Positive psychology is a relatively new field of psychology that focuses on the scientific study of what makes us mentally healthy and happy.
There’s a slight misconception that it’s just about telling people to “keep their chin up” or “think a bunch of happy thoughts”, but it’s actual evidence-based techniques designed to encourage positive emotions, thoughts and behaviour that have been proven to be highly effective in not only treating, but preventing depression.
The problem with traditional approaches to overcoming depression, in particular therapy, is that it operates on a “disease model”, where the emphasis is on repairing the worst aspects of life in order to reduce suffering. But focusing on what’s wrong can keep the individual ruminating on their weaknesses, rather than moving beyond them, which leaves them in a state of “languishing”, where they’re not necessarily unwell mentally, but they’re not feeling good either. An absence of depression doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a presence of happiness. Positive psychology goes beyond this absence and aims to help us achieve a state of “flourishing”, where we’re not only mentally well, but also happy and fulfilled.
Research shows that there are 5 main ways to achieve this:
People often fall into the habit of thinking that their basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are fixed traits: “I’m not a Maths person”, “I’m bad at sports” etc. This is what’s known as a “fixed mindset”. Positive psychology encourages us to adopt a “Growth Mindset” – a term coined by Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford University, to describe the core belief that our ability now does not reflect our ability in the future and that through hard work and perseverance, our basic qualities can be improved.
We all encounter hard times at some point, whether it be loss of a loved one, loss of a job, ill health etc. How quickly we bounce back from these events determines how resilient we are. Resilience is a skill that can be developed, and it’s as easy as being mentally prepared for bad events by having an action plan in place in the event they do happen. Also important is impulse control, in helping you to not react to events in an overly-emotional fashion. In addition, mindfulness and breathing techniques are effective in helping regulate this.
Savouring is the ability to tune into, appreciate and enhance the positive experiences in life; the beauty of nature, time spent with loved ones, a good book or song for example. Depression is essentially the reverse of savouring, in that it causes the person to savour the negative. It also drastically inhibits their ability to see the good in things. By consciously training the mind to highlight the more positive aspects of life, we interrupt the thinking errors associated with depression. This will nurture a more healthy mindset overall.
“You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with” – Jim Rohn.
Emotions are contagious. If someone is constantly negative, whether it be towards you or just in general, it can have a damaging effect. It can cause you to view the world through their negative filter. This is why it’s essential to surround yourself with people who are ‘radiators’, as opposed to ‘drains’; drains being people who suck energy out of you, and radiators being people who energize you.
Aiming for the right type of happiness
There are 2 main types of well-being, Hedonic and Eudaimonic. Hedonic is the instant gratification type of happiness we get from indulging in pleasure. Things such as eating cake or getting a massage from a loved one. Eudaimonic, derived from the Greek term ‘Daimon’, refers to living in accordance with your true nature. This is a longer lasting, more-enduring form of happiness. It’s related to figuring out what gives your life meaning, and utilising that to become best version of yourself, resulting in a state of eudaimonia, or psychological well-being, as modern psychologists such as Carol Ryff refer to it as.
This is just a small fraction of the teachings of positive psychology. For more information, I highly recommend the following books:
Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression by Miriam Akhtar
Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology
Finally I recommend this excellent blog which goes into greater detail about the concept of eudaimonic well-being.