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Published: October, 2015; Vol 12, Num 5

 

Positive Psychology: A Different Approach to Mental Health

By Jamie Becker

Where Does Positive Psychology Fit In?

Intended as a complement to traditional psychology, positive psychology recommends focusing on people’s strengths and virtues.

Positive psychology does not deny the importance of studying how or why things go wrong, but instead emphasizes the importance of using the scientific method to determine why things go right.

Many of us often think of mental health in negative terms. Questions like “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why do I feel so bad?” are common. But there is another approach to mental health called positive psychology that deserves more of our attention.

Positive psychology looks at what makes people feel happy and fulfilled – it aims to discover what makes us thrive. It asks questions like:

  • What contributes to our happiness? Studies show activities bring more happiness than possessions. Similarly, money does not make us more likely to be happy (as long as incomes remain above the poverty line).
  • What are the health effects of positive emotions? Research shows that an optimistic outlook reduces the risk of physical and emotional health problems.
  • What habits and actions can build personal resilience? Grateful people are more likely to be healthy, helpful and have a greater sense of well-being. Along these lines, seeing other people do good things makes us want to do good too.

How to Nurture Happiness

Happiness can be cultivated by making simple changes in how we choose to view our daily lives. Some people have a “glass half-full” approach to life, while others seem to have a “glass half-empty” approach. Finding the glass half-full perspective can be achieved through some simple changes in thought processes we have every day.

Here are some exercises to help you nurture your own happiness:

  • Practice gratitude. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what you have – from a roof over your head to good health or people who care about you. When you acknowledge the goodness in your life, you begin to recognize that its source lies at least partially outside yourself. In this way, gratitude helps you connect to something larger than your individual experience – whether to other people, nature or a higher power.
    • Practice optimism. Find the positive. We tend to have a natural tendency toward optimism or pessimism. However, we can work toward developing a tendency for optimism if we choose to.
  • Think about what brings “flow” to your life. Flow is losing track of time when you’re absorbed in fulfilling work or another engaging activity. Flow is a familiar and beneficial state for most of us, yet we generally don’t get enough of it. Focusing on one task at a time can help us achieve flow.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness means being present in the now without trying to change anything. If you’re out to dinner with friends or family but keep checking your phone, you’re missing the moment.
  • Savor the good. Most people look forward to pleasurable special events in life such as weddings or vacations. Everyday pleasures, on the other hand, can slip by without much notice. Make an effort to consciously enjoy the treasures in life, big and small.

Try This Exercise:

At the end of each day, write down three good things that happened during the day and why they were good. Over time, you will likely start to notice more positive things throughout your day since you are intentionally looking for them. Noticing more positive things can change one’s outlook.

Positive psychology can contribute to greater emotional resilience, happiness and overall life satisfaction while also lowering stress levels. For those looking to try out these techniques, be aware that multitasking can get in the way. Try as we might, it is just not possible to devote your full attention to multiple things at the same time.

If positive psychology were a movie quote, it would be that classic line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Associate Director of Health Promotion.]