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  • Positive Psychology and Mental Health

    Positive psychology as a discipline took root in 1998 when Psychologist Martin Seligman became  president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman noticed a problem facing conventional  psychology; the study of psychology seemed to focus exclusively on treating mental illness and reducing  suffering, whereas Seligman thought it could be used as a tool to create joy and meaning in life. The  discrepancy between eliminating misery and creating well-being is at the heart of why positive  psychology was created. This outlook on mental health has a few applications, but at its root, it seeks to  explore ways to achieve happiness. As Christopher Peterson puts it, “positive psychology studies what  makes life most worth living.”

    Applying the lessons of Positive Psychology

    You may be wondering how to apply the lessons of positive psychology in your day to-day life. One meta-analysis from BMC Public Health found that positive psychology interventions can  be effective in enhancing psychological well-being. Positive psychology interventions are psychological  interventions focused solely on increasing happiness and well-being. There are seven types of positive  psychology interventions. Savoring interventions focus attention on specific experiences to prolong  their effects. They include a variety of sensory experiences, from savoring food to emotional  experiences. Gratitude interventions try to direct gratitude towards something outside of oneself. They  can manifest themselves through self-reflection, like keeping a gratitude journal, or through expressing  gratitude to others. Kindness interventions involve performing deliberate acts of kindness towards  others. Empathy based interventions promote understanding in interpersonal relationships. This can  include meditation techniques or effective communication. Optimistic interventions encourage positive  outcomes by encouraging people to set realistic expectations. Strength interventions ask people to  develop and identify individual strengths. Lastly, meaning interventions focus on internalizing what  brings meaning to a person’s life. This can be done through reflecting on meaning in your life through  writing.  Working with a psychologist can help you to implement these types of interventions in your life.

    History of Positive Psychology

    Positive psychology aims to find paths to achieving eudaimonia. As a term,  eudaimonia dates to ancient Greece, where it was studied by Plato and Aristotle. While definitions vary,  eudaimonia tends to mean happiness or well-being. Positive psychologists have created a few ways to  measure eudaimonic wellbeing. The Questionnaire for Eudaimonic Wellbeing recognizes six criteria for  eudaimonic wellbeing, including self-discovery, perceived development of one’s best potentials, and a  sense of purpose and meaning in life. Since its inception, positive psychology has identified unique paths  to eudaimonia.

    When he published his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman identified three aspects of  eudaimonia. The first, he pointed out, was pleasure. Someone living a happy life will try to maximize  and savor pleasant experiences, while minimizing the negative ones. Positive emotions include not  only happiness and joy, but a wide variety of feelings, like hope and excitement. Though only focusing  on positive emotions alone is not effective in boosting well-being, feeling pleasant emotions is still  important. The second aspect of happiness is engagement, which we will delve into more later. The final  aspect of happiness is meaning. Meaning is anything that allows a person to feel like a part of something  larger than themselves. These larger things can include a social group, organizations, community, family,  nature, ideologies, etc. Being part of these institutions can be vital to developing a sense of purpose.

    This trio of eudaimonia has since been criticized by Seligman. In 2011, he revised his original  model to expand on the “meaning” category and add more aspects to happiness. The resulting theory  has been dubbed the “PERMA” model. PERMA is an acronym for Positive emotions, Engagement,  Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. While not all relationships contribute to eudaimonia,  beneficial romantic, familial, or platonic relationships can. This is simply because humans are social  creatures, and interactions with others can make or break mental health. Accomplishments are a  manifestation of people’s intrinsic urge to strive to succeed and win. While accomplishing things can  contribute to positive emotions, Seligman notes that people who may be devoid of the first four parts of  PERMA may still try to seek out accomplishment.

    Now let’s revisit the second aspect of PERMA. Engagement is anything that allows an individual  to be in a state of “flow.” Flow is a term coined by Hungarian American psychologist Mihály  Csíkszentmihályi. Csíkszentmihályi observed that many artists fell into a peculiar state of extreme focus  while working on their craft. This psychological state, however, can be applied to a variety of contexts,  not just art. There are many characteristics to flow. The first, and most obvious, characteristic of flow is  intense concentration on the present moment. The second is a merging of action and awareness. Then,  a loss of self-consciousness. Fourth is a sense of personal control or agency in the situation; fifth is a distortion of one’s sense of time. The sixth and final characteristic is an experience of the activity as  intrinsically rewarding.

    Tasks that allow one to enter a flow state require active engagement. They can include painting,  writing, or practicing a sport. But they usually cannot be tasks that encourage passive engagement, like  watching television or scrolling through social media. Other characteristics of activities that bring about  flow are that they require a clear end goal, immediate feedback, and faith in one’s capacity to finish the  task. Your ability to achieve a flow state may also be dependent on how many distractions you have in  your environment. Not everyone can experience a flow state. Individuals who are prone to anxiety,  apathy, or boredom may have a challenging time achieving a flow state. Some research indicates that  those with an autotelic personality may have more success in getting into a flow state. People with an  autotelic personality tend to do things for their own sake, and not for some external goal.

    While positive psychology has become an accepted domain within the field of psychology,  there are a few criticisms. Some critiques say that positive psychology focuses excessively on positive  emotions, sometimes at the dereliction of essential negative emotions. Other critiques say that some  concepts in positive psychology, such as the concept of “strength,” are ill-defined and in some cases just  reiterate existing psychological concepts.