What is Positive Psychology?

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Positive Psychology is the study of what makes people thrive and flourish. Who are the people who thrive and flourish? Those who live their lives with a positive resilience that leads to living life happier and with meaning and purpose. Back in 1952, Abraham Maslow was the first to write a chapter in his book called, “Toward a New Positive Psychology”. To many, Maslow is considered a grandfather of positive psychology. He proposed that we study those who excel at what they do whether a sport, business, art, writing, etc. and those who are happy and living successful, fulfilling lives in order to learn from them.

Positive psychology became a branch of the larger field of Psychology in 1998 by Martin Seligman, the head of the American Psychological Association. Martin Seligman is the author of ‘Learned Optimism’ and ‘Flourish’. His work, as well as many others, has looked closely and done much research about what makes some people flourish, live happy, live life fully with meaning and purpose, and have a strong sense of resilience – the way we move through challenge and into opportunities. In other words, those who look at their glass as half full vs. those who look at their glass as half empty.

My own studies began in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in the field of Humanistic Education and, more recently, with Tal Ben-Shahar, Megan Mcdonough, and Maria Sirois through the Whole Being Institute. For the past five years, I have immersed myself in learning, living, and teaching positive psychology. Of course, my dream is that we all learn to live more in harmony with one another and reach for living more fulfilling and happy lives.

The field of psychology has been quite successful in helping many people, including myself, overcome and/or live with anxiety and depression as well as heal from trauma and abuse. I acknowledge that there are times in many of our lives that seeking help from a therapist is needed. What positive psychology does is study the other end of the continuum — those people who excel at what they do and live happier than most people — so that we all can learn to thrive and excel ourselves.

My latest interest and the inspiration for this blog is the blending of happiness and health in order to live at our best while being both happy and healthy.

The next question that is often asked is, “Does this mean we should be happy all the time?” Well, no! All of our emotions are essential for living a full life. There are times when life is difficult, when there is loss, and when other emotions take front and center. We are all our emotions — angry, sad, frustrated, joyful, happy, overwhelmed, etc. — and positive psychology is about feeling all of them as they are present. The more fully we feel one emotion, the more fully we feel all of them. We are all human. A premise of Positive Psychology that I learned from Tal Ben-Shahar is ‘the permission to be human’. This is acknowledging that all emotions are part of living a full life and when we give ourselves permission to be human, we are also giving ourselves the permission to feel the feelings that are present in the moment.

We can learn to live more fulfilling and happier lives through practice. Barbara Fredrickson, the author of ‘Positivity’ and one of the pillars of positive psychology talks about building our positivity ratio — our ratio of positive experiences to negative experiences. The ideal is around three positive experiences to one negative experience on a regular basis to find our life moving in an upward spiral of increased happiness and fulfillment (I wrote of this in an earlier post, ‘Collecting Happy’). What this blog is about is offering regular exercises that we can practice to build our cache of positive experiences to balance out the negative in our lives.

You see, I like looking at my glass as half full! I choose to fill my days with practices that lead me to being happier and building my resilience for those times of challenge. Am I happy all the time? Of course not, though the more I practice, the happier I am overall. I hope you will join me!

Early Morning

Cardinals welcome the day serenading anyone listening
Woodpeckers keeping rhythm from tree tops
As the sun paints pastels on the underside of clouds

The cold clear air providing a spacious echo
Green pokes through snow promising hope for the daffodils
Tiny leaves reaching forth from branches

A feast for the senses this early morning
before the sun rises over the horizon
promising Spring unfolding.

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Early morning before the sun rises over the horizon is my favorite time of day to be outdoors. It is quiet then and I continue my morning thoughts & considerations as my dog finds her way around the smells of the night. Always, I delight in the magic of early morning as the birds begin their song and I imagine they are welcoming the return of yet another day.

Today, called for a hike into the woods. So off I went. It is a cold April day with a wind chill that bites my cheeks. I keep going — legs moving, arms swinging, and my breath adjusting to both the cold and the pace. As always, the first mile is the hardest as I head up a mile before leveling to a steadier terrain.

Hiking is my ‘go to’ when, not only do I want exercise, I also want to contemplate life, process the complexities of my days, and find myself whole again and cleansed when I return. I always know that my hikes change my perspective on my life which, like everyone, has it’s share of stress and drama. Today, I took a detour through the woods to pause at the edge of a hidden mountaintop lake — gratitude fills me at the simple beauty and awe all around.

Exercise is well known to be even better to allay depression and anxiety for most people. I, personally, find that to be true. Once I get beyond the first mile or twenty minutes I can feel my body and mind let go into a rhythm of more ease and emotionally more centered. For many years, I found this release through swimming and running. Now, hiking and being surrounded by nature is my exercise of choice. I find the meditative experience that accompanies being in nature is what I crave. What is your exercise of choice?

Choice, Every Moment, Everyday

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What choice can you make today to be 5% happier? This is a question I ask on those gray days— whether gray outside or inside. Sounds so easy to make different choices and, yet, not always so easy. Today happens to be one of those days for me. I woke up to snow and wind (and, yes, it was forecast) which, surprisingly, I was disappointed that the forecast was correct in early April. I decided to finish a book I’d been reading. Once I finished the book, I found myself wandering around the house with little that interested me in doing. After about an hour of wandering, I decided to ask myself, “What can I do to be 5% happier right now?”

Making choices to be just 5% happier takes practice, mindfulness, and commitment with each choice. How do we begin? It is as simple as asking the question and waiting for an answer. Within minutes, I did decide to cook (which always makes me happy). Doing one simple thing changed my mood from OK to feeling satisfied and looking forward to dinner.

Through studying Positive Psychology, I have learned to ask questions, such as, what can I do to feel 5% happier. Other questions I ask help re-direct my focus from what I think isn’t working to focusing on what is going well and what is good. So I will ask myself, what is going well right now?; what can I do or say to feel differently?; who can I be that is more positive, mindful or present?; what can I appreciate more in this moment?.

One of my favorite questions, ‘Who do I want to be today?’, is a question I ask myself most mornings as I finish my journal writing before heading off to my day. My answers set a positive tone and intention to my day which has made my life more meaningful. It has become a positive anchor that I create each morning for myself and am, then, better prepared for the curve balls that life throws my way (most days there is at least one unexpected curve ball).

At the end of my day, in my evening meditation, I answer another question, ‘What am I grateful for?’. Gratitude has been proven to have lasting benefit toward a positive life and better health. For me, I remind myself of those experiences, things, people, animals, and family that make my life richer (even a good meal or a great movie find their way to my lists). Sometimes on my list are experiences that weren’t so positive but I learned from them. Acknowledging my gratitude keeps me from taking my life for granted. When I end my meditation and tuck in for the night I go to sleep with a full and open heart.

Each day we make choices — what to wear, what to eat, when to exercise, what to pay attention to, read, learn and do. I like knowing that I have choice. We also have choice around how to react, how to be present, and how we want to feel. Mostly, my choices have become much more mindful and positively focused. As a result, I am overall, happier doing what I love and living with purpose.

So, I’ll end here with how I began…

“What choices can you make today to be 5% happier?”