What Is Positive Psychology? A Short History, Plus How You Can Use It To Get Happier

If well-being, self-esteem, gratitude and compassion are all deeply important to you (they are to us here at Silk + Sonder), you might be a firm believer in positive psychology without even realizing it.

Positive psychology – often viewed as the science of happiness – helps us understand why happy people are the way they are, and how to find happiness yourself. When you understand the individual factors that contribute to personal happiness, it's easier to harness those positive emotions.

Positive psychology's founders suggest our well-being and life satisfaction are more important than the fleeting happiness that comes from short-term sources of pleasure, like a good meal or an exciting new purchase. And ultimately, there's a science behind human flourishing (a term that sounds too technical for our taste, so from now on, we'll stick to "flourishing") and what it takes to find authentic happiness.

"It allows for a platform of change that is based on moving towards something positive – versus away from something negative – which is ultimately a better and longer term motivator for sustained change," explains psychotherapist Joanne Ketch.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life worth living, according to leading positive psychologist Christopher Peterson.

True positive psychologists don't like to think of the field as focusing solely on happiness because there are other factors that contribute to well-being. You can essentially think of positive psychology as the formula to living a meaningful life.

It extends beyond positive thinking, which calls for positivity at all times. Psychologists recognize that positive psychology can also help us work through negative emotions to better our mental health and that optimism has its limits if it leads someone to underestimate risks.

American psychologist Martin Seligman is known as the father of positive psychology. When he became President of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Seligman led the effort to promote positive psychology as a field of scientific study.

The term was originally coined by humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1954 (if his name rings a bell, you might have heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs), and it countered the traditional view of practicing psychology merely as a solution to mental illness, which inherently emphasizes the negatives.

At its core, the field of positive psychology focuses on positive experiences (emotions like love, joy or inspiration), positive traits (character strengths and virtues like resilience or compassion), and positive institutions that can benefit an entire organization or community of people.

Positive psychology helps us identify the elements of our lives that provide meaning and therefore allow us to achieve a sense of fulfillment and happiness.

Clinical psychologist Jodi De Luca says she views positive psychology as the active participation of both body and mind as a means to successfully achieve our goals.

"When we experience gratitude, the thoughts that we have, emotions that we feel, and our interactions with others ultimately change the architecture of the way our brain and body communicate with the world around us in positive ways,” she says.

This is where the science comes in.

Positive psychology research has shown that people who are optimistic or happy perform better in work, school and sports; have fewer physical health problems; and have better relationships. Additional research findings show that people who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, well-being, and make progress toward their goals.

PERMA: The Building Blocks of Happiness

According to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman developed the PERMA theory to highlight the five core elements that contribute to well-being and allow us to flourish, thanks to the science behind our happiness. 

These five building blocks are: Positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments.

Positive emotion

When we feel positive emotions about past, present or future experiences, we can view situations from a constructive perspective. To look at past events through a positive lens, you can cultivate gratitude or open yourself up to forgiveness. In the present, you can find pleasure in your physical surroundings and understand what it means to live mindfully. And last but not least, positive emotions about the future can fuel your sense of hope and optimism.

Engagement

When we fully devote our skills, personal strengths and attention to a challenging task, we feel engaged, focused and rewarded. Think of the last time you said "wow, time flew by." Whether you were playing a sport, dancing along at a concert, or getting lost in a good conversation, you were probably truly engaged in the task at hand and enjoying the present moment. Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this experience "flow" and says that this flow is so gratifying that people enjoy these moments for the experience's sake, rather than for what they get out of it.

Relationships

Our parents, siblings, friends, peers and coworkers are all important relationships, and these social connections with others are key to a meaningful life. As humans, we're wired to seek connections as a means of survival, but on an emotional level, strong positive relationships can help us get through the ups and downs of life and enhance the joy and meaning we get out of day-to-day experiences. Taking a trip to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower feels that much more special when you have someone to share it with, doesn't it?

Meaning

We find meaning and purpose in feeling connected to something bigger and better than ourselves. Family, religion, politics, social causes, and community organizations are all examples of that something larger. Whether you want to seek out volunteer opportunities or explore your spiritual side, these can be great paths to finding fulfillment.

Accomplishments

It's our innate sense of ambition that allows us to set concrete goals, achieve new things, and go after success. Whether it's mastering a new skill, competing in a sport, or being recognized at work with an award, the sense of satisfaction you feel over these accomplishments at the end of the day will help you flourish.

Positive psychology techniques to improve wellbeing

Many therapists and psychologists promote the benefits of positive psychology in their work with patients. Here are a few positive psychology exercises and tips from experts on how to apply positive psychology in your daily life:

  • Gratitude journaling: Take time to journal at the end of each day and list three good things that happened as a way to cultivate gratitude. "So often after a long day, we dwell on the negatives. This practice helps highlight the positives," says Amanda Atkins, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
  • Weekly act of intentional kindness: Commit to doing an intentional act of kindness once a week (this could be as simple as buying a meal for someone at a restaurant, donating to a charity fund on your friend's birthday, or picking up groceries for your neighbor). "It doesn't need to be big, but it needs be something that feels significant enough to you," says Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast.
  • Seek awe-based experiences: Research shows that the feeling of awe can inspire happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment. Nature-based experiences like reaching a rushing waterfall on a hike or looking up at the stars can produce a sense of awe. "Paradoxically, awe makes us feel smaller. It reminds us how small we are in this great universe. But it's that smallness that makes us feel humble, and humbleness can inspire optimism," Arzt adds.
  • Assess your character strengths: Seligman has developed a strengths finder test to quickly assess one's personal capabilities, talents and gifts. "I always hold these strengths in mind during therapy so that clients can remember their resilience and ability to heal," says therapist, speaker and author Dr. Lauren Cook.
  • Alter the narrative: When reflecting back on experiences that would typically produce negative emotions, practice developing a language of strength by using words with a positive spin, and highlighting the moments where you exhibited strength and resilience.

How we embrace positive psychology at Silk + Sonder

Positive psychology is also the guiding philosophy behind everything we do at Silk + Sonder. Our monthly journals are inspired by thought leaders, self-help books, bullet journal layouts and rooted in positive psychology techniques to create a guided journaling and planning experience.

S+S founder and CEO Meha Agrawal says she was taught to be a perfectionist as a young girl, but that it only forced her to focus on her imperfections rather than celebrate her strengths. When she discovered the power of positive psychology, however, Agrawal knew she wanted to make it the basis of Silk + Sonder.

“I discovered the impact positive psychology has on heightening confidence and self-esteem, and saw the ripple effect that had on how we show up at work, for our family and ourselves, and I knew it had to be the foundation for Silk + Sonder,” she says.

Silk + Sonder’s weekly planning layouts are specifically designed to be more intentional than your average to-do list—making it easy to plan, reflect and, ultimately, achieve your goals. Similarly, the monthly planning templates help you bring about positive change.

“Our planner pages for monthly intentions and reflections on the previous month are there to remind you to celebrate the wins, recognize the failures, and take gradual steps toward making change – by focusing on the positive,” Agrawal says. “That is how productive change happens.”

Looking at it through the PERMA lens, Silk + Sonder helps you develop positive emotions with gratitude exercises, feel mindful and engaged as you find your planning flow, build a relationship with your inner-self, discover meaning by being connected to a community of subscribers, and most importantly, encourages you to go after your goals and recognize your accomplishments.

When you give yourself the opportunity to start fresh each month, week or even day, you’re empowered to live the life you've always wanted.

Are you ready to apply positive psychology in your daily life? Subscribe to Silk + Sonder today for a guided self-care journey designed specifically for you. And as always, comment below or join us on Instagram to continue the conversation.

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