In positive psychology, researchers try to understand how human beings can lead healthy, happy, and fulfilling lives. Positive psychology differs from traditional psychology which has mostly focused on problems, such as mental illness and abnormalities.
Researchers in positive psychology believe that happiness can be broken down into three different dimensions that can be improved. These dimensions are the "pleasant life", "meaningful life", and "good life". Each of these dimensions can contribute to a person's sense of well-being.
|The Dimensions of Happiness|
|The Pleasant Life||A life full of positive emotion. Experiencing pleasure and learning skills to build and maintain positive emotions. Traits of the pleasant life are often inherited.|
|The Good Life||Positive engagement in life tasks such as parenting or work which is called "flow". A person with high flow will be challenged by their tasks, but not overwhelmed. They might feel that time flies by when they are engaged.|
|The Meaningful Life||Using individual strengths for something greater than one's self. Deriving meaning and value from life. Happiness from the meaningful life is deep, rich, and resilient.|
A person does not need to excel in all three categories to experience positive well-being. For example, someone might not appear overtly happy or bubbly, but they may feel a deep sense of contentment with their life because they have developed meaning.
Using Positive Psychology in Psychotherapy
The study of how humans thrive, find happiness, and flourish fits neatly with psychotherapy. Positive psychology changes the perspective of treatment. Rather than trying to decrease or eliminate sadness, it instead focuses on increasing happiness and well-being.
Positive psychology also provides direction for working with clients who are not suffering from mental illness, but would still like to improve their lives.
Traditional psychotherapy focuses on achieving moderate mental health. With positive psychology, you will work to achieve a flourishing mental state. Instead of going from -6 to 0 on a scale of depression to happiness, you will be going from 0 to +6.
It should be noted that positive psychology does not serve as a replacement for traditional psychotherapy, but instead as a valuable supplement to treatment.
Positive Psychology Techniques
Positive psychology can be included in psychotherapy using a variety of techniques. We've described several of these techniques, and created the tools you'll need to carry them out.
People tend to focus on their negative experiences far more than their positive experiences. Think about it. If you receive a negative evaluation at work, or you miss an important question on a test, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It doesn't matter if 95% of the feedback you receive is positive—the negative 5% is what you're going to think about. This is true in just about every aspect of life. A single fight with a friend will feel so much bigger than the hundreds of positive interactions that came before it.
A gratitude journal will force you to put positive and negative experiences into perspective. Instead of ending each day with thoughts of what went wrong, you'll spend a few minutes thinking about what went right. Additionally, a gratitude journal will get you in the habit of noticing positive experiences as they happen, and giving them more attention.
- The goal of a gratitude journal is to focus on the good things that would otherwise be taken for granted. You'll achieve this by jotting down a few notes on good things you experience, even if they seem minor.
- Plan when you will write in your gratitude journal. You don't have to journal every day, but make sure you do so at least once a week. Make sure you won't forget by setting a repeating alarm on your phone, or leaving a reminder on your calendar.
- Write down 3-5 things you are grateful for each time you journal. Spend a moment elaborating on why you are grateful for each entry. For inspiration, try thinking about what your life would be like without the thing you are grateful for (e.g. "If I didn't have a job...").
- Some ideas of things to write about are the people in your life, unexpected or surprising events, personal achievements, or even mundane daily pleasures like a good meal or a sunny walk.
- Make your gratitude journal a priority. If you treat it as just another chore to be completed and tossed to the side, it won't do much good. Genuinely spend time thinking about your life, and experiencing gratitude.
Tips: Gratitude Journal
Positive relationships are one of the best predictors of happiness and well-being. Many of us have people in our lives who we cherish and appreciate, but we don't take the time to spell out the reasons why. Some of us might have people from our past who have positively impacted our lives, yet they have no idea.
Gratitude visits are the perfect opportunity to strengthen our relationships, and to make someone's day. In this exercise, you will identify a person who you are grateful for, and you'll tell them how they have impacted your life.
- Think about someone who has had a positive impact on your life, or someone who has done something generous for you. It could be a parent, a friend, a professor, a partner, or just about anyone else. Preferably, this will be someone who you are able to visit.
- Write a letter to your selected person telling them how they have impacted your life for the better. Tell them how they have helped you, or why you are grateful for them.
- If possible, deliver your letter in person. Read the letter to them, and then allow the conversation to move forward organically. Allow them to keep the letter as a gift. If it isn't possible to meet in person, call your friend and read the letter over the phone, then mail the letter to them to keep.
- A gratitude visit will take a little work on your part, but try to do it regularly! Once a month, or once every few months is a reasonable goal.
Instructions: Gratitude Visit
Acts of Kindness
Being kind doesn't only help others—it will also boost your own happiness. The key to using acts of kindness as a therapeutic intervention is to purposefully go beyond your regular level of kindness. If you already hold doors open for others, holding another door probably won't make you happier.
Some ideas are buying a cup of coffee for a stranger, helping a friend paint their house, offering directions to someone who looks lost, giving a friend a ride to the airport, or helping someone carry heavy groceries to their car. It might be difficult to recognize opportunities for acts of kindness at first, but you'll improve with practice.
Try getting to the point where you are doing three acts of kindness every day. We've created a worksheet with ideas for acts of kindness to help you find a bit of inspiration.
Having a sense of meaning associated with the past, present, and future can help to improve well-being. Meaning can be discovered by creating a narrative—or a story—about your life. We suggest completing this activity over the course of several weeks, but the time frame can be adjusted as necessary.
- Write the story of your past. Describe how you overcame significant challenges using your strengths. This narrative should be about 1-2 pages long. Give yourself an hour or two to write, wait a few days, and then come back and review what you wrote. Feel free to make revisions!
- Next, write about who you are now. Write about how your present self is different from your past self. Include discussion about how your strengths have evolved. This entry should be about 1 page long, but feel free to go longer.
- Finally, write about your imagined future self. What kind of person do you hope to become? How will your strengths grow? What would you like to achieve? Finally, how can you go about achieving these things? This entry should also be about 1 page.
- Save your writings, and review them regularly. Update your narratives as you grow.
Instructions: Developing Meaning
Design a Beautiful Day
Choose a day sometime in the future, and plan how you could make it as close to perfect as possible. This activity will pay off twice: during planning, and execution.
- Strive to involve others in your beautiful day. This doesn't mean you cant have any alone time, but you shouldn't be alone all day!
- Include the little details in your plan. Want to have bagels and coffee first thing in the morning? Write it down. However, don't let your day become totally devoid of spontaneity.
- Break routine and do something new. It doesn't have to be expensive, or a big production—just different.
- When you finally have your beautiful day, know that it won't be exactly as you planned. Accept the twists and turns as they come, and savor them.
- Use mindfulness to appreciate your day. Be in the moment. Appreciate the feeling of sunshine, the sound of waves, or the smell of flowers. The goal is to be happy and enjoy, not to check everything off on a beautiful day checklist.
Tips: Design a Beautiful Day
There are countless ways to begin practicing positive psychology that we haven't covered. Linked below are a few more resources for those of you who would like to keep learning.