Positive Psychology as the Key to Well Being

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
March 11, 2021

More often than not, when we hear the word “psychology” there is an association with mental health illness or some other malady that adversely impacts our overall functioning. Yet there is a flip side to this coin that focuses on how we can not only increase our happiness, but also find ways to thrive and flourish in times of challenge and adversity. This branch of psychology, appropriately named positive psychology, emerged in response to the idea that well being was not merely the absence of illness and that we could improve our lives in meaningful ways through applications and interventions.

The Science of Positive Psychology

When Dr. Seligman and his team at the University of Penn embarked on the journey to explore this other side of psychology, they were determined to build it upon a solid foundation of research and evidence. The result of those efforts include numerous articles, books, and questionnaires which they have made available to all. 

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.”

Happiness vs. Well Being

According to Dr. Seligman, positive psychology is about what we choose for its own sake. He expanded upon this idea to develop the theory of Authentic Happiness, which is about feeling good. Essentially, it is about maximizing how we feel through the choices in our lives. Dr. Seligman identified three elements which he believed increased happiness and life satisfaction: positive emotions, engagement, and meaning.

As the science of positive psychology matured, there came a realization that happiness alone does not give life meaning. One notion became apparent...that other people matter (relationships) and doing something we value for its own sake (meaning and purpose) takes us beyond happiness to a place where we flourish. 

Think about the last time you laughed hysterically or felt enormously proud of something you achieved. It’s likely that some, or perhaps all of it, took place around other people. Their presence enhanced the emotions and promoted well-being through connectedness with others. When you really think about it, very little that is positive is solitary. And have you ever tried to accomplish something for the sake of the accomplishment? There is something to be said for winning for winning’s sake. Thus, meaning and purpose contribute to an “achieving life.”

Dr. Seligman has found that flourishing rests on five pillars, each of which we value for its own sake, not merely as a means to some other end. Incorporating these pillars into our daily life will not only lead to increased happiness, but allow us to thrive.

Five Factors that Lead to Well Being and Putting Them to Use in Your Daily Life

Positive EmotionsFeeling good helps us perform better in all aspects of our life.

  • Create a “Three Good Things” journal and record three good things that happened each day for a week and why you think they happened.
  • Reflect upon a time when you experienced a positive emotion, recalling what you saw, smelled, heard, touched, and tasted.
  • Mindfully attend to what you are feeling; consider recording those feeling either in a journal or with an app such as the Mood Meter.

EngagementWhen we engage we become absorbed, gaining momentum and focus.

  • Pick an activity that evokes positive feelings (such as playing the piano, painting, cooking, or whatever!) and get absorbed in it.
  • Focus on the present using mindfulness.

Positive RelationshipsHumans are social beings with a need for connection with others.

  • Recognize the difference between those relationships that are healthy (and feel good) vs. those that are damaging (and feel bad).
  • Make time for those relationships you want to strengthen, showing others how much you value their presence.
  • Listen and share, making an effort to maintain those connections and reciprocate that positivity with others.

Meaning and PurposeDoing things that are bigger than ourselves contributes to us being at our best.

  • Identify your values and find a community or organization with shared goals that you might pursue together (such as protecting the environment or helping out veterans).
  • Apply your strengths and talents in the service of a mission that matters most to you; perhaps you are good at building or painting and agree to share those abilities constructing homes for the homeless.

Accomplishment: Striving for success and the occasional win help us feel confident about the future and increases motivation.

  • Identify your ambitions and goals and keep them in sight.
  • Break down larger goals and find ways to acknowledge the little successes along the way.
  • Celebrate the completion of achievements.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, text HOME to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call 911.

The Healthy Minds Blog shares information related to youth mental health and wellness for an audience of parent, educators and community-based providers. Articles include tips and strategies for increasing wellness and resiliency, as well as fostering success at home, at school and in the community.

The Healthy Minds Blog is a collaborative project between Fairfax County Public Schools and the Prevention Unit of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. It is part of the Healthy Minds Fairfax (see below) initiative, designed to support emotional wellness in youth and families.

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