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The Science Behind Positive Psychology and Well-Being

We study psychology to better understand the human mind and use our findings to improve the human condition. The brain is a complex organism — one that we hardly understand, relatively speaking — but psychology helps us better understand how it affects the way we feel, act and think.

Psychology is not a new practice. In fact, psychology practices date back to ancient civilizations such as India, Egypt, Greece, China, and Persia. Of course, today, it has become a discipline that can be quite refined.

One newer school of thought is positive psychology.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is a humanistic approach to psychology that focuses on factors that contribute to happiness and well-being. It is designed to be complementary to other schools of psychology that typically focus on problematic behaviors and thought patterns and fixing them.

According to leaders in positive psychology, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychology is, “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.”

One may use principles of positive psychology to improve their self-esteem and self-confidence towards their inherent characteristics and events that have made them who they are. The goal is to foster acceptance and optimism about one’s future.

The PERMA Model of Well-Being

After working through initial theories, Seligman developed an acronym (PERMA) that represents his well-being theory:

  • Positive Emotions — such as satisfaction, awe, excitement, pride, and others typically translate to positive outcomes in other aspects of life. Positive emotions give us hope of a positive future.
  • Engagement — such as with activities that put us in “flow,” where we find ourselves passionate for and heavily concentrated on a task at hand. When we are really engaged, nothing else matters and we can lose a sense of the negative realities around us.
  • Relationships — through bad times a good times, help us strengthen positive emotions. And, many positive emotions are experienced in groups. Even introverted people need relationships, as they are fundamental to one’s well-being.
  • Meaning — or purpose, gives us drive. Meaning gives us context to why we may be engaging with our lives the way we do, through work, school, community, or any other aspect of life.
    Accomplishments — which can be work-based, hobby-based, community-based, etc. Having a sense of accomplishment gives us pride and positive emotions.

These elements of well-being are an end in themselves and are pursued for one’s own sake.

The Benefits of Positive Psychology and Well-Being

The goal of positive psychology is to improve one’s well-being. Positive well-being not only helps us feel good, but these positive feelings can translate to other benefits.

Benefits of well-being include:

  • Improved performance at work, school, and with hobbies
  • Improved satisfaction with relationships
  • Improved psychical health and stronger immune system
  • Improved cardiovascular health and longer life expectancy
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved emotional self-regulation
  • Improved social ability
  • Decreased depression and anxiety

Putting Positive Psychology to Practice

There are endless ways to practice positive psychology in your life and work towards achieving any of the five elements of PERMA.

Some more common examples of positive psychology interventions include:

Writing in a Gratitude Journal

Writing down what you’re grateful for is one of the best ways to find appreciation for life. If can keep you thankful for what you have and act as a buffer against negative thoughts and emotions. Rather than focusing on what could be, a gratitude journal keeps us focused on the present gifts we have in life.

Do this every day, or every other day, and take notice of how it makes you feel over the course of a month. You can always adjust the frequency, template, or focus if you need to change things up. If you’re having a hard time coming up with things to be grateful for, start looking for the smaller things in life that spark joy.

Expressing Gratitude

Has anyone had a positive influence on your life? Let them know.

Sometimes called the “gratitude visit,” expressing gratitude towards someone who has ever gone out of their way to support you — or anyone you’ve felt had a positive impact on your life — can be a powerful exercise. Making other people feel good about themselves, helps us feel better about ourselves.

State in detail what this person has done for you and express your gratitude in tangible ways.

Best Possible Self

Write down a narrative about your “best possible self.” Contemplate the satisfying possibilities for your future self and think about different areas of your life.

This practice can unlock your deeply rooted goals that you may have had a hard time defining. Revisit this practice and make your vision clearer and clearer through at least four revisions.

You may want to ask yourself questions such as:

  • What would I be doing?
  • Where would I be living?
  • What does your average day look like?
  • Would you feel fulfilled?

Measure Your Strengths and Virtues

Measuring your strengths and virtues is a great way to self-examine yourself, discover more about yourself, and reflect on what motivates you.

Seligman and Chris Peterson studied virtues across major religions and cultures to classify them into a system that can be used in positive psychology. The result was 6 classes of virtues with 24 character strengths.

[Image Credits: PositivePsychology.com]

Try using a template like the one below to measure your strengths and virtues:

Date Activity/Exercise Experience/Emotion Enjoyment Level
(1-10 scale)
Energy Level
(1-10 scale)
Strength(s) used in
the activity

Mindfulness Meditation

Directing attention to one’s own immediate thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations and experiences can help you focus on the present moment. This is exactly what mindfulness meditation aims to achieve.

Meditation is a practice that dates back to early Buddhist practices but has had a resurgence in recent decades. With this resurgence, studies have largely proven meditation and mindfulness to be an effective tool to improve one’s well-being.

According to the American Psychological Association, benefits of mindfulness include:

  • Stress reduction
  • Improvement in working memory and insightful thinking
  • Reducing negative cyclic thinking
  • Improved concentration and less mental distractions
  • Better emotional stability and regulation
  • Improvements in neuroplasticity
  • Enhanced relationships

Final Thoughts

Living an intentional life, understanding ourselves, and treating both ourselves and others is a key component of a happy life. If we practice positive psychology and strive for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments we may begin to find our lives more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Practicing positive psychology does not come naturally to most people, and we must actively counteract negative patterns to do so. But in time, and using some of the practices listed above, we can make our minds work with us and not against us.

If you or a loved one is struggling to maintain their well-being, consider talking to a therapist or psychologist that can provide the professional guidance you need.

Solara Mental Health in San Diego County is here to help you. Our mental health clinic is available to answer your questions at 844-206-9722.

Sources

  1. Al Taher, R., MSc. (2021, August 17). The Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/classification-character-strengths-virtues/
  2. Lino, C., MAPP. (2020, September 01). Positive Psychology Examples: 5 Ways to Put it Into Practice. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-examples/
  3. Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 5-14. doi:10.1.1.183.6660
  4. Davis, D. M., PhD, & Hayes, J. A., PhD. (2012, August). What are the benefits of mindfulness? Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner
  5. University of Pennsylvania. (n.d.). PERMA™ Theory of Well-Being and PERMA™ Workshops. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma-theory-well-being-and-perma-workshops