There is a new movement in the world of psychology; it is called positive psychology. It seeks to take the age old quest for happiness and use science’s method of study and evidence to lead the human race to the accomplishment of a happy life. The question is: Does it work?
Positive Psychology Roots
The idea of positive psychology was first introduced by Abraham Maslow in his book “Motivation and Personality” in 1954. The term was adopted by Martin Seligman, who is often viewed as the founder of the positive psychology movement.
Mr. Seligman brought the attention of psychologists to the study of mental wellness when he became president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. In a speech he gave after his inauguration he addressed his concern that in the past psychologists had mainly been concerned about studying and preventing mental illness without paying any attention to the study and promotion of mental wellness. (1)
Ideals and Approach
Martin Seligman’s vision of a new approach to psychology inspired others in his field, most notably, his colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the year 2000 they worked together to define the goals of the new specialty of positive psychology. (2) Those goals include helping individuals and society to flourish, be happier, and enjoy life more fully. Their vision is an ambitious one, which involves going beyond solving ills into creating a deeply positive existence.
This objective spawned a new vocabulary. Words like happiness, gratitude, flow, altruism, contentment, well-being, growth, and originality take on scientific meanings. The concepts that those words represent are now the subjects of empirical studies.(3) Systems are created to try to quantify, explain and organize the qualities of a “good life” and how to achieve it. This field creates new, scientifically-based self-help books.
It is easy to see why this field of study would be exciting. Its purpose is to make the world a better place.
Weaknesses and Problems
There are two sides to every coin. Although the goals of positive psychology may be noble, is it really possible to scientifically discover the keys to happiness? Like any field of science theories abound. Let’s face it: theories aren’t facts. The scientists and psychologists pursuing this research aren’t immune to the blinding effects of self-interest and the lack of objectivity that often come just by virtue of being human. (4)
As optimistic as this positive psychology movement is, one needs to acknowledge that human nature does have its dark side and the search for happiness creates opportunities to profit from that search. The aforementioned self-help books abound, as do many conferences, seminars, and classes which strive to cash in on the research being done in this discipline and thus creating – at the very least – the potential for a conflict of interest. (5) (6)
Try It and See
One way to evaluate the claims being made is to try it for yourself and see if it works.
Although this method may not be the most scientific or objective it still has merit. Experience has value as part of any education. Here are a couple of exercises for you to try out:
Letter of Self-Compassion:
This exercise was developed to help develop the positive attribute of self compassion, which is defined as: 1. kindness toward oneself 2. recognition of shared humanity 3. objective awareness. (7) It has been shown to increase happiness and decrease depression. (8)
Choose an aspect about yourself you don’t like. It can be a physical feature or a personality flaw. Explain why you don’t like this feature in writing to a really close and supportive friend. Go through all the embarrassing stories that make you hate this part of you. Write about how this aspect makes you feel.
Then be that close friend you were writing to and write back. Write back the kind of letter that you would write to a good friend who really needed some love and compassion. Then read your second letter and see if it makes you feel better about your original flaw. (9)
Best Possible Self Exercise:
With a pencil in hand and a piece of paper on standby, think about the kind of future you want. Imagine that everything you ever wanted was yours to have. What would it look like? Daydream about this perfect future as specifically as possible. Then start writing about it in great detail for at least 15 minutes. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar just write your vision of your ideal future.(12)
Positive psychology offers some compelling insights into the nature of happiness. It can be useful in helping people improve their experiences in life. Many of the insights have stood up to the analysis of experts. There is also persuasive evidence that the exercises this field has developed to increase positive emotions work.
But even if a book, seminar or class may identify itself with the positive psychology movement it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is well researched or that the conclusions it comes to are reliable. As with most information in this world one should take a good look at the source.
It may not be the secret to everlasting happiness but, positive psychology is a new discipline that offers much to the improvement of the human experience. Can science make you happier? It looks like the answer is: yes.