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What is Positive Psychology?

If you’ve been hearing the term “positive psychology” thrown around a lot, but you’re not quite sure what it is, you’ve come to the right place!


There are some common misconceptions about positive psychology, both about what it is and what it is not.


To clear up some of these misunderstandings and provide a brief but comprehensive overview of the field, we’ve put together this piece focused on defining and describing the positive psychology movement.




What Positive Psychology Focuses on in a Nutshell


Positive psychology focuses on the positive events and influences in life, including:

Positive experiences (like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love).Positive states and traits (like gratitude, resilience, and compassion).Positive institutions (applying positive principles within entire organizations and institutions).

As a field, positive psychology spends much of its time thinking about topics like character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, well-being, gratitude, compassion (as well as self-compassion), self-esteem and self-confidence, hope, and elevation.



Theory and Concepts


The most important thing to understand about positive psychology is that it is indeed science—it is a subfield of psychology, and although it is sometimes derided as a “soft science” or a “pseudoscience,” it is still based on the scientific method of evaluating theories based on the evidence. As University of Michigan professor and positive psychology legend Christopher Peterson put it:

“…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. Positive psychology is neither a recycled version of the power of positive thinking nor a sequel to The Secret.”



Goals of Positive Psychology (in Coaching)


Applying positive psychology to coaching can be a tricky business, but it is undertaken with the best of intentions and care for others.


In general, the goals of positive psychology in coaching are as follows:


  • To positively impact the client’s life—this goal is above all others, and all others feed indirectly into this goal. The main goal of coaching is to improve the client’s life. Positive psychology coaching is no different;

  • Increase the client’s experience of positive emotions;Help clients identify and develop their strengths and unique talents;

  • Enhance the client’s goal-setting and goal-striving abilities;Build a sense of hope into the client’s perspective;

  • Cultivate the client’s sense of happiness and well-being;Nurture a sense of gratitude in the client;

  • Help the client build and maintain healthy, positive relationships with others;

  • Encourage the client to maintain an optimistic outlook;Help the client learn to savor every positive moment (Mentor Coach, n.d.; Peppercorn, 2014).


You can probably easily see why the first goal is the biggest, and basically subsumes all the other goals. Each of Goals 2 through 10 can be considered milestones on the way to Goal 1—effective techniques and objectives that help the client and coach work their way towards the client’s biggest life goals.



Benefits of Positive Psychology


Positive psychology teaches how to harness the power of shifting one’s perspective to maximize the potential for happiness in many of our everyday behaviors. For example, each of these findings gives us a concrete idea for improving our own quality of life:


  • People overestimate the impact of money on their happiness by quite a lot. It does have some influence, but not nearly as much as we might think, so focusing less on attaining wealth will likely make you happier (Aknin, Norton, & Dunn, 2009);

  • Spending money on experiences provides a bigger boost to happiness than spending money on material possessions (Howell & Hill, 2009);

  • Gratitude is a big contributor to happiness in life, suggesting that the more we cultivate gratitude, the happier we will be (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005);

  • Oxytocin may provoke greater trust, empathy, and morality in humans, meaning that giving hugs or other shows of physical affection may give you a big boost to your overall well-being (and the well-being of others; Barraza & Zak, 2009);

  • Those who intentionally cultivate a positive mood to match the outward emotion they need to display (i.e., in emotional labor) benefit by more genuinely experiencing the positive mood. In other words, “putting on a happy face” won’t necessarily make you feel happier, but putting in a little bit of effort likely will (Scott & Barnes, 2011);

  • Happiness is contagious; those with happy friends and significant others are more likely to be happy in the future (Fowler & Christakis, 2008);

  • People who perform acts of kindness towards others not only get a boost in well-being, they are also more accepted by their peers (Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl, & Lyubomirsky, 2012);

  • Volunteering time to a cause you believe in improves your well-being and life satisfaction and may even reduce symptoms of depression (Jenkinson et al., 2013);

  • Spending money on other people results in greater happiness for the giver (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008).




Examples of Positive Psychology in Practice


Now, on to what the practitioners and application-minded people are really here for—how to put positive psychology into practice!


Positive psychology principles and exercises can be applied in several different settings, including therapy, the classroom, the workplace, and in your own home.


Some of the techniques that have proven most useful include:


The use of the experience sampling method (or ESM), also referred to as a daily diary method. Before the days of smartphones, you would be given a beeper or pager that goes off at random points during the day, alerting you to pause, notice what you were thinking, feeling, and doing at that moment, and writing it all down. This is often used in positive interventions to help people realize how much of their day is actually quite positive.


The practice of keeping a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal offers individuals a method of identifying and reflecting on all of the good things in their lives—all the things they have to be grateful for. Interventions often involve prompting people to write down three things they are grateful for each day, with the only stipulation being that they need to be different each day. Within a week, many people experience a boost in well-being along with an increase in gratitude.


Making a gratitude visit. A gratitude visit (or letter) is an exercise in which an individual identifies a person to whom he or she is grateful and why; once they have these in mind, they can write a letter to this person expressing and explaining their gratitude. If the person lives close enough to visit, they are encouraged to drop off the letter in person and visit with them; if not, a phone call, video chat, or simply dropping the letter in the mail can work as well. This exercise provides a significant boost to both gratitude and well-being.


Focusing on building personal strengths instead of weaknesses. One of the most significant differences between many other forms of coaching and counseling and one based in positive psychology is the focus on strengths instead of weaknesses. Positive psychology is based on the idea that building on our strengths is often a more effective path to success than trying to force excellence in areas we are simply not suited for. In practice, this technique involves identifying one’s strengths and working to provide yourself with more opportunities to use them.


Well-being therapy. This holistic approach to therapy is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) but focuses on both promoting the positive and alleviating the negative in the client’s life. It is founded on Carol Ryff’s model of well-being, which recognizes six facets or factors of well-being: mastery of the environment, personal growth, purpose in life, autonomy, self-acceptance, and positive relationships (Harvard Health Publishing, 2008).


Positive psychotherapy. This therapy is similar to well-being therapy, but generally packages several techniques and exercises into one treatment. Its focus is on building positive emotions, character strengths, and a sense of meaning in life. Twelve exercises are generally practiced in this form of therapy, including exercises on using your signature strengths, keeping a gratitude journal, making a gratitude visit (Harvard Health Publishing, 2008).



Courtesy of Courtney Ackerman from PositivePsychology.


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