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Principles of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology

Definition of Positive Psychology

Traditionally, much of the research on psychology has focused on defining and treating what is “wrong” in a person. While this is important and leads to break-through treatments for a wide range of mental health conditions, it also can lead to an overly intense focus on pathology. Relatively little has been done to fully explore what is “right” in a person. The field of positive psychology seeks to answer that question by scientifically examining people’s strengths and their ability to promote their own well-being by using those strengths. Positive psychology looks at what makes live worth living, both for an individual and society as a whole. We seek to build on the good that already exists rather than fix the bad. In other words, “Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008).

Contributions of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology can focus on positive experiences (those things that create happiness and joy) and positive traits of an individual (like resilience, thankfulness, and compassion). Martin Seligman is considered the founder of positive psychology. In researching something called learned helplessness, he discovered even a small shift in perspective (more optimism), can lead to large shifts in well-being (more resilience).

Of course, positive psychology was never intended to replace traditional psychology, but to complement it. Here are some contributions of the field that may seem to be common sense but are also backed up by research:

  • Experiences are better than material possessions (Howell & Hill, 2009);

  • More gratitude leads to more happiness (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005);

  • Physical affection increases positive feelings by releasing oxytocin (Barraza & Zak, 2009);

  • Pretending to be happy does not help, but putting in a little bit of effort does (Scott & Barnes, 2011);

  • Happiness is contagious (Fowler & Christakis, 2008)

  • Acts of kindness lead to better wellbeing (Layous et al., 2012);

  • Volunteering improves life satisfaction and may even reduce depression (Jenkinson et al., 2013);

  • Giving results in more happiness (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008).

“PERMA” (Five parts of well-being according to Seligman):

  • P – Positive Emotions: Learn to enjoy yourself in the moment

  • E – Engagement: Become completely absorbed in something you enjoy and excel at

  • R – Relationships: Deep and meaningful relationships with others is vital

  • M – Meaning: Dedicate yourself to a cause or something bigger than yourself

  • A – Accomplishment / Achievement: We thrive when we are succeeding and achieving our goals

Examples of Positive Psychology in Practice

Some of the techniques that have proven most useful include:

  • Daily diary method (set a timer to go off at random points during the day): Pause and notice what you are thinking, feeling, and doing. Write it down. Most people discover that their day is far more positive than they realize.

  • Gratitude journal: Write down three things you are grateful for each day.

  • Focusing on building personal strengths instead of weaknesses and provide yourself opportunities to use them.


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