Positive Psychology: New Perspectives on Wellbeing

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper

What is Positive Psychology?
Most of what we hear about psychology focuses on what causes unhealthy behavior and suffering, and how to improve or reduce those behaviors. Another side of psychology that you may know less about is actually focused on the opposite; rather than theorising on how to fix a behavioral problem, the field of positive psychology is concentrated on discovering a deeper understanding of what makes people happy and how to help people find more meaning in their lives [1].

Positive psychology has begun to emerge as a forefront in the field of psychology as people have become more interested in this topic and in the application of it for wellbeing.

Defining Positive Psychology
Researcher Dr. Martin Seligman is widely considered the founder of this field. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Centre, positive psychology is “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive” [1].

As the University of Pennsylvania’s definition implies, the focus of positive psychology is on identifying how to help human beings lead healthy and happy lives through elucidating the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose. Additionally, researchers in positive psychology seek to identify what components contribute to people becoming happier, and how to apply those components in order to better our own lives [1, 2].

Positive Psychology: Not Just Positive Thinking
Positive psychology is not simply positive thinking; it’s important to distinguish the two in your mind, as they differ in several ways:

  • Positive psychology is evidence-based and comes from rigorous, empirical scientific studies
  • Positive thinking emphasises thinking positively in all situations, whereas positive psychology does not; instead, positive psychology recognises that there are times when thinking positively is not appropriate nor is it a solution
  • Positive psychology offers various tools for success in different situations

An important takeaway is that although positive thinking can be thought of as optimism, researchers in positive psychology recognise that there are times when a realistic or even negative view of a situation is more beneficial than thinking positively [3].

The Three Levels of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is often referred to as having three separate levels [4]:

The first is the subjective level, which focuses on feelings such as happiness, optimism, wellbeing, and other similar emotions or feelings and how they are related to your daily experience.

The second is the individual level, which combines feelings in the subjective level, such as wellbeing, with qualities and virtues that make you well-rounded, such as love, forgiveness, and courage.

The third is the group level, which focuses on the positive interactions you have with your community; this level includes altruistic traits that are good for strengthening social bonds, such as kindness, teamwork, and social responsibility.

The Three Focus Areas of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is focused on three basic areas of study and practice [7]

  • Positive emotions, such as contentment and peace with the past, current happiness and satisfaction, and idealistic thoughts and hope for the future
  • Positive traits, such as courage, integrity, compassion, and creativity
  • Positive institutions, such as community institutions, which benefit from focusing on the tools you can develop through utilising and applying positive psychology

PERMA Theory of Wellbeing
The PERMA theory of wellbeing, also sometimes referred to as the PERMA model of positive psychology, is a widely recognised model of positive psychology followed by researchers in this field [2]. If we were to ask the question: “What makes a person happy?” the PERMA theory seeks to answer it.

The PERMA theory was developed by Dr. Martin Seligman [5,6]. The idea behind PERMA is that there are five elements, described below, that are the necessary components for happiness. The PERMA model is frequently used to explain and define well-being in a broader sense. Below is a breakdown of the five elements and explanations of how they contribute to wellbeing:

P – Positive Emotions:Increasing how frequently you experience positive emotions is one way to enhance your wellbeing. This includes increasing your positive emotions regarding the past (gratitude, forgiveness), about the present (mindfulness), and about the future (hope, optimism). Importantly, feeling positive emotions is just one route to wellbeing, so if you are a person that by nature does not experience positive emotions to a high degree, there are other routes you can take for finding satisfaction in your life.

E – Engagement:Being engaged such as through using your skillset, strengths, or attention during a challenging task, is another method for increasing wellbeing. The sense of engagement that comes with being engrossed in an activity that you find gratifying results in what’s called ‘flow’ – a feeling where you do an activity solely because it feels good to do so, and not necessarily for what you expect to get out of doing it. ‘Flow’ is the concept behind that familiar feeling we have all had of time stopping –when you’re fully absorbed in the moment and in the activity you’re doing.

R – Relationships:Social relationships are very important for wellbeing. For many of us, the connections we form with others give our lives deep meaning. Developing strong bonds is crucial for further developing social skills such as compassion, kindness, and co-operation.

M – Meaning:Having a sense of meaning or purpose in life is important for wellbeing and satisfaction. Finding meaning in your life can come from many different places, such as religion, family, work, social causes, and working in your community.

A – Accomplishment:The pursuit of achievement is in its own class of improving wellbeing. When we pursue our goals and achieve them, we feel a sense of accomplishment that contributes to feeling fulfilled and satisfied in our lives.
There are many benefits of the higher state of wellbeing brought on by utilising aspects of positive psychology, including reduced depression and anxiety, increased social and emotional wellbeing, and other positive outcomes associated with an increased sense of meaning and purpose in life [1, 2].

These benefits and the further application of positive psychology are discussed in the next part of this series.

[1] https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/
[2] https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma-theory-well-being-and-perma-workshops
[3] https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/frequently-asked-questions
[4] https://dspsychology.com.au/what-is-positive-psychology/
[5] https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=YVAQVa0dAE8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=seligman+2012+perma&ots=de4NAeJ0_V&sig=11JJANpYS5hTpZgxk0XZJLHrhGQ#v=onepage&q=seligman%202012%20perma&f=false
[6] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466
[7] https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/our-mission

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