An Introduction to Positive Psychology
Part 1 of a Series on Positive PsychologyAn intent conversation on the meaning of life will often include the concepts of happiness and love. What could the purpose of life possibly be if it does not lead to some form of happiness? And what could better describe true happiness, or express it in a deeper way, than love? Notice that neither of these concepts are directly concerned with healing wounds or fixing problems. Instead, they suggest an active sense of hope that points toward pleasure.
A Focus on the Positive
Positive Psychology’s contribution to the field of inner healing is that it seeks to address what is good about humanity and what should be maximized in life. From a Christian perspective, Positive Psychology strives for what God designed humanity for, which is something lovely and great. While Jesus is clear that “in this world, you will have trouble,” (John 16:33b) in that same moment He seems to point out that we are not designed for this world or for trouble. Jesus sums up His purpose in coming to earth by declaring: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b) After all, this same God made laughter, friendship, sexuality, and taste buds.
Positive Psychology is not merely a shallow technique to make people think happy thoughts, while masking truly difficult circumstances. Instead of establishing a definition for normal, William James focused on the idea of optimal human functioning in the 1950s. He noted that a consideration of “optimal functioning” required the study of subjective experience, and that data-driven science could not complete this task alone. James famously noted that, while some individuals are able to utilize their resources to the fullest, others simply do not. It was Abraham Maslow who finally coined the term positive psychology in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, in a chapter entitled “Toward Positive Psychology.” In introducing this paradigm to the modern world, he remarked that the science of psychology:
…has been far more successful on the negative than the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about the potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its right jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half.
(Motivation and Personality, 354)
Human Thriving: The Other Side of the Coin
Dr. Martin Seligman is the accepted father of contemporary Positive Psychology and author of the seminal work, Learned Optimism. His 1998 Presidential Address to the American Psychological Association served as a clarion call to not only focus on curing mental illness, but to help people to lead fulfilling and productive lives. His conviction, like that of James and Maslow before him, was that psychology had become half-baked by systematically ignoring “good people” and the concept of human thriving. Since that time, Dr. Seligman has dedicated himself to the successful promotion of Positive Psychology – a science and philosophy that sees humans as basically good, capable of happiness and pleasure, and intrinsically able to live life. During the last decade and a half, this field has blossomed and has attracted considerable exposure and followers.
Positive Psychology (abbreviated as PP) has a lot to offer to the field of psychology. In some ways, the entire philosophy of PP involves a paradigm shift from standard thought and practice in the field. But PP is also simply the other side of the same coin of human functioning. It is an important addition to psychology, rather than a contradiction of it. I am writing this series of articles on the science of PP and its main concepts because it closely matches my own philosophy of clinical practice, and my own understanding humanity. I find Positive Psychology’s focus to be very helpful, both for healing and for maximizing a client’s experience of life so that they can experience life to the fullest.
Focusing on Your Strengths
Like my own training, the science of Positive Psychology is strengths-based. It focuses on illuminating and emphasizing the abilities and victories that a person already brings to the table, without needing to be trained or helped. Drawing on these strengths puts power into the hands of the client, enabling them to solve problems in the future, and is therefore empowering. This reveals the important truth that we do not need to focus on negatives or to fix something for a person to grow. Healing does not necessarily mean thriving, though they often go hand-in-hand.
A Series of Articles
In an effort to better describe Positive Psychology and to portray some of the guiding philosophies of my own clinical practice, this series of articles will highlight some of the central concepts that have been found to contribute to human wellness. These include:
- Human strengths – Personality traits seen as a unique set of assets and gifts.
- Gratitude – Simply noticing good things and then intentionally feeling grateful.
- Optimism – Interpreting events and anticipating the future positively.
- Forgiveness – Recognizing and choosing forgiveness for those who have hurt us.
- Savoring – Taking time to appreciate life with our five senses.
- Meaning and purpose – Integrating events into our life story in a big-picture sense.
- Positive emotion – Exercising key muscle-groups, such as happiness and affection.
- Humor – Laughing, joking with each other, or making light of a situation.
- Flow – A concept in psychology that describes activities of deep, meditative focus.
Each article will briefly discuss one of these nine concepts, giving a definition and an application of the concept to the Christian faith. The articles will also include actual exercises that the reader can try and enjoy. (Some of these are presented by Dr. Jeffery Volkman, of Flourishing PLLC at The Catholic University of America, while others are of my own design).
Christian Counseling for Human Thriving
As a Christian counselor, it is my pleasure to join with clients and help them to see the ways in which they have already overcome in life, as well as to see how God has uniquely shaped them – both to do great things and to experience joy and goodness in their lives and relationships.
“P is for Positive,” courtesy of Loreen Liberty, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Good Thoughts,” courtesy of Joris Louwes, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Smile,” courtesy of jessicahtam, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)