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Seeing the bright side: Q&A on positive psychology

5 December 2019

Positive Psychology. You’ve probably heard this enticing term bandied about, but might have little understanding of what it actually means.

It sounds positive though, right?

But it’s not just about thinking happy thoughts. Or keeping your chin up 100% of the time.

If you’re curious about positive psychology, you’ve come to the right place (not just because it’s our practice’s namesake). We sat down with Dr Peter Kyriakoulis, Director of Positive Psychology Centre – and resident positive psychology expert – to take you on a deep dive into this transformative field.

So, what is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is a field of psychology that focuses on the scientifically grounded evidence of human wellbeing. In essence, it’s the study of what makes life most worth living.

It’s a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings and behaviour – particularly the virtues of individuals, communities and organisations – that allow them to enjoy meaningful and fulfilling lives.

There is an emphasis on thriving rather than surviving. It brings to light the potential to go beyond coping, and actually flourish in our daily living, even in the face of adversity.

When it comes to weaknesses and struggles, positive psychology focuses on what went well and what could be better, rather than through directly fixing what went wrong.

How long has positive psychology been around?

Positive psychology is a relatively new field of psychology.

In 1998 Martin Seligman, who at the time was the president of the American Psychological Association, suggested that psychology should turn its focus to understanding and building human strengths.

For much of the last half-century, psychology had been primarily concerned with psychopathology and healing damage. As a result, psychologists and psychiatrists were able to measure and treat a number of major mental illnesses.

While this was much needed, and undeniably beneficial, there was also a cost. The more positive side of psychology, or the focus on what makes life worth living, was neglected. Seligman aimed to challenge the negativity bias of traditional psychology and highlight the flip side to the coin.

What positive psychology is not?

Positive psychology is not a self-help movement, or a passing fad. And it is not just about positive thinking.

Thinking good thoughts isn’t enough to make them happen. While being optimistic may be beneficial, positive psychology suggests that good things happen if you actively do things to make them come about.

Positive psychology also doesn’t deny the reality of negative emotions – or minimise the importance of studying how things go wrong. Rather, it seeks to emphasise scientific methods that look at how to get things working well.

Importantly, practicing positive psychology also doesn’t eliminate the use of more traditional psychological methods. In fact, it’s best when used as a complementary practice.

Can positive psychology make a difference in your life?

By focusing on your strengths and sources of psychological wellbeing – positive emotions, experiences, environments and resources – you will be better equipped to deal with and enjoy life.

In a therapeutic setting, mental health professionals have adopted positive psychology interventions (PPIs) into their practice. Studies have found the integration of positive psychology helps people manage depression, anxiety and other challenging conditions.

Think of positive psychology as taking proactive care of yourself – in the same way regular maintenance on your car may prevent major car troubles.

By regularly engaging in positive activities, you can build your mental fitness, look after your emotional wellbeing and even, in some cases, prevent mental illness (or at least make it less severe).

This prevention model is often put into practice in schools teaching kids about resilience, character strengths and social relationship skills.

How can you start practising today?

If you’re interested in a ‘try before you buy’ experience (before engaging with an experienced psychologist), here are a few quick PPIs to do at home.

What Went Well – Even Better If exercise: This is a reflection exercise that starts with asking yourself, ‘what went well?’ rather than simply asking “what went wrong?’, at the end of a particular day or following an event. With this reflection in mind, follow the question with ‘how could I have made, or done it, even better?’ This is a way of approaching challenges in a positive way. You’re not ignoring the problem. You’re reframing the negatives in a proactive way.

Best-Self exercise: Another reflection exercise, this one focuses on ‘you’. Thinking of a time you’re at your best, ask yourself, what makes you feel that way and why. You’ll tap into your character strengths, identifying and reflecting on positive attributes.

Gratitude Journaling: Research highlights the power of gratitude in life satisfaction. By writing down three things you are grateful for and reflecting on them, you are bringing to attention the positives in your life – regularly.

Think of happiness as a process – not just a result.

If you’d like to explore positive psychology with an experienced psychologist, we’d love to help. Call us on 1300 995 636 to make an appointment.