It wasn’t until my fifth year of studying psychology – the final year of my degree – that I came across positive psychology and, I’ll be honest, I almost didn’t return for the second lecture.
Unlike now, nobody had heard of “Mindfulness” or other positive psychology interventions unless they were closely involved in the field.
I remember having a very genuine conversation with a friend about whether we’d be better off using our time to work on more “serious stuff” instead of returning for the rest of the lecture series.
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Fortuitously, we decided that we should complete the lecture series, so I added “Hippy-Dippy-Doo-Da” to my weekly planner and headed off to complete the serious business of checking out the second hand book stall at the market.
Have you ever noticed that we seem to focus more on serious business than we do on fun?
If a child performs badly in a test, teachers and parents parachute in to fix the problem. Extra help during break time, hire a private tutor, discipline the child for not working hard enough… However, if a child does well in the test, they get a pat on the back, a gold sticker perhaps, and then the test is forgotten about.
We are fixated on the negative. We love problem solving.
“Psychology is the trampoline that helps you bounce back after a fall.“
Psychologists have traditionally taken this negative angle. We search for the problems in life and through experimentation and creative thinking, we create solutions and workarounds to mend what has been broken.
Why do some people turn out to be psychopaths? Why do some people develop neurodegenerative diseases? Why do some people struggle to maintain relationships?
Psychology is the trampoline that helps you bounce back after a fall.
And whilst there are many differences of approach (psychodynamic, biological, social, cognitive to name but a few), they all attempt to correct a behaviour or thought process that is considered to be wrong.
Positive Psychology has started to gain traction and is becoming increasingly mainstream – especially in the realm of popular psychology – so it’s possible you already know of the mindfulness exercise I’m about to describe.
I’m sitting on a creaky wooden bench in a room of about 30 students with a short, Australian professor standing on a platform at the front – giant earrings dancing in line with her jaw as she animatedly talks.
She is Professor Felicia Huppert, and she’s something of a big-wig in the implimentation of mindfulness-based interventions in the UK and Australia (not that I knew this at the time).
On her platform, in front of the greenish chalk board, Professor Huppert describes the process of eating a raisin. She calls it a Mindful Mouthful.
After at least ten minutes detailing the look, feel, smell and even sound of her raisin, Professor Huppert finally allows the raisin to pass her lips.
But even then she wasn’t ready to eat the raisin. Oh no. Instead she savours the initial sensation of the raisin in her mouth; the sense of its skin on her tongue.
And only when she can stand the anticipation no more, is she ready to bite into her raisin and experience the full-bodied rush of flavour that sends her earrings into an excited quiver.
I’m certainly not the only student trying not to laugh.
The Father of Positive Psychology
Even Martin Seligman, the “Father of Positive Psychology”, started his research career firmly rooted in the depths of “negative psychology”.
His early research focused on “learned helplessness” in dogs, rats, mice and subsequently humans. At the time he hypothesised that when things go wrong, people learn that they are helpless and stop trying.
He now says he got it wrong.
In the 1990s Seligman became the suprise President of the American Psychological Association (APA), and it is through his Presidency that he was able to open up a new avenue of research for psychologists: positive psychology.
His challenge to psychologists was to ask the questions: What makes people succeed? What makes people excel? What makes people flourish?
Seligman is aware of the misconceptions people have about positive psychology, so one of the conditions on him giving an interview to a publication is that they don’t print the interview next to a big image of a smiley face.
Smiley faces and positive psychology are not the same thing! As Seligman says, “positive psychology is not happyology”.
Seligman introduced the concept of PERMA as the five factors that lead to well-being (a better measure of psychological success than happiness):
Meaning and Purpose
Positive Psychology Today
It’s now almost thirty years since Seligman founded Positive Psychology and as a movement and area of research it has really taken off.
Mindfulness in particular has caught the attention of marketers and has subsequently enjoyed an extended moment of being blazoned onto every product imaginable.
But Positive Psychology isn’t just Mindfulness. There is so much to explore in the world of Positive Psychology.
Positive psychologists have conducted longitudinal observational studies following leaders from business, politics, science, sports and arts. As well as these “real-world” studies, many laboratory and clinical studies continue to test interventions to help people achieve and stretch their potential in all walks of life.
I may have laughed at Professor Huppert’s ever-so-dramatic experience with her raisin, but Positive Psychology is no joke.
The Reading List
Martin Seligman’s foundational book about positive psychology and well-being.
Martin Seligman shares research on optimism and how it can transform your life. Practical as well as theoretical.
Martin Seligman’s memoirs. This tells the transformational story of Positive Psychology as it happened within his career.
Learn about Csikszentmihalyi’s two decades of research into “flow” and happiness. A key figure in positive psychology.
Developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson. You can take this free online test to discover your own positive strengths.