For most of the twentieth century psychology focused on mental illness and how to help people feel and cope better with their lives. While psychopathology remains a key focus of clinical psychology, a more positive turn in the way human behavior is thought about occurred. This positive turn is referred to as Positive Psychology. Positive psychology is based on the theory that, beyond helping people recover from depression, they can become happy. Whats more, people who are already happy can become happier. In other words, everyone has strengths along with weaknesses. By nurturing those strengths, people can flourish and meet their potential in life. Positive psychologists refer to their study as the science of happiness. Another way of stating the same concept is that psychology can build the healing human pathology while being concerned with people living lives that are fulfilling.
It's important to understand that positive psychology does not pretend that life is easy or assume that there are no problems. Quite to the contrary, it is acknowledged that in life there are those times when people experience sad events, tragedies and full blown crises. However, it is stated that people get through these traumas and return to normal functioning rather than becoming permanently depressed. In this way of thinking, happiness is thought of as the ability to meet life's dark moments even when depression, mourning and anxiety and fear are experienced. It is the ability of people to bounce back that is most important. This is what is meant when the term emotional resilience is used.
Consistent with positive psychology, it is believed that anyone can become happy, optimistic and free of chronic depression. This way of thinking puts power and control into the hands of each person. We are not limited or doomed by the notion that we have a pathological illness due character flaws or personality problems. Even for those with serious problems, cognitive behavior therapy is available that helps people take control of their lives.
Becoming a happy or optimistic person depends rests on several things. One of them is being involved with other people. Human beings have a deep seated need for interaction with and relatedness to others. As part of interacting, it's important that altruism plays a role in our lives. By altruism is meant that we engage in random acts of kindness. One example is to pay the toll for the people in the car behind you. That feels terrific for the person doing the act as well as for the driver of the other car. In addition, engaging in volunteer work of any kind feels really good. People who do these kinds of things are found to be happier and healthier than those who do not.
Another factor that's an important ingredient of happiness is being engaged in work that feels fulfilling. That does not mean that all of us need to become medical doctors or the like but find ways to feel satisfied in what we do. For example, there is a waitress in one of the diners I visit for breakfast and lunch who presents an energetic and enthusiastic self to the world. One day I asked her about this and she told me the really enjoys interacting with people and that gives her a lot of pleasure. She stated that she has gotten to know some patrons really well and it feels as though they are one big and happy family.
What are your thoughts about positive psychology and it's principles of happiness. You comments and questions are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD