What is Positive Psychology?
Positive psychology is a relatively new discipline. It’s the scientific study of happiness. Traditionally, psychology, psychiatry and other mental health disciplines have studied psychological distress. They’ve looked at anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness and have developed ways to resolve these.
Positive psychology asks another question: do we know anything about what actually makes people happy? Traditionally mental health disciplines have tried to move people from negative five to zero. As Freud said “the goal of psychoanalysis was to turn hysterical misery into ordinary human unhappiness”. This discipline asks the question whether anything more is possible and if so, how we might attain it.
Why is happiness so hard to achieve?
It’s interesting, when we look at positive psychology, so many of us find happiness to be elusive. Indeed, happiness for many of us seems elusive as though it’s some kind of a fugitive we run after it and it seems we have a great deal of difficulty finding it. This is probably because we may not have evolved to be happy. If we think of evolutionary forces, what they do is they select for organisms overtime that are able to successfully reproduce and their children are able to grow up and reproduce themselves.
These forces don’t care really whether the organism is having fun along the way or is enjoying its life. There may not be any ingrained propensity toward happiness. And in fact many of the mechanisms that help us to survive -our ability to think about the future, remember bad things that have happened, anticipate things that may go wrong- all of those skills actually often contribute to our unhappiness.
Do people hold misconceptions about how to achieve happiness?
Human beings are actually terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Many of us have myths that achieving certain something, whether it’s a career accomplishment or money or something with our family, is going to give us enduring happiness. But it turns out that these things rarely work.
For example, many people think that becoming rich would do it. Turns out that people with a lot of money aren’t appreciably happier than middle-class folks. Many of us assume that “only if I could be young again, then I’d be happy”. Well this is very interesting. It turns out that older people, when you sample their experiences day-by-day, have many more moments of happiness than young people do. It’s also very common to believe that “if I could have a family and have children that would make me happy”. And while people certainly love their children, when you go and investigate and actually ask people during the day what their mood is like at different moments, most people are not happier when they’re taking care of their kids than when they ’re doing other things. In fact, having children isn’t by itself a path to happiness.
What are some ways to achieve happiness?
Researchers have identified five broad paths to happiness.
The first one involves using our virtues. These are things such as our sense of wisdom, our sense of justice, our curiosity, our compassion for others and those sorts of qualities that really the world’s philosophers and religions have always recognized as important. When we engage those in our daily life we become happier.
The second area involves gratitude. It’s basically appreciating what we have and expressing that appreciation both to ourselves as well as to other people who have been generous to us, loving and kind in our lives.
A third involves savoring. That means really tasting the moment, slowing down, taking the time to smell the roses, noticing what’s happening in each moment in our lives, not always rushing forward trying to get to the next item.
Related to that is the idea of engagement, or what’s often called “flow”. This means being in our activities not self-consciously, not trying to achieve some kind of external goal, but for the process of it, for the experience of it. Athletes often talk about this as being “in the zone”.
The final big area involves living life in a way which is meaningful and that almost always means doing things for others, rather than for our own aggrandizement – so whether that means doing something for the environment, or helping other people in a more close personal way. Serving others seems to be very important for sustaining happiness.