Positive psychology

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Positive psychology

Overview[edit | edit source]

Traditional psychology has been criticised for overly focusing on negative aspects of human experience. Positive psychology seeks a better balance between negative and positive. It is common for people to focus on their failures, negative emotions, bad days, and let these define how they see themselves as human beings. But positive psychology offers other ways of responding to difficulty and challenge.

Positive psychology has evolved from humanistic psychology which pays specific attention to the inherent human need for self-actualisation, as proposed by Abraham Maslow. Research has found that positive emotions build an individual's long-term psychological, intellectual, social and physical well-being, and resources through coping strategies and skill development.[1] Positive psychology focuses on how to optimise the human experience, including engagement, meaning making and accomplishments.

The importance of a growth mindset and its influence on individual decision making and perceptions of the surrounding world is a central theme. The concept of optimism is also important; it shows how, even in times of distress, positive thinking can be achieved. This is where Seligman's PERMA model is useful. The PERMA model aims at finding positive meaning in everyday life by breaking it down to a simple acronym: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments.

The broaden and build theory, proposed by Barbara Fredrickson, explains how positive thinking allows the mind to expand and think more deeply about the world. This has assisted in helping people take on life stressors more effectively. By exploring one's awareness and understanding of one's thoughts and actions, positive emotions can be progressively shaped to allow people to become the best they can be - learning, growing, and thriving. In essence, developing positive relationships with oneself and others is what makes people healthy, happy, and wise.

Psychological well-being[edit | edit source]

Psychological well-being is a state of comfort, happiness, and satisfaction. In positive psychology, this is also known as flourishing which involves mainly positive emotions, positive psychological functioning, and close social connections. Optimal human functioning can be developed by cultivating strengths such as resilience, gratitude, a growth mindset, and generativity. Psychological well-being, including self-acceptance, personal growth, and autonomy, influences an individual's potential to flourish. A common element for flourishing is that it optimises well-being in a multi-dimensional and holistic sense, including eudemonic (meaning, self-esteem and growth) and hedonic (emotional stability and positive emotion) well-being. Feeling content with the past, present, and potential future assists with managing challenge and change in a healthy way.

Cognitive appraisal theory suggests that thought processes during an event determines the nature and extent of emotional response. While experiences are based on interpretations shaped by individuals' culture and previous experiences, positive appraisals can fundamentally shape experiences to provide more positive emotions and greater life satisfaction.

Negative feelings and emotions are a normal and natural part of life, but flourishing develops positive emotional, psychological, and social resources to deal with challenges. To flourish is not to disregard upsetting emotions or mental disturbances but to consider them as part of a continuum of positive mental health and well-being. With development in self-acceptance, personal growth, and autonomy, one is able to learn who one is as a unique person, including strengths and weaknesses, and create positive connections with others to assist in advancing personal and professional goals. Flourishing benefits emotional well-being, mental health, outlook on life, and motivational drive. Different aspects of emotional well-being include:

  • Resilience
  • Ability to cope with life stressors
  • Ability to foster positive emotions such as trust and gratitude
  • Reduced depressive symptoms
  • Social unity

Flourishing individuals also provide society at large with significant advantages. To flourish is more than pursuing one's hedonic happiness; it is also about seeking beyond and creating positive environments. Key contributors to engage in a flourishing lifestyle include:

  • Gratitude – To appreciate the good things in life and recognise many things that one is grateful for.
  • Generativity – Generativity is about sharing one's knowledge and skills with the next generation. Generativity is about helping those around you. It is the opposite of self-absorption. Being caring, creative, and purposeful are all essential for flourishing.
  • Positive relationships – Deep and enriching relationships allow people to give freely of themselves to others and help encourage self-development for self and others without judgement.

Development a growth mindset[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Illustration of how a growth mindset is fluid vs fixed mindset is concrete

A growth mindset is a game changer in how one may view the world. A growth mindset provides the flexibility to see life events from different angles, generating a more creative and intellectual mind. Engaging in positive thinking opens new experiences and knowledge by taking on a greater interest in the world. In order to a develop a more growth-oriented/optimistic mindset it is important to understand the cognitive patterns individuals can fall into. Psychologist Carol Dweck described two specific mindsets that greatly influence how one sees oneself and the world around: fixed and growth mindsets.

A fixed mindset is when "people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort."[2]

Conversely, Dweck's growth mindset "is the belief that one's most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work - brains and talent are just the starting point."[3]

Angela Duckworth extended on Dweck's growth mindset, through her conceptualisation of grit. Grit is about working long and hard enough to achieve one's desired goals because an individual is motivated to reach success regardless of how challenging the task may be:

"Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals, grit is stamina, grit is sticking with your future, day in day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years and working really hard to make that future a reality"[4].

To acquire grit, work towards developing a growth mindset:

  1. Self-talk - The way that individuals view their world has a major impact on goal achievement. If a person believes in themselves and their goal, it becomes more likely to accomplish.
  2. Accept challenges - Entering tasks outside one's comfort zone invites challenge and offers opportunities to grow and learn.
  3. Effort - Effort proves an individual's potential and maps out what needs to be achieved for success.
  4. Improvement - From putting effort in comes progression and improvement; applying one's skills is key to the learning environment. With commitment an individual will become better at what they want to achieve.
  5. Openness - A growth mindset is about taking a chance with no guarantees for success. Before thinking, "I can't do this", an individual wishing to have a more optimistic mindset might say, "Well, what if it could work out?" Being open to new experiences and trying new things is a vital aspect to learn new ideas.
  6. Celebrate - Celebrating goals achieved, big or small, motivates and encourages the individual to continue thinking with a growth mindset.
  7. Learn from failure - Self-feedback is important to see how far one has progressed. Ask yourself, what worked? What didn't work? What did you really enjoy? What new approaches might work more effectively?

Learned optimism[edit | edit source]

Negative thoughts and feelings are an inevitable part of life - but how one copes with aversive events is the difference between being feeling unfulfilled or satisfied with life. Psychologist Martin Seligman, widely accepted as the father of positive psychology, argues that learned optimism can be cultivated and thus uplift well-being. Learning optimism involves an individual consciously challenging negative self-talk and actively thinking of more positive times and/or trying to find the positive aspects of a negative situation. Having a growth mindset is crucial to engaging in learned optimism because it provides the opportunity to think more flexibly and be open to positive change.

Figure 2. "The belief that one will succeed is the engine that inspires the efforts needed to overcome obstacles and achieve goals"[1]

By activating learned optimism, people are likely to cognitively restructure to see problems in a more positive light. Optimism boosts intrinsic motivation to persevere through life stressors and seek better results through more goal-focused behaviour.

The ABC cognitive behaviour therapy technique by Albert Ellis demonstrates how learned optimism can be developed by seeing the event from afar and taking a moment to interpret it from a different perspective. The ABC model is:

  • A - Antecedent: What is the situation?
  • B - Belief: Is your belief/feelings towards the antecedent rational or irrational? What are your subconscious thoughts towards the event?
  • C - Consequence: Behavioural and emotional response[5]

Psychological resilience provides protection and learning from hardships and allows one to endure a greater level of psychological stressors if and when they occur. Learned optimism helps to build psychological resilience by fostering beliefs about benefits that can arise from encountering challenges.

Trying out perspectives
  1. Engage your inner pessimist:
    • What makes you feel tense in daily life?
    • What are some challenges that you face in your life at present?
  2. Engage your inner optimist:
    • What 3 things excite you the most?
    • What is something you have accomplished in the past month?
  3. Outcomes:
    • What changes did you notice by thinking more optimistically?
    • What strategies or techniques can you implement to continue your optimistic thinking?
Optimistic thinking task

Write a plan that maps the goals you wish to achieve in the next five years. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What qualifications or skills do I need to complete this goal
  • How long will it take the complete this goal
  • Do I have the resources? If not, how can I gain the resources
  • What inspires you to achieve these goals? Why is it important to you? This might be the long term end goal, or individuals that have inspired you

Psychological resilience[edit | edit source]

Self psychology is multi-faceted and includes self constructs such as self-esteem, self-awareness and self-perception which shape the attitudes and beliefs about one's self as a result of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Learned optimism helps build mental strength and psychological resilience to protect oneself from stressors or harm in daily life, to move on from aversive events and avoid long term emotional damage. The key to encountering negative experiences but remaining positive is a self-concept which embraces growth by seeing threats or aversive events as challenges to be overcome and thereby offering potential for enhanced self constructs. Positive self-concept is essential for building psychological resilience as it is a reflection of the individual's present view of themselves as a result of the shaping from past experiences which predict how they might behave in future. Realising one's abilities, liking all parts of oneself, having self-determination and the ability to shape one’s world, and a sense of coherence, are key components of learned optimism and psychological resilience. Coping strategies which assist psychological resilience include cognitive reappraisal, humour, and goal-directed and problem-focused coping.

How to build psychological resilience:

  1. Find purpose (e.g., set goals and help others)
  2. Be kind to yourself, give yourself a little credit for the accomplishments you've made so far
  3. Hear what your thoughts are telling you - is there a frequent negative thought that could be changed?
  4. Develop your social connections

PERMA model[edit | edit source]

Positive psychology is a descriptive process that enables an understanding of how to live a fulfilling life. Seligman's PERMA model offers a scientific theory of happiness and psychological well-being with five core elements:

Figure 3. Venn diagram of the Japanese concept Ikigai meaning "reason for being"
  1. Positive emotion: To focus on optimism and view past, present, and future in a constructive light. To acknowledge that, life does have highs but also lows and to be prepared for that and think constructively to problem solve arising issues. Positive emotion promotes hedonic well-being.
  2. Engagement: To immerse oneself in a deeply enjoyable activity, flooding the body with positive neurotransmitters and hormones which enhances self-concept and well-being. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow explains how doing a task can be a reward in and of itself. When there is free pursuit of a clear goal, with feedback provided, engagement, concentration, and absorption is increased.[6]
  3. Relationships: Connection and promotion of love, intimacy, and strong emotional and physical interaction. Positive relationships support resilience in difficult times. Positive relations with others can also give life purpose and meaning. Importantly, acts of kindness towards others enhance one's well-being.[7]
  4. Meaning: Meaning engages something greater than one's self. Examples include family, workplaces, and social causes such as being environmentally friendly.[8] Psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl believed that potential for meaning exists in all circumstances and there is a fundamental human need, desire, and motivation to search for and find it. According to Frankl, life has inherent meaning which can be discovered in many different ways, unique to each individual. The meaning of self comes from the influence of instinct, drive, environment, and circumstance. Frankl proposed three categories of meaning:
    • Creative values promote finding meaning through work, hobbies, commitment to a cause, and other similar pursuits
    • Experiential values facilitate meaning making through nature, art, and relationships and
    • Attitudinal values are adaptive beliefs. Each of these ideas of meaning making connect with the Japanese concept Ikigai, translating to "reason for being", making one's life worthwhile, associated with feelings of accomplishment, fulfilment, and being in touch with inner self.
  5. Accomplishments: Accomplishments provide a sense of direction and meaning in life. Previous accomplishments give individuals opportunity to thrive and flourish in their future endeavours.

Broaden and build theory[edit | edit source]

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions by Barbara Fredrickson examines how thinking positive thoughts extends a person's awareness and behaviours. The theory asserts that, unlike negative emotions which narrow attention to prepare for specific and immediate behaviours, positive emotions broaden attention and expand the range of thoughts and behaviours, providing greater capacity to broaden thought-action skill sets and enhance personal resources, such as being more open minded, flexible, creative, and able to solve problems. By expanding positive emotion, greater interest is developed, which encourages exploration of new experiences. Positive emotions open and literally change the boundaries of the mind and outlook on the world. In other words, through building positive relationships with others, common humanity is evident and individuals are more open to exploring new experiences.

Optimal functioning is the exercising of positive thoughts and mindfulness about one's self and the surrounding world as well as addressing any negative energies that may be present in the mind and body. Through optimal functioning individuals can be in touch with their emotional states and lead fulfilling lives. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions can assist in coping with stressors and negative emotions because optimistic people are able to think more clearly and weigh out the options for overcoming aversive events. Furthermore, building positive resources results in flourishing and thriving, increasing the likelihood of a happy future, positive social connections, and diluting the psychological urgency of overwhelming situations, and thus supporting enhancement of well-being.

Self-transcendence[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Individual practising mindfulness and self-transcendence

Self-transcendence is a personality trait that involves the expansion of personal boundaries such that an individual feels a sense of purpose to complete the world they live in. Abraham Maslow's self actualisation is where an individual seeks peak experiences. Beyond this point self-transcendence becomes present where people's own concerns and higher perspective develops a greater sense of awareness also known as plateau experiences. Emotional well-being, openness to experience, and absorption are important to self-transcendence which leads to mature creativity when put alongside high self-directedness, magical thinking, and unusual perceptions.

How do individuals grow from, and rise above, hardships or poor well-being? Viktor Frankl believed that potential for meaning exists in all circumstances and that there is a fundamental human need, desire, and motivation to search for and find it. Self-transcendence promotes growth through a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life, to redirect one's life to pursue greater life satisfaction regardless of how dark life events can be. Frankl proposed that happiness is a by-product of a meaningful life; rather than searching for happiness directly, seeking a meaningful life will result in happiness. He further suggested that self-transcendence and meaningful values are the ways that human happiness is found. Frankl believed that the deeper, spiritual part of the self contains a defiant power that enables the self to rise above the influence of instincts, drives, environment, and circumstances.


Self-transcendence quotes
  • "Success is not our greatest achievement, but, rather, it is facing a difficult life challenge with dignity and integrity" (Viktor Frankl)
  • "The essentially self-transcendent quality of human existence renders man a being reaching out beyond himself." (Viktor Frankl)
  • "Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive of holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature and to the cosmos." - Abraham Maslow[9]
  • "The capacity to expand self boundaries interpersonally (toward greater awareness of one's philosophy, values and dreams)" - Pamela Reed

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Positive psychology is essentially about autonomy, self-acceptance, and personal growth. It is important to build positive emotional, psychological, and social resources in order to flourish. Growth mindsets and positive connections with others are key components to enhancing one's self-perception and -knowledge. A growth mindset is the belief that one's most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Grit is the capacity to work long and hard enough to achieve one's desired goals. Psychological resilience is the ability to not just survive stressors, but also to thrive on challenges. Learned optimism is the capacity to challenge negative self-talk and actively think of more positive times or the positive outcomes of a bad situation.

The PERMA model provides a formula for a happier, more fulfilling life. This model includes developing positive relationships, engagement in activities, accomplishments, and finding meaning in the tasks one completes. The broaden and build theory applies cognitive strategies to extend a person's awareness of their emotion, providing the opportunity to be open minded, flexible and creative.

Positive psychology is also about being mindful towards life experiences, maintaining self-concept, optimism, gratitude, and positive social connections. Finding positive meaning in everyday life is vital for setting goals, making one's life worthwhile, feelings of accomplishment and fulfilment, and being in touch with one's inner self.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Fredrickson, Barbara L. (2001-3). "The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology". The American Psychologist 56 (3): 218–226. ISSN 0003-066X. PMID 11315248. PMC 3122271. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/. 
  2. "Growth Mindset - Definition of what it is?". Renaissance. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  3. "Growth Mindset - Definition of what it is?". Renaissance. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  4. Grit: the power of passion and perseverance | Angela Lee Duckworth, retrieved 2020-06-05
  5. "Learned Optimism: Is Martin Seligman's Glass Half Full?". PositivePsychology.com. 2019-12-30. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  6. "PERMA™ Theory of Well-Being and PERMA™ Workshops | Positive Psychology Center". ppc.sas.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2020-05-21.
  7. "PERMA™ Theory of Well-Being and PERMA™ Workshops | Positive Psychology Center". ppc.sas.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2020-05-21.
  8. "PERMA™ Theory of Well-Being and PERMA™ Workshops | Positive Psychology Center". ppc.sas.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2020-05-21.
  9. Tyne, Sean Van (2018-08-29). "Self-Transcendence, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the Experience Economy". Medium. Retrieved 2020-05-20.

See also[edit | edit source]

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