In recent years, psychologists have increasing come to realise the importance and value of considering positive individual characteristics in overall functioning. In 2000, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a key academic article in American Psychologist that signaled to many the formal emergence of the field called 'positive psychology'. Theses two talked about the fact that a traditional focus on 'the negative' (i.e., mental illness symptoms and associated problems) was understandable given the need to develop effective treatments for mental health problems. But, they called for an increased focus on positive things in life that exist within and outside the individual.
Positive psychology is a field of study interested in positive attributes in three broad areas:
- The first area involves inner, or subjective experiences that cannot be directly shared by others. Examples include hope, optimism, satisfaction and happiness. While everybody has the capacity to experience these things, you can’t directly pass your experience on to someone else like you can pass on a drink for someone else to try.
- The second area involves positive qualities possessed by individuals to a greater or lesser extent. These can include people skills, courage, an ability to forgive, wisdom, and specific skills (e.g., being a good guitarist).
- Finally, we think about positive attributes demonstrated at the group level. These things are a bit more abstract, but examples include tolerance of others or having a positive work ethic amongst a team of people.
At the heart of positive psychology is the subject of happiness. This is ultimately something we are all seeking. There are some good books available that talk about happiness in detail and many of these have sprung directly from the field of positive psychology. Richard Layard’s book ‘Happiness’ provides a good overview of the topic. If you want to get more detailed information, then I would recommend ‘Authentic happiness’ by Martin Seligman, and/or ‘Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth’ by father and son duo Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.
Leading publications in happiness also talk about the function and benefits of happiness. For example, one of the striking findings is that being happy is good for our physical health. In Diener and Biswas-Diener's book, research findings are presented to show that happier people are less likely to develop certain illnesses (e.g., heart disease) and they tend to live longer. Happy people also have better social relationships and are more productive at work.
Happiness appears to be dependent on several factors. Martin Seligman actually has a happiness formula (for better or worse) which attempts to convey this point. Several authors have talked about the key ‘happiness factors’. Here are a few examples:
- Genetics: Martin Seligman talks about a happiness 'set range' where approximately 50% of your happiness is determined by genetics. If this percentage is roughly correct, there is huge scope for making positive changes if you wish.
- Adaptation / habituation: Humans are pretty clever at adapting to changes in circumstances when they do occur. Think of change in income. Many people, whether they experience a drop or increase in income, adapt accordingly. You often think you will be happier with a big pay rise. However, the initial boost in positive feeling eventually disappears. This is because you have adapted to this change. This is a reason why people do not get the lasting boost in happiness they would expect from a major positive change in circumstances (e.g., winning a lottery). Richard Layard refers to this as the ‘hedonic treadmill'
- ’Relationships: Having healthy, positive relationships with others is one of the most important things you can do to maintain high levels of happiness. This has been discussed by all of the authors I have mentioned above.
Another spin on this information is to think about the things that distinguish happy people from those who are less so. Here are some key features from this area of research:
- Happy people devote time to family and friends
- They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
- They are often the first to offer help to others
- They endeavor to be optimistic when imagining the future
- They savour life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment
- They engage in regular physical exercise
- They are committed to life-long goals and ambitions regardless of what those are
What are the main points from all this information. I reckon the following are particularly important:
- You have a significant say in your happiness levels- be optimistic that you can influence your overall happiness
- You have to devote time to practice happiness-promoting activities
- You cannot rely on doing just one thing or a single event to 'make you happy' You need to mix things up
- But, if you are going to prioritise any activity, put time into your relationships
- Look after your physical health as well as emotional health to promote happiness
- Enjoy positive experiences in the present, but also think about/plan for good things to happen in the future
Hope you find this stuff helpful!
Most of the above information has been taken from the following references:
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Can you learn to be happy? Berkshire: McGraw-Hill.
Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Malden: Blackwell.
Laylard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. London, UK: Penguin.
Seligman, M. E. (2003). Authentic happiness. New York: The Free Press.
Seligman, M. E., Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14