What Positive Psychology is Not… Myths & Misinformation
Life is predictably unpredictable. It is full of hardship, heartbreak, and uncertainty.
Life is also full of wonder and opportunity and challenge.
The field of applied positive psychology does not avoid or deny the complexities of our human existence. Instead, it offers evidence-based insights and interventions that enrich our lives and enable people to live with intention, wholeheartedness, and a sense of well-being as the seasons of life unfolds.
The practices and principles that have emerged from the study of positive psychology research can even mitigate the negative effects of adversity when trials and tragedies strike — as they inevitably will.
Positive Psychology is NOT Repackaged Self-Help Fluff
Rainbow-smiley-faced-unicorn emojis and “think positive” bumper stickers hinder more than help the “science” of positive psychology advance.
Regrettably, there are countless self-proclaimed “positivity gurus” who perpetuate the idea that positive psychology is all about being positive and happy in a Pollyanna-ish kind of way.
It’s not surprising that these misconceptions self-propagate in our online world where untrained “practitioners” selectively dumb down and misrepresent the emerging research to deliver a kind of superficial “happyology”.
We’ve all seen the blog posts: “7 Simple Strategies To Stay Happy” — as if happiness is a permanent state of being and the end goal of existence.
We’ve all heard the clarion call for starry-eyed optimism in the face of life-altering loss.
We’ve even been told the secret to alchemizing adversity is simply to channel our “vibrational energy” to create new and better realities — as if those of us who have experienced adversity or tragedy somehow invited it into our lives by virtue of “negative vibrations”.
Here are the problems with some of what we’ve heard:
This sort of “positivity” can feel like a prescription for forced merriment and self-deception and ultimately end in lifelong suffering and cynicism.
It’s maddeningly out-of-touch with the daily challenges of modernity and the very real suffering in our world.
It minimizes life’s hardships, undermines our well-being, and leaves people feeling disillusioned, disengaged, and ultimately depressed.
Blogger Łukasz Strachanowski succinctly describes how misconceptions proliferate in his observation that many authors and bloggers have:
… bastardized positive psychology and regurgitated it into a crowd-pleasing and a multi-million-dollar “positive thinking” industry. And misunderstanding and ill-informed commentary have compounded the problem and produced a bitter backlash against the science. The source of this backlash’s power is easy to identify – it is ignorance about the field.
So What is Positive Psychology?
Wikipedia defines positive psychology as, “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living”, or “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life”.
Positive psychology was built upon humanistic psychology and really began to blossom as a new field of study in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. Up until the turn of the century, a disproportionate number of psychological studies focused on one end of the mental health spectrum with all eyes on illness and/or maladaptive behavior — essentially emphasizing what was wrong with humanity. Seligman and his colleagues felt there was not enough emphasis on all that is right with people, or enough studies about what actually enables human flourishing.
In 2011, Seligman consolidated his research in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.
The book introduced the PERMA theory of well-being which included five key components for human flourishing, including:
- Positive Emotions: Feelings that foster optimism and positivity and ultimately increase a person’s sense of well-being to enrich all areas of life — health, relationships, work, etc. This includes not just the emotions of pleasure that arise from meeting survival needs like eating, drinking, sleeping, etc., but also emotions of eudaemonic well-being — those deeper, longer-lasting satisfactions that arise from both challenging and meaningful experiences. Positive emotions ultimately enable people to reflect on the past with gratitude, cherish the present, and be drawn to the future with hopeful anticipation.
- Engagement: Participating in activities that are so all-consuming that we feel a sense of complete immersion or “flow”. In a flow experience, we live entirely in the present and lose all track of time. Flow experiences occur when there’s just the right balance of ability and interest and opportunity. They may challenge us intellectually, physically, and/or emotionally. And although there are countless types of flow experiences, common activities that inspire full engagement include music, dance, art, writing, athletics, performing, reading, working, etc.
- Relationships: Healthy and authentic relationships in our families, communities, and places of work contribute dramatically to well-being. We are social creatures who need social connections to truly flourish. We need to experience a sense of abiding love, belonging, and connectedness to feel safe and secure in a world that is constantly changing.
- Meaning: When we set aside superficial pursuits and dedicate our time to the service of something greater than ourselves, we experience well-being. People may find this through a variety of pathways including their career or their family, through social activism, religion, politics, a creative work, charitable engagement, or a whole host of other activities that fill us with passion and purpose.
- Accomplishment: Setting and achieving meaningful goals brings longer-lasting satisfaction and provides us with a sense of agency and accomplishment in the world.
Applied positive psychology is a descriptive, not prescriptive, science.
A New Theory of Well-Being: PERMA + Vitality = PERMA-V
Shortly after Seligman released his book, one of his former students from the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, built upon the well-known PERMA theory of happiness in her work as Founder & CEO of The Flourishing Center in NYC.
Zhivotovskaya’s research suggested that physical well-being and vitality were also critical components of flourishing, and thus emerged the PERMA-V theory of well-being. Other practitioners have since adopted this model, though sometimes it’s referred to as PERMAH, with the “H” representing “health”.
The PERMA-V theory is now taught in Zhivotovskaya’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (or CAPP) Program, which is the world’s leading certification program in the field to date.
As a CAPP graduate myself, the PERMA-V theory is the model I draw upon in my client work.
How Do Positive Psychology & Grief Relief Come Together?
As someone who works with people who are navigating serious life transitions, my goal is not just to help people function again… although that is the first step to well-being.
Ultimately, I want to help people flourish by changing the conversation about life after loss. I do this by helping people grow in self-awareness, self-compassion and self-care, and ultimately by providing people with evidence-based practices and principles that empower them to:
- Experience more positive emotions
- Engage in the world more wholeheartedly
- Have richer relationships
- Find greater meaning and purpose
- Set and accomplish meaningful goals
- Experience greater physical and emotional strength and vitality
I know firsthand that in the wake of devastating loss or transition it can be incredibly challenging to summon any positivity or sense of hopefulness about the future.
I also know firsthand that we can take small, intentional steps to slowly rebuild a life of deep joy, abiding connection, and profound purpose.
Based on what we know about human flourishing, we can summon the character, conviction, and compassion to live wholeheartedly again, as each season of life unfolds.