An introduction to positive psychology

Since the Second World War, the science of psychology has taken a new dimension, has embraced a new focus, and concentrates mainly on how to cure people. In that regard, the way the human functions is based on sickness, with damages to be repaired by the therapist. According to Martin Seligman, who is professor in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the problem with this conceptualization of the science of psychology is mainly the fact that it leaves on the side the blooming individuals and the prosperous community. In 1999, he said that when psychology became a curing science only, it forgot its larger mission to enhance the life of every single person on this planet.

Following the same idea, some authors like Abraham Maslow have chosen to focus on people in good mental health, qualified as “self-realizing”, who are looking to reach personal realization. There, the individual is not the puppet of his internal impulses or the victim of his external environment, but is trying to accomplish himself in self-blooming and his relationships with the other. One has to stay careful though, as thinking in terms of positive psychology does not mean that the world is entirely idealized and that mental suffering is forgotten once and for all. The main focus is simply shifted to take an interest on what can exist beside pathologic ailments. The process is usually characterized by a good acceptance of oneself and the others, an important openness to experience, a sense of autonomy, a capacity to be resistant to pressure, a richness of emotionality, a mobility of one’s system of values and originality in judgment. This short list is of course far from being exhaustive, and many qualities can be grafted to these ones.

This humanist psychology, led by Maslow in the 1970s, had lost its power and interest until the beginning of the years 2000. New authors like Carl Rogers are now taking over and digging again in a new study current called positive psychology. According to Gaible and Haidt, positive psychology is “the study of the conditions and processes contributing to the blooming or to the optimal operation of people, groups and institutions”. Positive psychology can thus take effect at the personal, the interpersonal and the social and political level. It is not a movement based on an egocentric study of one self only. If we want to take some examples of how positive psychology can be manifested in one’s everyday life at the interpersonal level, we could talk about love, forgiveness or altruism. At the social and political level, positive psychology can be expressed through volunteering, conflict resolution or eco-responsible behaviors, among other things.

When you adopt positive psychology as a living style at the personal level, you will quickly notice that positive emotions will bring you numerous benefits in many aspects of your life. One of these aspects is social interactions. Indeed, when you are happier, you are more likely to be willing to interact with others and you will also probably be more appreciated by others, you network of friends will grow bigger. French psychologist Jacques Lecomte established a relation that is similar to a “virtuous spiral” between the happiness of living and satisfying social relations. Going even further, he draws the conclusion that within a social network, a social circle, happiness spreads like a virus. Nevertheless, as much as optimism is advised in positive psychology, pessimism is not completely left out. It is even considered as necessary, for example when anticipating catastrophes or problems so that they can be dealt with properly. The difficulty here is to find the right balance between optimism and pessimism, so that too much pessimism will not come affect one’s self-esteem, make him vulnerable. In other words, anticipating the problems you may have to be better prepared to deal with them is good, but not so much as to develop a disorder of chronic anxiety.

At the interpersonal level, positive psychology focuses on ‘how to’ knowledge. This encompasses a set of skills leading to getting understood by others, as well as knowing how to start an interaction with them. This set of skills also helps acquiring the knowledge of how to manage your emotions in an efficient way, to have a critical and creative thinking pattern and to know how to make decisions. This can have dramatically positive consequences on your daily life, as many studies have proven the correlation between positive social relations and a lower mortality and morbidity rate. Thoughts and emotions do have an influence on the body and its state of health. Nevertheless, this does not mean that negative experiences necessarily have a negative impact on human health and the body. Indeed, it is possible to get the good out of every situation, such as issues arising in your relationship. If you focus on the role you have in the conflict instead of just complaining about the bad fate befalling on you, you will be able to grow stronger and wiser. Even more than that, you will be able to learn from your past experiences in order to not make those same mistakes again. Hey, this is how you learn.

Finally, at the social and political level, positive psychology can help fostering social change. In that regard, you can identify ‘communal psychology’ as a typical example of interaction between the individual and society. This new current emerged during the 1960s in the United States, while the fight for civil rights, led by Martin Luther King Jr,. was thriving. From that situation, a definition of communal psychology emerged: it is the “production of social change through the participation of communities in order to make them depositary of the social power and their environment”. Other striking examples of communal psychology include the power and influence that certain TV shows can have of the masses.

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