At one time or another, all of us have contemplated the things that make our lives worthwhile: family, friends, home, financial security, the list goes on and is different for each one of us. Positive psychologists have taken this concept one step further by developing a movement that is devoted to the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.
American psychologist Martin Seligman is credited as the father of the positive psychology movement which can be described as the scientific approach to the study of human emotion, cognition, and behavior, with the goal of highlighting our strengths versus weaknesses. As such, positive psychology aims to tell us how to create a good life instead of merely fixing what is wrong.
Ironically, Seligman first made his mark on psychology with his theory of learned helplessness, the empirically backed phenomenon of how and why some humans learn to become helpless and feel a lack of control over what takes place in their lives. Based on his work and insights, Seligman crafted positive psychology as a method of helping individuals learn to be proactive and healthy, not helpless and resigned to lives filled with dissatisfaction.
In short, Seligman became discouraged with psychology’s focus on mental illness and abnormal behavior and sought instead to understand how to cultivate well-being, happiness, and personal strengths.
As a result, positive psychology emphasizes the development of character strengths, gratitude, happiness, optimism, well-being, satisfaction, self-esteem and hope as elements of a life worth living. In Seligman’s own words, he has devoted the second half of his career to helping people learn how to flourish by learning to be optimistic and resilient in the face of adversity.
After being elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Seligman used his platform to advocate for his new theory, a philosophy that has grown in global influence throughout the 21st century. In just a few decades researchers have produced tens of thousands of studies on Seligman’s ideas, instituting a foundation upon which the teachings of positive psychology are now used to enhance relationships, teaching, coaching, and the workplace.
By now you’re probably wondering how to incorporate some of the positive psychology lessons into your own life. It’s impossible to condense all of the benefits of positive psychology in this short space, but there are several discoveries worth repeating. What are some of the most eye-opening and significant lessons to be learned from positive psychology research findings?
Here are just a few of the impactful study findings that may make you reconsider how to go about increasing your own happiness:
- Spending money on experiences delivers a bigger increase in happiness than does spending on material possessions (Howell & Hill, 2009)
- Money does impact happiness, but not as much as we may believe; decreasing focus on attaining wealth can actually increase happiness (Aknin, Norton, & Dunn, 2009)
- Happiness is contagious; spending time with cheerful people is likely to increase your own level of happiness (Fowler & Christakis, 2008)
- Happiness is connected to a sense of gratitude, indicating that cultivating gratitude can increase happiness (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005)
- Volunteering one’s time to a cause important to you enhances well-being and may reduce certain symptoms of depression (Jenkinson et al., 2013);
- Performing acts of kindness boost our well-being (Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl, & Lyubomirsky, 2012)
- Pay attention to achieving your goals but remember to maintain a sustainable life balance by keeping your ambitions in check as you focus on the important people in your life (Seligman, 2011).
- Feeling happy, and positive emotion raises the chances that we will achieve success (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005)
Additionally, experts have found that the feeling of happiness is rooted in the moment and oriented to the present time. In contrast, a sense of meaningfulness is focused more on the past and future, which indicates that you can key in on the here and now as a way of boosting happiness.
In general, positive psychology teaches us that happiness, good relationships, and character strengths, can buffer us from life’s inevitable setbacks and disappointments and that money has the potential to propagate happiness only when we spend it on others.
Finally, there are a few activities that you can practice if you’d like to incorporate a positive intervention or two in your own life.
First of all, keeping a gratitude journal gives you the opportunity to identify and reflect on the positive aspects of life that you are thankful for. To get started, try to write down two to three things you are appreciative of each day. Many people feel a boost in well-being and gratitude after keeping their journal for just a few days.
Along the same lines, writing a gratitude letter to someone you appreciate with the reasons why serves a similar purpose.
Finally, if you’d rather tell your special somebody in person why you appreciate them, consider a gratitude visit, phone call, or video chat!
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