Guides

Using Positive Psychology for
Hapiness and Well-Being

What is Positive Psychology?

Confession time: I didn’t study psychology until later in life. I spent my 20s and 30s in wigs doing musical impressions on various stages and TV shows. Years later though, when I was in the thick of a two-year depression, I was desperate for a way to heal. When the clouds finally parted, I didn’t want to just be “okay” again. I wanted to make up for lost time by living a joyful and fulfilling life. So I started looking for small actions I could take each day to improve my outlook. But my efforts were more than that. With every nature run I took with my dog, every dance in the kitchen with my kids, every time I deepened my connection to others, I was exploring the causes of my own happiness. As it turned out, I was applying positive psychology to my own life before I even knew that’s what this approach was called! And now, as I embark on a midlife Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) I’m thrilled to share the science behind getting happier. 

Introduction to Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the scientific study of behaviours that contribute to overall happiness and well-being. It’s a practice where happiness, positive well-being, and the sense of “flow,” can actually be measured. In doing so, researchers are learning more and more about interventions that can make people happy. Isn’t that neat? Positive psychology teaches us that you don’t have to simply accept your mood or state of being. You can actually change it for the better. This makes me feel tremendously hopeful (and TBH is the main reason why I love speaking to audiences about it).

You may be surprised to learn—as I was—that positive psychology is a relatively new field. It’s just a few years older than my kid who’s graduating high school. It was founded by Dr. Martin Seligman. As he explains in his 2004 TedTalk, the traditional field of psychology is all about curing mental illness. Before positive psychology, the field followed a “disease model,” focussed on figuring out what was wrong with people. This approach, though, doesn’t tell us what actually makes people happier. 

Positive psychology, Seligman says, has three aims. In contrast to old approaches to psychology, positive psychology is focussed on:

  • human flourishing, rather than human weakness
  • building strength, rather than repairing damage (or, as he says, “it should be as interested in the best things in life as it is in repairing the worst”)
  • making the lives of normal people fulfilling, rather than with healing pathology

Boosts the old optimism, right? And here’s the best part. Seligman says that, when it comes to human functioning, relieving misery is not the same thing as creating happiness. That’s because the skills of happiness are different from the skills of relieving misery. I find it incredibly hopeful that positive psychology can be understood as a set of skills. A skill is something anyone can learn! Positive psychology is always available to us as something we can practice to make ourselves feel better. 

Core Positive Psychology Concepts, Theories and Models 

One of the core positive psychology concepts Seligman created is called the PERMA model. This model describes what human beings need to flourish. There are five “building blocks” that together enable human flourishing. They are:

P – Positive emotion. This is all about savouring the sweet stuff in life—think joy, gratitude, excitement, and all those warm fuzzy feelings. We can increase positive emotion about things that happened in the past through practices like gratitude and forgiveness. We can increase it in the present through mindfulness and savouring physical pleasures (ice cream, anyone?) And we can even increase it about the future by cultivating hope and optimism.

E – Engagement.  Ever get so lost in something you love doing that you lose track of time? That’s engagement, aka “flow.” It’s that feeling of being in the zone, totally absorbed in whatever you’re doing. Flow happens when you apply your skills, strengths, and attention to a challenging task. You may get it when you’re baking, dancing, gardening etc. Your sense of self-awareness disappears, and for me, is one of the best feelings in the world. Find it difficult to let go and play? Practicing self-compassion can help you engage more easily in flow by reducing the fear of failure or the effects of self-criticism. 

R – Relationships. Building strong connections with family, friends, and your community takes work for introverts like me, but it’s so worth the support and wellbeing that comes with it. Whether sharing laughs or lending a listening ear, relationships help build resilience and deepen our sense of connection. 

M- Meaning. Seligman explains that having a sense of meaning comes from feeling like you belong to and serve something bigger than you. This might be something concrete like serving your family or your faith community. It might be something more ephemeral, like fighting for social justice, being engaged with politics, or working to improve your community.  It’s about living in line with your values, whether that’s chasing your dreams, making a difference in the world, or simply being there for the people you care about. 

A – Accomplishment. Accomplishment is something people pursue for its own sake. They may pursue it in their careers or in other domains of life, like sports, hobbies, or games. Don’t you love that satisfying feeling of ticking items off your to-do list or achieving a goal you’ve been working towards? Accomplishments enhance self-esteem and deepen life satisfaction.

Seligman compares the PERMA model to a recipe you can whip up to create a life of happiness and fulfillment. That’s what’s so appealing about it–it’s super do-able and pro-active. No need to despair if you don’t have all five of these building blocks in your life! The best part about this model is that there are strategies to increase each of them. Read on for some ideas.

Benefits, Goals and Applications of Positive Psychology 

So we know now that positive psychology can help individuals build resilience and develop coping strategies to effectively deal with life’s challenges. Research in this field has shown that cultivating positive emotions such as gratitude, optimism, and kindness can lead to improved physical health, better relationships, and greater overall life satisfaction. Imagine if we were able to teach and learn the very skills of well-being in our schools, workplaces, faith communities, and more.

I’m excited about the potential the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) has for proving the ways positive psychology can impact different areas of individual and communal life. ESM is a research technique used to gather real-time data on individuals’ experiences, behaviors, and emotions. Participants use smartphones or other devices to report throughout the day on their thoughts, feelings and activities. This data allows researchers to understand subjects’ personal view of their own well-being as they go about their daily lives. By collecting momentary self-reports of mood and affect, researchers can gain insights into the factors that contribute to positive experiences and overall well-being in real-world settings. ESM can also be used to study flow states by capturing individuals’ experiences of flow as they occur in their natural environments.

I was intentional about making very small, sustainable shifts using the tools of positive psychology, and today my life is more fulfilling, peaceful and pleasurable than before. Improving my life has also had an effect on my family, who noticed I was happier and less stressed. I’ve tried to teach my kids the tools of positive psychology so that they can show up in the world with resilience and self-compassion. Seeing them apply those tools to their own lives has been deeply rewarding. Life gives us another chance every day to start living intentionally, and take it from me, it’s never too late to begin.

Mindfulness and Well-Being Strategies 

Positive psychology promotes a number of well-being strategies that just about anyone can practice. I think of them as tools in my mental health toolbox, things I can access when the moment calls for it. Here are my four faves:

1. Savouring: This is one we don’t always think of, perhaps because we don’t think of it as being a choice. But savouring isn’t something that just happens to us when we take a particularly delicious bite of chocolate cake, for example. It’s something we can make a point of doing. Savouring is an orientation to daily life; going about your day as usual but contemplating your gratitude and enjoyment of it in the moment. That minor perspective shift of thankfully noticing “wow, this feels/tastes/sounds nice” allows you to linger on pleasure with minimal effort. If you’re doing it anyway, savour it.

2. Mindfulness and Meditation: Both of these practices help us find peace in the present moment. Mindfulness is something I like to practice throughout the day. I joke that it should be called “bodyfulness” because it’s about being aware of your senses in the present moment without labeling them. I find it brings a sharp focus to what I’m doing, which reminds me that I’m just grateful to be alive. Meditation, on the other hand, is something I turn to in specific moments when I want to feel safe, grounded, and peaceful. It’s a time to go inward, breathe, and just let go of the past and future. Research from positive psychology has shown how much both these practices can increase an overall sense of well-being and connectedness. My experience has been that m&m give me the comfort of knowing I always have a private, quiet oasis in my own mind.

3. Self-compassion: It may seem paradoxical on the face of it, but research shows that self-compassion improves resilience. Some may think the opposite is true, mistaking compassion for weakness. But self-compassion was a pivotal element in my wellness journey; I had to believe I was worthy and deserving of well-being before I could make lasting change. Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness, particularly in times of failure or difficulty. This approach reduces negative emotions like shame and increases positive emotions like hope, leading to emotional resilience. Part of my job as a mental health speaker is sharing the message that you are worthy of well-being, no matter what.

4. Optimism and Positive Thinking: Optimism is not about just slapping a happy face on everything, and it doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. It’s a protective measure against ruminating till you’re stuck feeling ineffective, hopeless, and helpless. So when difficulty strikes, feel your feelings and grieve. And once you’ve given yourself space to react, moving forward with a growth mindset will enable you to find a better path forward, faster. Optimism shows up in my life in the comforting belief that a broken road can take you somewhere better, and tomorrow is always another chance to try again. Positive thinking can give people the grit and persistence to pursue happiness.

Research, Limitations and Evolving Perspectives 

All the same, I know there are folks who aren’t big fans of positive psychology. It’s not even necessarily that they’re defending the old way of approaching psychology, with its focus on mental illness. I think they’re seeing some important limitations of the approach that are worth considering. The most common criticisms I hear about positive psychology are:

1. An overemphasis on positivity. I know some people almost have an allergic reaction to what can be called “toxic positivity.” But positivity only becomes toxic when it causes harm. Certainly denying the importance and usefulness of emotions like anger, frustration, and sadness could cause harm by bottling up those feelings. So-called “negative” emotions serve adaptive functions and can provide valuable information about one’s well-being. It’s important that those of us practicing positive psychology not ignore this.

2. A limited focus on behaviours. Positive psychology focuses on things you can DO in your life to increase overall happiness. In my mind, this is its greatest asset. For others, it’s a limitation. Some critics argue that behavioral interventions tend to focus narrowly on addressing specific behaviors or symptoms without considering the broader context of an individual’s life or addressing underlying issues. They also argue that, by focussing on behaviours, positive psychologists ignore the underlying thoughts, emotions, and motivations that drive behavior. I see the point here. But in my own experience, taking small daily actions are precisely the things that help my thoughts and emotions—not the other way around.

3. Ethnocentric Bias: Critics point out that many concepts and interventions in positive psychology are based on Western cultural values and may not be universally applicable.  Moreover, some scholars point out that positive psychology often focuses on individual-level factors such as strengths, virtues, and personal happiness, neglecting the role of social, cultural, and systemic factors in shaping well-being. Critics argue that a more holistic approach that considers the broader social context is needed to understand and promote well-being effectively. This is a valuable perspective that I won’t argue with. Being able to understand ourselves within webs of power can add subtlety and nuance to the field.

4. “Reality distortion.” This is the criticism that honestly makes me chuckle. The idea here is that the emphasis in positive psychology on promoting optimism and positive thinking can lead to unrealistic expectations and a distortion of reality. I gotta say…I’m not seeing the problem here. Far too many of us fail to lead the lives we want because we tell ourselves we could never have them. I think more of us need a little reality distortion if that means we’ll have the courage to go after what we really want. It’s true that small, sustainable goals are the ones we’re most likely to reach. But being hopeful and visualizing greater possibilities is a nice counter-weight to our negativity bias and the chronic underselling that we do of ourselves.

My Two Cents

Without a doubt, a field as young as positive psychology will need time to address these limitations. For me, the bottom line is this: you know that saying “where attention goes, energy flows”? Well, I want my energy to flow in the direction of feeling good. So I put my attention on the actions that I know produce those good feelings. That doesn’t mean I don’t allow myself to feel disappointed, hurt or regretful at times. Positive psychology actually helps me be vulnerable enough to feel those feelings and give myself the self-compassion I need to express them, and then get back to living a life of joy and meaning.

Laugh away the stress & book Jess