In recent years, interest in the benefits of positivity and achieving them in our lives has skyrocketed. We have many resources for learning how to do so, thanks to findings by researchers and theorists in the field of positive psychology.
What is positive psychology?
Positive psychology is the study of happiness. It emerged because leading psychologists believed their discipline could offer help beyond understanding and treating psychological disorders. They began to examine how ordinary people can live happier and more fulfilling lives. Positive psychology aims to increase personal well-being, which is associated with tangible benefits such as better health and a longer life.
Fostering positive emotions
Most people want to feel good, and we strive for positive emotions. Positive psychology analyzes them: what they are, how they improve well-being, and how to make them a bigger part of our lives. These emotions include compassion, happiness, love, gratitude, and satisfaction. They are often based in relationships, achievements, and a sense of purpose or meaning. Of course, none of this works if we simply ignore problems.
Coping with negative events and emotions
Negativity surrounds us. Most news we consume focuses on problems in our world or community: bad events, bad behaviors of individuals. Sometimes the painful or traumatic events happen in our own lives: the death of a loved one, a failed relationship, job loss, or another significant loss. We cannot avoid negative emotions or events—nor should we. Emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger, and guilt can be used in positive ways to serve important functions.
|Emotion||– Negative when it:||+ Positive when it:|
|Anger||· Leads to giving up too easily on a problem or task.
· Is expressed verbally or physically in an aggressive or violent manner.
· Is stifled and shows up in physical symptoms or passive-aggressive behaviors that harm a relationship.
|· Motivates us to work hard to achieve a goal, complete a project or task, or face a difficult experience or person head-on.|
|Anxiety/Fear||· Becomes persistent and overwhelms us.
· Leads to physical and emotional distress or avoidant behavior.
· Is symptomatic of an anxiety disorder.
|· Helps us stay vigilant to avoid or minimize threats.
· Motivates us to better prepare for a job interview, an important meeting, or a presentation at work or school.
|Grief||· Is too intense over a long time.
· Interferes with our ability to function or form new relationships through the grief process.
|· Is a way of expressing our suffering as well as our love for a lost loved one.
· Leads others to show their love and support and help us.
· Deepens our commitment to other loved ones, or has positive effects on our spiritual or religious beliefs or practices.
|Guilt||· Leads to obsessive thoughts that make it difficult to focus on daily living.
· Makes us reluctant to enjoy life and more willing to punish ourselves.1
|· Influences us to correct problems in relationships or change our behavior that others find hurtful.|
Positivity helps us keep our lives balanced so that negative emotions don’t drag us down too far. When we work at positivity, it becomes easier to know when that balance is upset and we need help dealing with our emotions. We often judge ourselves more harshly than we judge others, beating ourselves up over our faults, flaws, and shortcomings. That makes us feel isolated, unhappy, and even more stressed; it may even make us try to feel better about ourselves by denigrating other people.Rather than harsh self-criticism, a healthier response is to treat yourself with compassion and understanding. According to psychologist Kristin Neff, this “self-compassion” has three main components: mindfulness, a feeling of common humanity, and self-kindness. This exercise asks you to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion for an aspect of yourself that you don’t like. Research suggests that people who respond with compassion to their own flaws and setbacks—rather than beating themselves up—experience greater physical and mental health.
The positive psychology movement has made researchers and everyday people more interested in putting positive psychology to work in their lives. A lot of fascinating work in the field offers practical advice. You can read more on this topic and find inspiration.
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin E. P. Seligman (2013)
Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life by Barbara Fredrickson (2009)
Two books about gratitude by Robert A. Emmons:
- Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (2007)
- Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity (2013)
Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman describes 24 strengths that fall under different types of virtues. We can identify and build on strengths we already have, and choose others to develop.
Greater Good Science Center focuses on the “science of a meaningful life” is a rich resource with articles, books, research summaries, videos, podcasts, and presentations by leading researchers.
The Greater Good in Action (related website) offers practical tools such as tips for letting go of grudges, increasing positive emotions when feeling down, reducing stress through mindful breathing, increasing self-compassion, and focusing on our blessings.
Values in Action details character strengths virtues, and has a free test you can take to discover yours.