What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is a hot topic these days. Books with 'happiness' in the title are pouring out of publishers’ lists, and studies on resilience, wellbeing, gratitude, meditation, and mindfulness have made their way from academic journals to mainstream magazines.

Positive psychology is a hot topic these days. Books with 'happiness' in the title are pouring out of publishers’ lists, and studies on resilience, wellbeing,  gratitude, meditation, and mindfulness have made their way from academic journals to mainstream magazines. More than 200 colleges and universities in the USA, including my own, now offer courses in this burgeoning field. There are also new professional periodicals devoted to this specialty, with titles like the Journal of Happiness Studies. 

This surge of interest represents a dramatic shift. For over a century, the emphasis in both psychological theory and practice has been on dysfunction, mental illness, and repairing emotional damage. This focus is hardly surprising in view of the fact that seminal figures like Sigmund Freud were medical doctors--trained to find pathology rather than health. Then, in 1998, Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania used his position as president of the American Psychological Association to promote the scientific study of what he called 'human strengths and virtues'—encompassing such traits as kindness, curiosity, creativity, courage, forgiveness, hope, zestfulness, and leadership. 

     Though Seligman is credited with coining the term 'positive psychology,' the idea of focusing not on what’s wrong with us, but what’s right, originated with another noted American psychologist more than 60 years ago—Abraham Maslow. He was known for his seminal studies on personality and motivation, and his concepts like self-actualization, peak-experience, and synergy have become part of the everyday English language. Due to space limitations, it’s possible here to focus on only two vital aspects of positive psychology today: flow experiences and the presence of a confidant in our life.

 Finding Flow in Everyday Life 

Have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that you 'lost yourself' happily-- and time seemed to disappear? If so, you’re no stranger to the flow experience, the focus of much research today for its personal as well as organizational benefits. Because such moments in the workplace are linked to greater engagement and productivity, business leaders are especially interested in this intriguing phenomenon. Their goal? To help spur and sustain flow experiences in everyday activities.       

Though it might surprise you, this psychological concept is unrelated to the once-popular maxim 'Go with the flow.' Rather, it was developed by Dr. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi after years of study based partly on his own life experience. Born in 1934 Hungary, he spent part of his childhood in a prison camp during World War II, where he discovered that chess enabled him to transcend the unspeakable suffering around him. As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi later recalled in an interview, “It was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those [terrible] things didn’t matter. For hours, I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals.” In taking up painting as a teenager, he found that this activity too evoked a delightful sense of absorption—and, after gaining his doctorate at  the University of Chicago in 1965, he conducted pioneering studies of artists and other highly creative persons. Eventually such research led to the concept of flow—which he defined “as a state in which we’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” How do you know when you’re in a flow experience? Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has identified 8 features: 1) A merging of action and awareness, so that you’re fully 'inside' the activity; 2) Complete concentration on the task at hand, thereby transcending all distractions; 3) No worry about losing control; 4) A loss of self-consciousness, in which your ego is quieted or united with something greater; 5) Time passes unusually, generally described as either “speeding up” or “slowing down” tremendously. 6) The experience is autoletic, that is, done for its own sake--rather than as a means to an end. 7) It involves a skillful activity, particularly in which you’re challenged slightly beyond your normal skill level.8) The activity has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. In other words, you know what you’re supposed to accomplish and you’re not left guessing about your performance.                                      

 Do You Have a Confidant?

For more than 25 years, behavioral scientists have been affirming a measurable link between friendship and well-being.  Yet, the concept is hardly new. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three types of friendship—comprising utility (such as business benefit), pleasure (shared fun interest), and virtuousness (emotional concern and care). In his view, friendship based on virtue has the greatest impact on human well-being in everyday life. Later, in the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s perspective was extended by Moses Maimonides, a celebrated rabbi-physician who lived in Spain and Egypt.  He contended that friendship is vital for individual wellness and declared that, “It is well known that one needs friends all his lifetime. When one is in good health and prosperous, he enjoys the company of friends. In time of trouble, he is in need of them. In old age, when his body is weak, he is aided by them.”

Though historic thinkers like Aristotle and Maimonides saw a clear link between friendship and wellness, scientific evidence to verify this link is finally emerging. The range of studies has been wide: from drug abuse and depression among North American teens to health practices among Mexican men. Repeatedly, research shows that having a trusted friend lowers nearly all forms of risky and self-destructive behavior.  Studies also reveal that people who have a confidant have better overall health—and are less likely to suffer from chronic medical problems like cardiovascular impairment, hypertension, and asthma. Those with a confidant also have greater resiliency and less vulnerability to depression. In a study of obesity conducted in Britain, Dr. Paul Surtees at the Strangeways Laboratory in Cambridge estimated that the lack of a confidant induced a functional aging of four years for men and five years for women!    

Each month, I’ll be bringing you lively scientific information about positive psychology. My next column will focus on the importance of gratitude and forgiveness for our daily well-being.

Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org 

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