Why Positive Psychology?

We recently finished another semester at the small college where I teach. But, I’m finding that my students’ responses to one particular final exam are lingering with me. The course is a semester-long seminar on positive psychology, and the final exam is one essay question. This year, I asked them to address the question, “Why positive psychology?” This is one of my favorites.

It’s always a joy to read the students’ responses, many of whom were surprisingly pessimistic and cynical at the outset of the course. I want to share some of their responses, but first let me tackle the question myself. Why positive psychology? Positive psychology because optimism works, virtue is greatly needed and hope is never out of season.

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, asserts that positive psychology is much more than “happiology.” The aim of positive psychology is well-being and, ultimately, human flourishing. Well-being is both subjective and objective – involving a sense of contentment, purpose and meaning as well as good relationships and real accomplishments (Seligman, 2012).

Optimism is the common ingredient among successful teams, organizations and families. If we cannot dream, if we cannot find the good, if we cannot believe a better day is coming, then how can we flourish or persevere in the face of adversity? Or, how can we possibly appreciate the beauty and blessings of everyday life? Optimism is vital to human resilience and Grit (Duckworth et al, 2007), with the latter being a widely recognized predictor of academic and work success. Recall Michael Jordan’s 26 missed shots at the buzzer over the course of his career, or Abraham Lincoln’s many failures prior to his remarkable ascension to President of the United States. We don’t seem to dwell on these things. And they didn’t either. Best of all, although we all start at different points, realistic optimism can be learned.

According to Thomas Jefferson, “Happiness is the aim of life… (but) virtue is the foundation of happiness.” Positive psychology, at its best, is really all about the study and promotion of virtue (Worthington, 2010). This is what Lincoln meant by the “better angels of our nature.” NY Times columnist David Brooks, among others, has recently seized on this idea – suggesting virtue and good character as the antidote to what ails our postmodern society. I love Seligman’s concise statement about the problems of contemporary society, “the waxing of the self and the waning of the commons” (Seligman, 2004). In other words, we’ve become increasingly self-absorbed and disconnected. When asked to summarize positive psychology in two words, the late Christopher Peterson, replied, “Other people.” We need to be reminded that in the most basic sense, we are all in the same boat, and we need encouragement to go forward in such a way that others benefit also. In this regard, the pursuit of virtue reminds us that happiness can only be pursued indirectly. As Dallas Willard (2013) so insightfully noted, we need to reconnect our notion of the good life with pursuit of the good person.

Last week some remarkable teachers gathered at the White House gardens to be honored and to recognize the teacher of the year, Shanna Peeples. Shanna works with a wide range of poor and disadvantaged children in Amarillo, Texas. When asked about her teaching, Shanna summarized her work by saying, “I sell hope to my students.” What a simple and beautiful statement. Her words reminded me that life experience often teaches us cynicism, so there will always be a need for us to champion hope.

So, what about my students and some of their more compelling insights? Haley offered this, “Positive psychology allows us to accept the bad with the good, and even find good in the bad.” Autumn and Sarah focused on the importance of social interest and a larger purpose, suggesting “…positive psychology empowers people and helps them grow by focusing outwardly.” Amy emphasized the practical and the spiritual in her essay. She summarized, “Positive psychology offers a way to cope with our negative thoughts and be content in the present moment, engaging both the soul and mind…” Jaylen succinctly concluded, “Positive psychology is about making life worth living;” whereas, Christian noted, “…in trying to become the person we are called to be, we meet a spiritual calling.” He added, “Seeking to live a better life brings spiritual growth.”

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