By Louise Gorenflo
Most study of human behavior has focused on abnormal behavior and mental illness. While it is essential to study and contain such pathologies, it is equally important to understand those aspects of human experience that make life worth living. Positive psychology aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.
Components of well-being that positive psychology studies include:
• Positive emotions — a joy in living.
• Meaning — a sense that our lives have a purpose and meaning.
• Engagement — the experiences of being totally engaged in what we’re doing, also called ‘flow,’
• Relationships — supportive social relationships.
• Accomplishment — a sense of efficacy and accomplishment.
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While we must all work to end our own and others' suffering, we also need to learn how to support and increase the well-being of individuals and community. Research has shown that one way to help suffering people is to focus on the building their strengths. Prevention researchers have discovered that there are strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future mindedness, optimism, faith, work ethic, honesty, perseverance and the capacity for flow and insight, to name several. Further, people care about more than just the relief of their suffering. We also care about living a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Some of the findings of positive psychology seem like common sense. Does this add anything to what we already know about the good life? It is the job of science to empirically prove or disprove what we consider as the common wisdom. Sometimes this common “wisdom” is true, sometimes it is not. Positive psychology research is discovering some things that might not be considered wisdom to all.
To name just a few:
• Activities that make people happy in small doses — such as shopping, good food and making money — do not lead to fulfillment in the long term, indicating that these have quickly diminishing returns.
• People who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, optimism, progress toward goals, well-being and help others more.
• Trying to maximize happiness can lead to unhappiness.
• People who witness others perform good deeds experience an emotion called "elevation" and this motivates them to perform their own good deeds.
• People who are optimistic or happy have better performance in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people. Further, optimism can be measured and it can be learned.
• People who report more positive emotions in young adulthood live longer and healthier lives.
• Healthy human development can take place under conditions of even great adversity due to a process of resilience that is common and completely ordinary.
There are now about 12 to 18 exercises in the positive psychology literature that are documented to increase one’s sense of well-being. To benefit from these exercises, they have to be practiced. Some of the exercises are cognitive, like thinking about three things that went well today. My 2013 resolution is to share with you recent research findings about the psychological good life and how to practice them. May you find what I report interesting, and I invite you to email me your reactions (firstname.lastname@example.org).