s day-to-day life. These may include optimism, spirituality, hopefulness, gratitude, happiness, creativity, perseverance, justice, meaning and purpose, as well as the practice of free will. It is an exploration of one’s strengths, rather than one’s weaknesses. The goal of positive psychology is not to replace those traditional forms of therapy that center on negative experiences, but instead to expand and give more balance to the therapeutic process. The idea is not so focused on fixing what is bad in life but rather focusing on what is good—the positives.
Positive psychology can be applied to all age groups, from children to adults in educational settings and mental health facilities, as well as in private counseling practices. There is also a place for positive psychology outside the area of therapeutic practice, such as in human resource management and business administration. Positivity is good for all types of institutions, companies, and organizations because it increases the chances of success and it is contagious; this makes sense because other people matter in positive psychology.
Positive psychology is sometimes referred to as the science of happiness. One of the questions positive psychologists try to address is: “Can a person be happy and realistic at the same time?” While acknowledging the problems of the world as well as that of the individual, positive psychologists believe one can still lead a productive, meaningful, and satisfying life. The goal is to minimize negativity in one’s thinking and behavior and to develop a more optimistic and open attitude that will enhance rather than disrupt one’s social, professional, and spiritual life. Therapists and counselors who use positive psychology deploy exercises and interventions to help their clients become more self-aware and identify their own positive traits, talents, and strengths. These strategies will hopefully increase the client’s positive emotions and build hope and well-being.
To a large degree, the positive psychology movement began back in the 1950s and ’60s, with the introduction of a humanistic approach to therapy. Soon afterward, psychologists began to realize that looking only at the damage already done to adults was not helping to prevent mental health problems that often begin in childhood. In the late 1990s, psychologist Martin Seligman recognized that, for the sake of prevention, researchers and practitioners had to start looking more closely at human strengths and virtues, not just weaknesses, and figure out how to instill positive traits in young people who may be at risk of developing the unhealthy emotions and behaviors that signal mental illness. Seligman proposed that successful psychotherapy in the future would not only be a process wherein people talk about their troubles and weaknesses, but also where people examine and learn to use their strengths. He suggested that exercises in happiness can be used to make lasting and dramatic differences in those who are depressed, anxious, or conflicted.
Seligman came up with the Perma model, which helps define well-being.
- P Is for Positive Emotions: The pursuit of positive emotions will not necessarily improve your well-being. However, the experience of positive emotions through savoring your day-to-day moments may well boost well-being.
- E Is for Engagement: Being engaged with life is important for well-being. Otherwise, your mind and body will run on automatic and you may suffer tedium and little meaning.
- R Is for Relationships (Positive Ones): We thrive when we are connected in meaningful relationships.
- M Is for Meaning: A sense of meaning and purpose is essential to well-being.
- A Is for Accomplishment and Achievement: We each need to succeed and accomplish the goals we set. This quest for self-improvement is essential.
The science of positive psychology can be incorporated into all levels of coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy. Look for a licensed, experienced professional with training in positive psychology. The master of applied positive psychology, MAPP, is one common credential you can look for. In addition to finding someone with the appropriate educational background, experience, and positive approach, seek a therapist with whom you feel comfortable discussing personal matters.
You might ask a prospective therapist these questions:
- How often have you dealt with problems such as mine before?
- How do you know whether my situation is a good candidate for positive psychology?
- How do you use positive psychology in your practice?
- What is a typical plan of treatment, and how long is a typical course of therapy?
- How do you measure progress?