“Attention goes where energy flows” has been my go-to mantra for many years now. And while I am not a fan of letting the mantra go unchallenged (one may say I am quite disagreeable whenever I hear wisdom quotes). But: There is a lot of substance to this.
As an aspiring psychologist, I have my favourite disciplines. Especially when it comes to mental health and well-being. And one of these favourites is the field of positive psychology.
It is, as the name entails: The psychology of positivity. In 1998, Martin Seligman brought this discipline to life, (one may say). He found psychology limited to diagnosing and treating mental illness. Yet ignoring the factors that make life worth living.
Seligman changed this focus and left a legacy (he is still alive, but the impact this new field has is immense).
Psychology went from a focus on psychological dysfunctions to flourishing.
What is a Life worth living?
The biomedical approach in psychology perceives the absence of illness as health. But anyone who has been fine on paper, but felt empty inside would disagree. And people with a handicap may as much refuse to call themselves “ill”. After all, they are happy and live a fulfilling life.
This biomedical approach prevailed for a long time. And then came Seligman, reframing the basic definition of “mental health”. Mental a state of thriving, flourishing, and fulfilment. Not only the absence of illness.
Positive Psychology focuses on a positive mindset, resilience, and individual strengths, rather than fixing weaknesses.
He coined the ‘PERMA model’
These are the pillars that make “a life worth living”. They are not equally important to each of us.
Two of my main drivers are accomplishment and Meaning. I have friends whom I know thrive in relationships and have a respective sense of belonging. It is different for each one of us – but they all foster our perceived mental health.
A Thought on Toxic Positivity
How positive psychology is being misused – and why you should know about it
As with many things, positive psychology can foster positivity, but it can also be misused. (Either by oneself or by those who make profits out of it).
Toxic Positivity is a positive attitude “gone bad”. Instead of accepting negative emotions as a current state that will pass, toxic positivity neglects or suppresses any emotional discomfort.
Anger? Sadness? Grief? Envy?
It’s denying oneself the full range of emotions. And the chance to dive deeper into the meaning of those emotions. By invalidating uncomfortable feelings, we’re running away from the human experience. We deny ourselves a real chance to solve difficulties on a deeper level.
“Toxic positive mindsets” are also fostered by some Spiritual or Self Help Cults.
It is, of course, favourable to keep a positive attitude. But we must distinguish between a positive attitude versus denying discomfort. One acknowledges problems and tackles them, the other shuts out reality.
Cults use suggestions like “everything in your life is brought onto you by yourself. It’s your fault, and you must change it”.
This is so dangerous because the simple existence in this world does not revolve only around us. There are many people walking this earth, and some may have wronged us. And that could have been without any wrongdoing. Victim-Blaming doesn’t help anyone and won’t foster personal growth.
Fostering a positive mindset is possible without deluding oneself. There is some “positivity bias” that is not based on deception.
Positive Psychology stays true to reality checks.
A resilient and positive Mindset
It uses strategies to help people foster a loving and resilient mindset.
Through positive journaling. Dedicating a few minutes in the morning to count one’s blessings (the popular gratitude journal).
Through mindfulness and goal setting.
Because goals are important, too.
A few may disagree with it. But in all sincerity, I can’t think of anyone who feels fulfilled without a purpose or a direction. Understanding that we are valuable, to ourselves and society, is a big well-being boost.
It does not mean that we need to help out in the soup kitchen every Sunday morning. It can mean listening to our friends (or stranger) when they need it. Doing no harm. Striving to educate others on impactful topics. I.e. the suffering of animals and wildlife, the destruction of the oceans and nature. The danger of social media and algorithms. The need for peace. How to foster a positive mindset.
We don’t have to leave a legacy, a little spark may be enough. As long as we leave something positive. Even “just” a loving thought.
Wrapping Up the PERMA Model
Positive Emotions—We can seek out positivity and become “positively biased”. Through positive journaling, compassion, and gratitude.
Engagement—Absorbing the things we’re doing (aka the Flow State). By connecting deeply to what we’re doing, we are creating a sense of purpose.
Leaving a spark can be through arts, music, writing, acting, sewing, stitching, building, …
Relationships—We are social creatures, and relationships offer a sense of belonging. Listening to others, talking to others, sharing our emotions, values, thoughts, and ideas with others. Connection to others is so vital to our well-being.
Meaning—Having a purpose, or being part of something bigger in life fosters resilience and anchors us during tough times. Meaning creates motivation to “push through” because we feel that what we do is important. Not only for us but to expand us in our little bubble.
Accomplishment—Goals and Ambitions can increase our life satisfaction. It boosts our self-esteem and helps us develop personally (and beyond).
Not all pillars are equally important for each of us, and we can benefit a lot from reflecting on our personal values and strengths. Building on one’s strengths is an important tool in positive psychology. It helps us to create, ignite, keep the spark and direct our life goals in alignment with our strengths and passions in life.
The VIA Strengths test can help you as a tool to understand your personal strengths. Dive a little deeper into using these strengths in your personal and professional life.
Curious to learn more about Positive Psychology and how you can use it in your life?
Books, Books, Books!
- “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being” by Martin E.P. Seligman
- A cornerstone in positive psychology literature, Seligman expands on his earlier work to present a more comprehensive vision of well-being.
- “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want” by Sonja Lyubomirsky
- This book provides evidence-based strategies to increase happiness, based on the author’s research in the field.
- “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” by Martin E.P. Seligman
- In this earlier work, Seligman introduces the concepts of positive psychology and offers strategies to increase one’s level of happiness.
- “Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life” by Barbara Fredrickson
- Fredrickson discusses the importance of positive emotions and how they can transform our lives.
- “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol S. Dweck
- While not exclusively about positive psychology, Dweck’s exploration of fixed versus growth mindsets offers important insights into human potential and achievement.
- “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification” by Christopher Peterson & Martin E.P. Seligman
- This is a handbook of the various strengths and virtues that humans possess. It’s a comprehensive guide and foundational text for the field.
- “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work” by Shawn Achor
- Achor discusses how happiness can lead to success in work and life, challenging the traditional notion that we become happy after we succeed.
- “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth
- Duckworth’s research on grit as a predictor of success is revolutionary. This book delves into the power of passion and perseverance.
- “The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga, 2nd Edition: Paths to A Mature Happiness” by Marvin Levine
- Levine bridges eastern philosophies with positive psychology, providing insights into achieving a mature form of happiness.
- “Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection” by Barbara Fredrickson