Is it possible for someone to improve their mental health and well-being through positive thoughts and talk therapy? The science of positive psychology claims it is not only possible, but also an avenue for mental health care to combat depression and loneliness.
This article will explore the main positive psychology principles, the benefits of positive psychology for those who practice it, and how to use positive psychology coaching as a mental health resource. After exploring the history and science behind it, keep reading for the best books on positive psychology and inspirational psychology quotes.
What Is Positive Psychology?
The biggest goal of positive psychology is to teach someone to shift their perspective, which empowers them to improve their quality of life.
Unlike traditional psychology, which focuses on a patient’s weaknesses and mental illness, positive psychology’s focus is on the strengths that allow a patient to build a satisfying, meaningful life. By learning more about positive experiences and traits like gratitude or resilience, people can improve their own happiness, well-being, and self-confidence.
Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology, established in 2000. Martin Seligman, a researcher with a background in psychology, had spent decades studying depression and the link between feelings of sadness and helplessness. He found that patients who learned to build positive character traits could also learn optimism and resilience to improve their overall mental health.
Seligman felt that traditional psychology had placed too much emphasis on healing damage and not enough effort on building human strengths. Seligman believed the field of positive psychology could correct the imbalance with a focus on helping people find fulfillment in creativity, engaging in meaningful pursuits, facing adversity, and relating to others.
In 1998, Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association. He added positive psychology as a new subfield to focus on the life-giving aspects of psychology. In 2000, Seligman published the foundational paper of positive psychology with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another psychologist known for developing the concept of “flow.”
Positive psychology is not meant to replace traditional psychology. Instead, it complements traditional psychology by focusing on “what is going right with an individual” to build positive well-being.
What Are Positive Psychology Principles?
Positive psychology is a “soft science” based on evidence-based theories developed from research such as surveys, animal experiments, brain imaging, and case studies. The predominant theory is the observation that developing strong social relationships, personal character traits, and overall happiness can act as a buffer for life’s setbacks.
Positive psychology promotes the theory that well-being can not only be defined and measured in humans, but it can also be taught. Through positive psychology principles, people can learn to improve their physical and mental well-being.
Some of the important theories and principles of positive psychology are:
- To live a “good life,” feelings of satisfaction and well-being are more important than feelings of temporary pleasure.
- A “good day” usually has three main characteristics: feelings of competence, autonomy, and a connection to others.
- Work and relationships matter in terms of making life worth living because they give people a sense of meaning.
- Money cannot buy happiness, but helping other people or volunteering almost always leads to feelings of happiness.
Based on these theories, Seligman proposed five different building blocks of well-being, which are now referred to as the PERMA model. These include:
- Positive emotions
- Engagement (with a project or hobby)
- Accomplishment or achievement
Patients using positive psychology coaching can learn to develop their own character traits and strengthen these five core areas. Positive psychology demonstrates how people can live meaningful and fulfilling lives by enhancing their everyday experiences.
What Is “Flow” in Positive Psychology Principles?
The concept of “flow,” mentioned above, is another positive psychology principle. Csikszentmihalyi coined this term after observing artists, writers, and athletes who seemed to lose themselves in their work during creative experiences. The state of flow occurs when someone has a high challenge and an equally high skill level.
Because entering flow is a rewarding and enjoyable experience, it is linked to happiness and overall well-being. This aspect of positive psychology encourages people to identify their strengths and develop areas of interest where they can find meaning and satisfaction. It is similar to the principle of engagement from the PERMA model.
Benefits of Positive Psychology
Practicing positive psychology regularly enables someone to boost their social and emotional well-being. It leads people to explore their own character strengths so they are better equipped to face challenging situations.
The human brain has a natural tendency to remember frustration and difficulties more than success. This “negativity bias” benefited Stone Age man when there were daily dangers to avoid, but it is less practical for modern man’s success. Positive psychology principles help people reframe the way they look at life, fight pessimism, focus on strengths, and cultivate gratitude.
Building a sense of meaning and purpose in life can have a wide range of positive outcomes for those practicing positive psychology. Research demonstrates that older adults who feel their life has meaning and purpose experience higher levels of physical health and mental well-being. Those who felt their lives were meaningful tended to have stronger relationships and more involvement in social activities, so they were less likely to be lonely.
While many things can contribute to healthy relationships, feelings of connection, and a resilient character, it’s clear that the practice of positive psychology contributes to overall wellness — both physical and mental health.
Common Misconceptions of Positive Psychology
Some people think positive psychology is too simple because it focuses on positive experiences but ignores negative emotions and serious conditions like depression or anxiety. It can be viewed as overly optimistic, unrealistically promoting constant happiness. Positive psychology is also misconceived as neglecting individual differences, ignoring the importance of negative experiences, and focusing solely on individual happiness.
In reality, positive psychology promotes a balanced perspective that acknowledges both the positive and negative and tailors interventions and therapeutic strategies to the individual based on their specific profile. It is a partner to more traditional therapeutic models of psychology. Instead of diminishing alternative methods of managing symptoms, it enhances them. Positive psychology seeks a balanced life in which an individual is equipped to handle the inevitable difficulties that are part of human existence.
Goals of Positive Psychology Coaching
For those who want to experience the benefits of positive psychology, the best method is through coaching or talk therapy. With this mental health resource, a client meets regularly with a therapist trained in positive psychology principles.
The goal of positive psychology coaching is to improve a client’s quality of life by helping them identify their own strengths, giving them a sense of hope, and teaching them how to nurture feelings like gratitude, happiness, and optimism.
Through coaching, clients will set goals that challenge them to build positive relationships, find connections to others, and develop their own talents.
How to Use Positive Psychology in Your Daily Routines
Since positive psychology focuses on building individual strengths instead of treating weaknesses, it’s accessible for most people to practice at home. Positive psychology embraces the principle that people can change and improve.
When someone tries new experiences, sets goals, and looks for opportunities that play to their strengths, they are practicing positive psychology. Exploring activities that create flow moments will improve mood. Making efforts to slow down and savor pleasure can become part of their daily routine.
One easy way to practice positive psychology at home is to do gratitude exercises. By focusing on a few things every day that they are grateful for, an individual trains their brain to focus on positive memories and increase their happiness.
Some people do this with a gratitude journal, with prompts to help them focus on positive things in life. Other people do this through daily practices of meditation or prayer. The method of practice is not as important as the overall goal of learning to improve well-being by practicing gratitude.
Another method of practicing positive psychology is called the experience sampling method, or ESM. This is a type of mindfulness exercise to help lower stress levels and rewire the brain. Using a timer throughout the day, a client is encouraged to pause when they receive the alert, then write down what they are doing, thinking, and feeling. Practicing ESM helps people realize how much of their day is filled with small, positive moments.
Positive psychology is accessible to most individuals and can be an effective part of behavioral health care to support individuals in becoming happier, more resilient, and better able to handle life’s challenges.
Positive Psychology Quotes
“Positive psychology is the scientific study of human strengths and virtues.” – Martin Seligman
“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“…positive psychology is not to be confused with untested self-help, footless affirmation, or secular religion — no matter how good these may make us feel.” – Christopher Peterson
“Positive psychology is the scientific and applied approach to uncovering people’s strengths and promoting their positive functioning.” – Hugo Alberts
“Flourishing is the product of the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, being connected with life passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.” – Dr. Lynn Soots
“The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” – Sharon Salzberg
Best Positive Psychology Books
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman
Flourish (A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being) by Martin Seligman
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness by Ilona Boniwell
Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman