Two Lies and a Truth about Positive Psychology

Fall has always felt like the time of new beginnings to me. I guess I always associated it with the excitement of back-to-school. Yes, I was one of those kids who actually liked school and was excited to go back after the summer. Well, guess what… This fall, I HAVE gone back to school and I am SUPER excited about it!

The subject I have started to study is Positive Psychology. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Positive Psychology before this summer. I had, of course, heard the term several times before but it never really interested me. I had this idea in my head that Positive Psychology was all about smiley faces and happiness, never having a bad day, and always looking at the bright side.

I took a little head start in my studies already during the summer, and one of the first things that I learned was that Positive Psychology NOT about this kind of toxic positivity. However, I have also learned that this misconception about Positive Psychology is rather common, and that there are other misleading ideas out there, too. I decided to discuss three common beliefs about Positive Psychology in this blog post.

1. “Positive Psychology Is about Focusing ONLY on the Good sTUFF and IgnorING THE problems”

This is not true. But to understand this point properly, we need to take a look at how Positive Psychology as a discipline emerged. It is still a rather new area of science, even though topics such as happiness and motivation have long been topics of research for scholars. But the common understanding is that Positive Psychology really began in 1998, when Professor Martin Seligman, now considered as one of the “founding fathers” of Positive Psychology, became the president of the American Psychological Association. Professor Seligman considered that Psychology’s purpose so far had been to “make miserable people less miserable”. This is obviously a very important purpose. Psychology has done well in understanding and treating many disorders. However, not suffering does not necessarily mean that a person is happy or, in Positive Psychology terms, flourishing. Positive Psychology started to study topics such as positive emotion and people’s personal strengths, in order to understand how more individuals and organizations could flourish.

The researchers did some groundbreaking observations about happiness and well-being that set the basis for the discipline, but Positive Psychology also received criticism. It was said that Positive Psychology simplified things too much and painted a too black-and-white picture of different emotions. This criticism led to the second wave of Positive Psychology, or Positive Psychology 2.0, that started to pay more attention to different kinds of emotions and their roles. As human beings, we are sums of many things, and it is not possible for us to block out the uncomfortable emotions and just keep the nice ones.

While Positive Psychology still gives us tools to increase positive emotions, such as gratitude and hope, it does not do this by suppressing uncomfortable feelings. Rather it encourages us to accept and understand all emotions. This is also true when Positive Psychology is applied in organizations and groups of people. For example, putting more focus on the things that are already well at a workplace does not mean that we would sweep problems under the rug. Problems can still be addressed in a solution-focused way, and seen as opportunities rather than negative sides of the organization that we try to find somebody to blame for.

2. “You Must BE A NATURALLY Optimistic PERSON if You Specialize in Positive Psychology”

Not at all. I have never considered myself to be a naturally optimistic person. In fact, I used to hold (and still sometimes do!) some pretty pessimistic beliefs, such as not letting myself get too excited about something because it might not work out in the end. Or getting stuck thinking about things that could go wrong instead of things that could go right. Through my studies in Positive Psychology, I have learned that there is a reason behind those beliefs, and it is called the negativity bias. The negativity bias is a remainder from the time when humans faced way more threats in the everyday life than nowadays. Indeed, your chances of survival were much better if you focused your attention on the sabre-toothed tiger that was planning on having you for lunch rather than the nice flowers growing next to it.

Today, most people obviously don’t need to worry about such threats in our daily lives, but evolution has left us with this mark nevertheless. This makes it easier for us to focus our attention on the negatives instead of the positives. It has also been found in research that our genes determine at least partly how happy or unhappy we naturally feel. This can make it even harder to focus on the good things in our lives.

However, despite the negativity bias and not having been born with the “happiness gene”, you can still build a happy life and even become a specialist in a subject such as Positive Psychology. In fact, Professor Seligman himself definitely doesn’t claim to be born as an optimist. He also states that pessimism is a trait that you can change and that it is possible for anyone to create a happier life.

3. “Positive Psychology HELPS YOU TO BE HAPPIER AND to enjoy life more”

Yes. Positive Psychology does provide you with tools that help you to be happier and enjoy life more. However, we need to be careful with what we mean by such words as “happy” and “enjoy”. Do we mean increasing the number of pleasures in our life and eliminating anything undesirable? We have already seen above that Positive Psychology doesn’t try to eliminate the uncomfortable aspects of life. When it comes to increasing pleasures, such as enjoying a piece of chocolate cake or getting a massage, these can increase the positive emotion. But positive emotion is only a part of happiness. According to Professor Seligman’s famous PERMA model, flourishment consists of positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Interestingly, some of these components of flourishment don’t necessarily lead to positive emotion, at least not immediately. For example, using our character strengths and being totally absorbed in our work provides us satisfaction but not necessarily in the same way as eating our favorite ice cream does (see also the work from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow).

Also, it is good to remember that Positive Psychology, or anything else for that matter, cannot give you a magic pill that makes you happy for good. It gives you tools, and by consistently using these tools, you can build a happier life for yourself and for those around you. Trying an exercise, or intervention, once is not going to do much for you. Therefore, happiness, well-being, and flourishment are about practicing happiness rather than trying to arrive at a certain destination, which supposedly makes us happy.

To sum it up, Positive Psychology is a discipline that investigates how people and organizations can become the best versions of themselves, to flourish. I am sure that I will be writing more about this subject over the course of my studies, so if you are interested in finding out more, sign up to receive the new posts by email! 🙂

Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash

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