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What is Positive Psychology?

Medically Reviewed and Edited by 
Olga Kyrychenko, Psychologist

Positive psychology (PP) is not therapy—or, at the very least, it does not follow the usual framework other therapies have. For example, the well-known cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) targets your cognition and behavior to correct your thought process and develop healthier habits. Meanwhile, psychoanalysis focuses more on your unconscious with the intention of bringing it to the surface because it is believed to be the cause of a lot of maladaptive behaviors.

In positive psychology, the focus is on your psychological state (not just positive ones, unlike its name suggests), traits and strengths, and the systems that contribute to your growth (i.e., family, peers, education, religion). There is no “correction” that happens in this field. Instead, it encourages you to navigate through your daily life as it is by highlighting self-improvement.

I do recognize that Applied Positive Psychology (APP) exists and that it serves as a foundation for contemporary therapeutic approaches like positive psychotherapy (PPT) and wellbeing therapy (WBT). However, just like how Seligman and Peterson introduced positive psychology as prevention rather than cure, this guide I have written follows suit.

In the other therapy guides I have written, I discuss the types of therapies in a way that gives you a picture of the practitioner and how they would be using the approach. With positive psychology interventions, I want to shift the focus to you and how you would use such interventions to preserve your wellbeing and build meaningful connections.

Ultimately, I hope this article  will help you answer whether PP practices would bring you significant outcomes like developing a growth mindset and understanding fully what joyful living is.

Positive Psychology in the US

A bibliometric analysis on positive psychology studies published last year, 2023, tallied a total of 1,780 research works on PP published in the US.  In the same paper, the researchers mentioned prominent figures from the US whose contributions offer a glimpse into the foundation upon which contemporary positive psychology stands. 

The influx of positive psychology studies can also be attributed to how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the USA. The meta-research also cited the pandemic as a main focus of positive psychology research as of late: recent literature consisted of both PP during the pandemic as well as after. Topics include resilience building, posttraumatic growth, and mindfulness practices. 

The ideas surrounding positive psychology are highly influenced by humanistic psychology – most especially American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theories regarding self-actualization. 

Martin E.P. Seligman

Seligman’s contribution to positive psychology, albeit considered controversial, served as a pivot towards newer perspectives both from Seligman himself and other contributors in the field. He emphasized happiness as the presumed core of this branch of psychology. Seligman suggested that wellbeing’s greatest predictor is hedonic happiness: our somewhat superficial experience of pleasure and enjoyment.

Later on, he amended his initial viewpoint and provided a wider scope of positive psychology by introducing the PERMA model. He stated that your positive emotions, continuous pursuit of the things you enjoy, meaningful relationships, and the process of creating goals and achieving them constitute your wellbeing.

Edward Diener

Compared to Seligman’s earlier view of positive psychology, Diener’s perspective of it is that of a transformative tool. He challenged skeptics of PP – those who believed that happiness is not an empirical concept. 

His direction was towards societal change emphasizing the idea that wellbeing—which, like Seligman, he believed to be circled happiness—needed to be the focus of policies, benefiting both underprivileged and privileged populations. Diener’s outlook on positive psychology can be summarized as his belief that happiness is for everyone.

Barbara L. Fredrickson

Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory states that positive emotions broaden your choices of action as opposed to negative emotions that narrow them. 

For example, excitement pushes you to pursue whatever elicits that feeling. In contrast, if you feel dejected you tend to remain idle because pessimism gets the best of you. 

The build part of the theory refers to your drive to seek things that will prolong the positive emotion that you feel. Going back to my example, if the thing that excites you is, say, getting into a sport like swimming, you build around that interest by enrolling in swimming lessons.

Much like Seligman and Diener, Fredrickson also focused on subjective feelings but later on, she shifted towards abandoning the idea that positive psychology is just about feeling happy.

Christopher Peterson

Peterson’s work on positive psychology deviates from the other three I have mentioned. While the previously mentioned theorists all focused on the psychological state, Peterson introduced the idea of traits and strengths as the highlights of his study of the field. Consequently, the development of this classification system hallmarked a shift in the perspective that this modern notion is just about happiness. 

Instead, with the added consideration of individual differences and cultural factors, positive psychology began to concern itself with authenticity: feeling whatever it is you are feeling, regardless if it is positive or not.

Different Types of Positive Psychology Interventions

Generally speaking, these positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are mainly used to enhance “subjective wellbeing and psychological wellbeing”. These include – but are not limited to – happiness habits, optimism techniques, gratitude practices, and mindfulness exercises. Listed below are the most relevant interventions and their primary purposes:

1. Best Possible Self:

The Best Possible Self (BPS) is a practice wherein you are urged to recall and write “personal and meaningful experiences” regardless if the experience brought about good or bad feelings. The purpose of such—more than just reflection—is to recognize that you are in control of your life. There is no better self than a self in which you can freely maneuver towards a goal which, essentially, makes you a happier person.

2. Developing Positive Psychological Capital:

Psychological capital (PsyCap) is a “construct linked to positive outcomes”. You will be encouraged to develop its components of hope, self-efficacy, optimism, and resilience by evaluating situations in your life and determining the steps you could take in order to face such adversities. As a consequence, you will become more efficient in dealing with a variety of difficulties.

3. Self-Compassion and Optimism Exercises:

The self-compassion exercise allows you to write a letter to yourself in which you are expected to act as a friend towards yourself. For example, if you feel as if you are close to burnout, you might write, “I am worried that you always feel tired and unmotivated”, which is an exhibit of self-compassion. As for the optimism exercise, you are expected to write about the near future and assess where you are at present. Both exercises will result in a significant increase in happiness.

4. Solution-Focused Coaching:

In this type of intervention, you are to be taught approaches that allow you to use your strengths and resources to achieve goals related to positive wellbeing. Additionally, your resiliency will be sharpened and in turn, it will help you enhance your self-efficacy. Being able to fulfill your goals efficiently increases your positive affect and it also makes you less sad.

5. Strength-Based Positive Interventions:

The practices under strength-based approaches adhere to the PP notion that certain strengths (i.e., strength of temperance) allow for positive circumstances (i.e., self-regulation helps you flourish in life). Making use of gratitude visit, three good things, character strengths, counting kindness, gift of time, and another door opens interventions, you are expected to have increased happiness and the risk of you having depressive symptoms becomes lower.

The process I took to filter these interventions includes choosing studies with more than 70 participants and making sure that the participants are not part of a clinical group. By doing so, I regard these positive psychology interventions as empirical, effective, and applicable to all.

Positive Psychology Techniques and Tools

The techniques and tools that I will be sharing with you in this section are things that you may practice independently and in turn, be part of your routine. I would call them positive psychology vitamins since they act like the supplements you would take to not be at risk for physical illnesses: these tools – backed by research – will most likely keep you away from psychological distress.

Calming Techniques

In my article on happiness, I have discussed the importance of recognizing that positive emotions extend beyond joy and excitement to include contentment, safety, and peace. This is something that positive psychology highlights too hence mindfulness being an important aspect of PP. 

With these calming techniques, you are expected to be able to balance doing (being involved) and being (stepping back). Too much of the former can lead to mental and physical distress while too much of the latter may be indicative of depressive symptoms.

To achieve such balance, here are exercises you can insert into your lifestyle as needed:

  • Sleep: Might seem obvious, but poor sleep quality can cause mental health issues. Learn to maintain a routine when it comes to sleeping and try breathing techniques to improve the quality of your sleep.
  • Meditation: Even your gut health can be improved by meditation. There are different types of meditation you can try: concentration-based, awareness-based, and loving-kindness – see which type suits your lifestyle the most.
  • Green Care: Being considered a non-strenuous physical activity and mainly a source of aesthetic pleasure, there are many benefits to gardening and horticulture.  It can help reduce cortisol levels and make you feel less stressed.

Energizing Techniques

Having the avenue to properly use your energy is emphasized in positive psychology. You may have the preconception that doing things in your daily life is enough of an energy expenditure, but the thing is, your motivation to keep being productive is rooted in creating more energy via activities that provide a renewed and increased energy boost. Spending your energy just on work, school, or other responsibilities can eventually lead to burnout. 

To prevent your energy from being exhausted, here are practices you may follow: 

  • Nutrition: Your mental health is no less than affected by your physical health by your diet. Incorporating more high-fiber food into your everyday meals can help you stock up on the energy you need. Eating habits also matter – learn to enjoy the texture, smell, taste, and temperature of your food instead of just eating because it is needed.
  • Physical Activity: Simply taking the time to climb up and down the stairs can have a significant impact on your wellbeing. There is a reason why most people who work from home invest in standing desks: to compensate for not being able to move a lot while sitting.
  • Blue Spaces: Just like green care, being able to be near a body of water helps with your overall wellbeing. The reason behind such is that knowing that you can engage in water activities gives you a sense of self-efficacy and better self-esteem, because, let us face it: it can be pretty scary.

Coping Techniques

Did you know that stress caused by daily hassles is more impactful to your wellbeing than deep-seated traumas? So if you’re thinking that coping techniques are mainly just for those who are clinically distressed, then you may have been feeling exhausted, irritable, and having self-doubts lately. Building up on resilience is always a good practice regardless of whether you have major issues to deal with.

To effectively traverse through hardships in life you should practice:

  • Expressive Writing: It differs from reflective writing which you probably engage in when you are writing journals or daily logs. Expressive writing involves being focused on your thoughts and feelings rather than the events that happened to you. By engaging in such, you can deal with negative emotions (if there were any) through self-affirmation. By doing so, you can handle them better should they resurface in the future.
  • Stress Mindset: You cannot avoid stress – even if you try to, you are bound to even be more stressed if you choose to avoid it. With the stress mindset, you are encouraged to assess the cause of your stress so that you can shift from thinking that stress will slow you down to believing that stress can help you. For example, if the stress of a nearing deadline is viewed as something positive, you may expect yourself to work more efficiently to rid yourself of the stress.

Feeling-good Techniques

You may consider these techniques as the core of positive psychology. The primary purpose of feeling-good techniques is to facilitate positive emotions which then allows you to develop better problem-solving skills. You may also think of feeling-good techniques as motivators to use the other PP tools.

Unlike the other techniques, however, feeling-good techniques tend to focus on encouraging you to continue doing what you already know makes you happy. The main idea is to immerse yourself in your hobbies, to continue engaging with your interests (in moderation, as generally emphasized in psychology), and to surround yourself with things and people you are grateful for.

Such an idea is grounded on the build-and-broaden view that we “build our resources for the future”. These resources include physical resources (i.e., your immunity from stress-induced illnesses), psychological resources (i.e., your virtues and strengths), intellectual resources (i.e., your consistent practice of important life skills), and social resources (i.e., healthy and lasting relationships). By making sure that these resources are in check, you are expected to be able to resolve problems that will come your way as well as scout better opportunities.

Meaning-making Techniques

Similar to feeling-good techniques, these tools feature being in the moment and gaining insight while doing so. It helps you focus on what gives you a sense of purpose which then leads to higher life satisfaction.

Regardless of whether you are currently facing difficulties or experiencing success, meaning-making techniques will help you reflect on such and, as a consequence, gain a better understanding of yourself and what you have surrounded yourself with.

To help you enhance the meaning of your life you should try the following:

  • Exploring meaning: There are a lot of ways to explore meaning but the one I recommend the most is engaging in logotherapy. In logotherapy, you are encouraged to seek values: creative, experiential, and attitudinal. The creative value comes from your reflection on your contributions to society and everything else that you have done to improve yourself. 

     

    When you reflect on things you are grateful for, you are discovering the experiential value of the meaning of life. Lastly, if optimism does not quite work for you, accepting that there will be unwanted circumstances bound to happen one way or another can help you find the attitudinal value and prepare yourself for such.

  • Benefit finding: Optimism is very much valued in positive psychology. Benefit finding is a tool that also highlights being optimistic. When there are devastating events in your life, you can still experience growth. You can start appreciating life more or new possibilities could be revealed to you if you change your mindset that bad occurrences can only breed bad consequences. You may also find yourself being more appreciative of your strength and resilience for being able to bounce back from difficulties.

  • Photography: Safekeeping memories by taking pictures is a helpful tool to preserve your life’s meaning. The simple act of formulating a caption for a snapshot that you took on a whim already reveals part of yourself that would otherwise remain hidden from you. For example, if you post a photo of a cloud reminding you of your childhood then you are claiming the mundane as something unique to you – that even small things like that are worth appreciating and pondering over.

Other techniques that are more contemporary include summarizing recent life events and narrating them to people while also listening to their narratives. Think: slide presentation parties with your friends. Doing social media breaks or detoxes once in a while is also encouraged by PP concepts.

Positive Psychology Use

Considering that gratitude practices and other positive psychology practices are often meant to be incorporated into daily life, instead of focusing on specific psychological conditions, I will discuss character strengths that exist in every single one of us.

I will not exhaust the list since there are 24 of them, divided into 6 virtues. Rather, I would like to discuss with you how they contribute to self-acceptance, autonomy, goal progress, physical health, passion, and resilience.

These character strengths- social intelligence, curiosity, and self-regulation to name a few -are what the tools I have previously discussed target to develop, enhance, or reform. By doing so, you are nudged towards learning from and reframing negative experiences. Now, after being able to utilize those negative experiences, you are expected to be able to navigate challenges effectively. If you are a professional, you may feel more productive and engaged leading to job satisfaction. Making use of your strengths also helps foster healthier relationships be it with your family, peers, or colleagues.

Although the PPIs listed above help in developing these character strengths, there is a dedicated program for character strengths which—like most positive psychology practices—you can do independently. You can always seek the help of a professional for accountability or guidance. 

The Strengths Builder program offers a structured approach for you to develop and apply your character strengths in your daily life. The four-step program walks you through identifying and valuing your own and other people’s strengths, investigating and utilizing your signature strengths, using your strengths to overcome obstacles in life, and finally developing your strengths into a habit. The program allows for flexibility and adaptation based on your preferences and circumstances.

The use of positive psychology in cultivating and leveraging your innate strengths provides you the opportunity to thrive in all aspects of life, creating a more fulfilling and meaningful existence.

Are Positive Psychology Interventions Effective?

Research conducted in 2020 published that positive psychology interventions had significant positive effects on decreasing stress levels, improving the quality of life (QoL), developing strengths, and improving wellbeing. They also noted that consistency is key with positive psychology interventions since the methods that had the most significant effects were those that had longer durations. The study is a meta-analysis of PPIs meant for both treatment and prevention – both types are beneficial to clinical and non-clinical populations, respectively.

In a similar study that focused on self-administered interventions, the researchers highlighted that the future-orientedness of positive psychology contributes to its significant role in promoting optimism and hope which were very helpful values to remember during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such also applies to minor crises. With PPIs being more accessible than other interventions, they are considered “viable alternative treatments with comparable outcomes” (i.e., alleviating symptoms, improving emotional regulation, etc.).

There is also research on an online positive intervention that focused on stress and burnout that reduced emotional exhaustion brought about by burnout. The PPI also reduced stress levels while subsequently increasing life satisfaction levels. The PPI is also effective in enhancing positive cognitive appraisal which then, in turn, increases overall wellbeing.

What are the Benefits of Positive Psychology Interventions?

Having the chance to be greatly involved in PPIs is already a benefit in itself because it helps you develop long-term habits or completely alter your lifestyle for the better. Positive psychology activities and exercises range from simple ones like gratitude journaling, and meditation to expert-facilitated ones such as WBT techniques. Despite the simplicity of most PPIs, studies continuously report their long-term benefits.

Here is a short but important list of those benefits:

  • Reduces the risk of developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
  • Applicable to any life scenarios; good or bad
  • Knowledge and understanding are shareable, positively impacting others’ lives as well
  • Constantly evolving, there is a positive psychology practice for just about everything
  • Regards those who practice PP as their own “experts”; everything is for you, by you

What are the Drawbacks of Positive Psychology?

Something that sounds too good to be true will have its critics – and for good reason. A paper published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology cited that for positive psychology to becoming more credible—not just within the psychology community but in multiple fields as well (i.e., medicine, education, business—there is the need to include “multiple theoretical views and practices”. 

The authors shared not only their reflections as experts but also provided extensive syntheses of points taken from multiple disciplines. They also highlighted how positive psychology revolves mostly around Western viewpoints. I would like to revert you to the section I have written about Positive Psychology in the US – the total number of papers the researchers analyzed in that study is about 4,400. With the number I have shared, the US’ contributions amount to ~38% of the total studies, England with ~9%, and Canada with ~7% proving the saturation in the field.

The paper also talked about how PP is mostly grounded on the belief that “emotions, attitudes, and behaviors are entirely conscious and under the individual’s control” attributing to its promotion of self-guided interventions. PP often neglects the notion of past experiences and mortality which are as important as being the present or optimism.

In another research, a notion was presented regarding the continuous growth of positive psychology. The study highlighted that it could lead to its downfall with its commercialization ultimately leading to it being less “scientifically substantiated” and “not properly regulated”.

Is Positive Psychology for Me?

Positive psychology is for everyone – the main catch is your understanding of it and how you use that understanding to choose which concepts of positive psychology are most applicable to your situation. 

However, since I have also been emphasizing how positive psychology is not therapy, I would like to remind you that no matter how beneficial using this field’s tools or undergoing PPIs is, it is NOT a substitute for therapy. If you recognize that your stress, sadness, or anxiety is beyond what I have described in this article, do not hesitate to seek help.

The main takeaway I hope you will take with you and constantly remember is that you should not wait until your wellbeing deteriorates before you start being concerned. Self-care is not something you only do when you need it – it is a practice that prevents you from ever needing anything beyond such.