Positive psychology: the science of happiness
Feeling low, for those who don’t just endure it and carry on, has typically led to a trip to the GP and, more often than not, a course of antidepressants. But there is an alternative (and sadly) far-less publicised route.
Positive psychology came along at the turn of the 21st century to counterbalance the field, which had become preoccupied with people’s dysfunctions, rather than their strengths. Answers to questions such as ‘what makes you flourish and gives meaning to your life?’ had been gravely overlooked.
Known as the science of happiness, positive psychology is officially ‘the study of optimal functioning’.
Hedonic wellbeing is the feel-good side to happiness – those peak moments of positivity that are about enjoyment and pleasure, while eudaimonic wellbeing is the deeper happiness that comes from having a sense of meaning and purpose.
US psychologist Professor Martin Seligman, renowned for his work on learned optimism together with Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, best-known for his work on flow (the state of being ‘in the zone’) were the two main drivers behind the movement.
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The techniques used in positive psychology are now cropping up across healthcare, education, the workplace, therapy and sports. And the practise carries the weight of an evidence base for its tools.
It’s a development welcomed by GP (and comedian) Dr Phil Hammond. ‘Medicine is far too obsessed with what makes us sick and not nearly interested enough in what keeps us well,’ he says. ‘Positive psychology focuses on the science of what keeps us mentally healthy and happy. The beauty of this as both a treatment for, and preventative of, depression, is it’s easy to understand, makes intuitive sense and, most importantly of all, there’s solid scientific proof to show it works.’
Positive psychology takes into account the broader wellbeing of an individual, which also includes their relationships, sense of accomplishment and purpose in the world.
Detractors accuse it of a ‘tyranny of positive thinking’ but optimism (as I prefer to call it) is only one aspect of the field. Another criticism often levelled at positive psychology is that it’s a ‘happyology’ which denies or suppresses anything negative.
But one of the practise’s main focuses is resilience – it’s the pilates of the psychology world – developing your core strength to enable you to bounce back from adversity. Indeed, now we’re entering a second wave of positive psychology, which acknowledges how the positive and negative are often entwined in life.
The symbol that represents the field is moving on from the yellow smiley to the yin and yang, reflecting the complexity of the human condition and how there can be a positive in the negative. Post-traumatic growth, for example, is about the silver lining in life’s most difficult experiences and teaches us how we can grow through adversity.
Equally there can be a shadow side to life’s positives. Love, for instance, is the supreme positive emotion with huge benefits for physical and emotional health and yet it can lead us to tolerate abusive behaviour.
So now confession time… I wasn’t a happy bunny when I began my training in positive psychology. My search for a solution to episodes of depression was my motivation. I’d tried various antidepressants that did nothing for me and some of them had nasty side effects.
I’d also been down the psychotherapy route but focusing on my misery only left me drowning in it; it didn’t help me overcome it.
That’s what prompted me to try something different. I wondered what would happen if I put the focus on growing my happiness instead of delving deep into my unhappiness?
Remembering the phrase ‘what you focus on, grows’, I tried positive psychology practices such as gratitude, and not only did my wellbeing amplify but my depression went away. Ten years on, it hasn’t returned.
Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression by Miriam Akhtar (£9.99) is published by Watkins Publishing Ltd.
Miriam Akhtar MAPP is a positive psychologist and expert on the science of happiness. Her courses range from Positive Youth to Positive Ageing. She is author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression