What is Positive Psychology

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY is the scientific study of optimal functioning and well-being, also known as the science of flourishing, happiness, strengths, resilience, positivity and optimism. The field was established in the late 1990s as a reaction to the prevailing direction that psychology had taken with its focus on studying the negative aspects of our minds, behaviour and lives. Research had neglected the other side of the equation – what makes us happy, the ingredients of a good life, our strengths & talents and how to increase well-being, play to our strengths and thrive in our personal and professional lives.  Positive psychology studies all of these elements, which can be summed up as what it takes for us to feel good and function well so that we flourish.

Positive psychology covers a broad range of areas which includes the study of well-being, optimism, positive emotions, emotional intelligence, resilience, values, motivation, goals and strengths – our natural talents. The good news is that when it comes to our happiness,  around 40% of it is under direct voluntary control and can be increased through the activities we do and the outlook we adopt. Routes to happiness can be found in meaningful, engaging and pleasurable activities. There is even a scientific formula for happiness!  SWB = SWL + PA – NA.

SWB = Subjective Well-being, the scientific term for happiness. Our subjective experience of our well-being.

SWL = Satisfaction with Life, how we think about or rate our lives. Whether there’s a gap between where we are and where we’d like to be.

PA = Positive Affect, the sum of our experience of positive emotions.

NA = Negative Affect, the sum of our negative emotions. Whether someone experiences more positive than negative emotions.

Positive Psychology Training takes the science and puts it into practice to help people thrive and flourish. We do this through coaching, consultancy, groupwork and designing bespoke well-being programmes as well as offering off-the-peg ones such as the Happiness Habits.

Positive psychology goes beyond the ‘positive thinking’ that it is often mistaken for. Unlike positive thinking, it doesn’t ignore or suppress the negative aspects of life but asks different questions such as how can we find a positive in the negative (reframing), how can we bounce back from tough times (resilience) and how can we find meaning in life-shattering experiences (post-traumatic growth).

Most therapists are working in the disease model with a goal of reducing suffering by achieving an absence of symptoms (reaching ‘neutral’).  A positive psychologist, on the other hand, works in the health model with a goal of moving beyond neutral and into the plus scale of well-being (regardless of starting point). An absence of depression, for example, is not the same as the presence of happiness. So the focus is on increasing well-being by using techniques that have been scientifically proven to build positivity and optimism and thus raise well-being.  A case of ‘what you focus on is what you get’. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that working in the health model is an effective approach to increase well-being and overcome mild-to-moderate depression.

Here’s a 5-minute animated summary of positive psychology. The diagram below (from www.positivepsychologynews.com) gives you more of an idea of the disease model (or medical model, which is the space that clinical psychology and most therapies operate in) and the health model of positive psychology. 

Health Continuum