The old question is still true. Are you a person that sees the glass as half full or half empty? Almost from the start of the modern study of psychology, researchers were glass half empty people. The focus of the research was on mental illness, abnormal behavior, or why people did bad
things. There was a lot to study. The research has
benefited our world in many ways withmedications, treatment options, and hope for
those suffering. Yet, the focus was on healing after
damage or illness had already taken place.
Interestingly, there wasn't a corresponding
amount of study focused on the positive elements
of humanity. Questions regarding how someone
seems to be "unsinkable" just never got the full
attention of the world of psychology. It was attributed to personal strength, heredity, or pulling one's own bootstraps.
In 1998, the world of psychology started to really take notice that new insights could be gained by making serious science of how resilient and successful people are resilient and successful. You may have noticed new concepts and terms such as "mindfulness," "self-care," and "gratitude." These concepts and terms have been covered in past posts on this blog. All came out of this new world of psychological study.
What are some of the most important things science has learned about positive psychology? First, each person is unique and there is no secret plan to the perfect life that fits for all of us. Science has taken a look at happiness and identified three common building blocks; positive emotion, engagement, and meaning (Seligman et al., 2004).
Positive emotion is what most people are talking about when they casually mention happiness. This may involve finding forgiveness for past events or actions. It could involve savoring the moment as we live it. Of course, it also can involve optimism and hope. This is highly personal. It could be the simplicity of a hot bath. It can be forgiveness for a long-held mistake. It can be the joy in the future of a new grandchild.
Engagement is that thing that gets some people out of bed in the morning or drives them to work late without a sense of time passing. We enjoy being involved in something that earns us gratification. Engagement draws out our creativity, perseverance, and appreciation. The interesting thing about engagement is that shortcuts to success dampen the enjoyment. The experience and required endurance are all part of the joy we find from the effort.
Meaning is what brings color to our perspective of what we have done, what we do in the moment, and what we will do in the future. Connection to something bigger or of greater importance than our individual life is fulfilling. What holds meaning for someone can be highly unique. There are some common ideas about what adds meaning to life such as knowledge, community, and justice.
Positive psychology is relatively new and who knows what we will discover about ways to develop and nurture happiness in the future. You can do your part to further advance our knowledge by paying attention to the things that bring you joy, the work that you love, and the purpose that drives you. Of course, make sure to share your research with others.
Seligman, M. E. P., Parks, A. C., & Steen, T. (2004). A balanced psychology and a full life. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1379–1381.