What is Positive Psychology and How Can It Help?

Positive woman giving thumbs up

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While much of the study of human psychology focuses on what is wrong with us, positive psychology focuses on what is right with us. Specifically, positive psychology looks at the characteristics and behavior of people who are optimally functioning so that we may develop and replicate those behaviors in our own lives.

Positive psychology is not interested in assuring that we have a steady stream of pleasurable feelings, rather its goal is to lead us to a greater satisfaction with life. Positive feelings are only one aspect that, along with others such as flow and purpose, work together to create an “upward spiral” towards a healthier sense of well-being.

Positive Emotions

Nobody feels positive emotions all the time, and we shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to feel “positive” in every circumstance. That’s not realistic, nor is it authentic. Yet, there needs to be a greater ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions- ideally 3:1 according to experts- in order for us to thrive.

The benefits of experiencing positive emotions range from stress reduction to improved workplace performance to increased physical and mental health. Researchers have also found that increases in positive emotions helps improve emotional regulation and the ability to bounce back from adversity.

The great news here is that you can increase your positive emotions by doing some very simple things. Turning on your favorite music and playing a little air guitar might do the trick. Taking a bubble bath, performing a random act of kindness or talking with a friend who makes you laugh can all produce positive emotions. The experiences don’t even have to last very long. Brief moments count as long as they outnumber negative ones.

Flow or Engagement

Think about the most rewarding activities you do. Maybe it’s growing a garden, playing an instrument, or playing a sport. Think about those times when you are so involved in an activity, you “lose yourself” in it. You concentrate so much on hauling dirt or perfecting your throw that you lose track of time. Psychologists call this state of being flow.

Flow benefits our well-being, in part, because it leads to positive emotions, helping achieve that optimal 3:1 ratio. It also builds our skills and capabilities, which enhances our sense of accomplishment and which can open up more rewarding opportunities to us.

Flow experiences stem from engaging in activities where:

  • our skills are well-matched to a challenging goal
  • we engage because we find intrinsic rewards in doing so
  • we receive immediate feedback on our performance
  • our concentration is so great, our “inner critic” is silenced

For example, imagine you’ve been playing trumpet for a couple of years. You set a goal to learn a new, challenging song. It presents a challenge that, with effort, you can achieve. The activity itself gives you feedback on your progress. If one section has been particularly hard to learn, you can hear whether or not you are playing it better. That immediate feedback is important because it’s part of what makes the experience rewarding.

We can bring more flow into our lives by making the choice to engage in more “active” leisure time. Instead of scrolling through social media accounts or watching on-demand television, commit to pursuing that hobby that always gets squeezed out of your schedule. It doesn’t have to be a solo activity-group flow experiences can have an even greater impact on our well-being.

Positive Relationships

Having close, supportive relationships with others is an important part of our well-being, and there are some concrete things you can do to build stronger relationships.

  • Up the positivity ratio John Gottman, leading researcher on marital relationships, argues that in relationships, the positive emotion ratio needs to be 5:1. You need to have five times as many positive feelings as negative ones within the relationship. Say a kind word, do a chore your partner hates to do, do something fun together. See what changes you notice.
  • Help celebrate How do you respond to when someone close to you has good news to share? Do you help them celebrate their good news? Do you get as excited as they do? If you don’t, start practicing. Some research suggests that a person’s response to their partner’s good news is as important to the relationship as is their supportiveness when things go wrong.
  • Be curious In the beginning of relationships we are curious about our partners. What do they like? What do they dislike? What experiences have affected them most deeply? In long-term relationships, we often think we know everything already, but people change. Start asking questions again. You might discover some wonderful new things about your partner.

Meaning and Purpose

Nobody ever wishes, in their dying days, that they spent more time in the office. We all agree with that old saying, right? Not so fast.

Positive psychologists would say that might be true-if you don’t see your work as meaningful. If your work is just a job, a means of getting a paycheck, you definitely won’t wish you spent more time there.

If instead, you view your work as a calling, as making a meaningful contribution to the world, you might wish for more time to do your work. Because you view that work as part of your life’s purpose and find intrinsic reward from it. Finding meaning in life often involves recognizing the unique strengths we have and using those strengths in the service of others.

Accomplishment

Another aspect of positive psychology is accomplishment. We can all think of plenty of examples of people who have accomplished a lot in their lives- education, career, monetary rewards- and are anything but happy. Accomplishment here is inseparable from meaning. Striving for extrinsic rewards is not what leads to well-being and satisfaction with life. Accomplishment that we find intrinsically rewarding, and find meaning in, is the ticket.

The role accomplishment plays in positive psychology depends on whether or not we allow ourselves to enjoy our achievements. Don’t downplay something you accomplished just because someone else would find it no big deal. Revel in your accomplishment and grant yourself permission to savor the moment. Allow yourself to feel the satisfaction of your achievements.

The Upward Spiral

One of the most exciting parts of the positive psychology framework is how all of the factors have the potential to build upon one another. We can access the upward spiral by entering it at any point-positive feelings, flow, meaning, relationships, or accomplishment. Each one impacts the others and improving any one of the aspects in your life can help improve the others. That’s a pretty positive way of looking at our psychology.

References

Lino, Catarina. “Positive Psychology Theory in a Nutshell,” positivepsychologyprogram.com, October 2016

Benson, Kyle. “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science,” gottman.com, October 2017

Seligman, Martin, Authentic Happiness, Simon and Schuster, 2004

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