Positive psychology has taken traditional psychology to a whole other level.
Let me first begin with some definitions. What is positive psychology? Basically, it’s nothing more than the scientific study of everyday human strengths and virtues. Moreover, positive psychology focuses on the “average person” with a specific interest in what works, what is right, and what is improving. In essence, positive psychology is an attempt to urge psychologists to adopt a more open and appreciative perspective regarding human potentials, motives, and capacities (Sheldon & King, 2001). Its primary focus is on positive; positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Regrettably, psychologists still know relatively little about human thriving and how to encourage it, not only because they have not given this question the attention it deserves, but more important, because they have been oblivious to the value of this matter.
Let me illustrate what I mean with an example of the predominant negative bias of traditional psychology. Clinical psychologists have focused the majority of their attention on the diagnosis and treatment of pathological conditions. As a result, there is a constant search for “fixes”, and little attention is paid to the nature of psychological health. For years, practitioners of social cognitive psychology have devoted vast attention to the biases, delusions, illusions, and errors of the human being. Freud’s theory is a prime example of this bias. His theory on the animalistic id has been predominant in theoretical psychology. Furthermore, contemporary terror management theorists give dominance to the fear of death (Sheldon & King, 2001).
Let me give a more specific example. When a stranger helps another person, psychologists are the first ones to see the selfish benefit in the act, unwilling to acknowledge the existence of altruism. So as you can see, the negative bias, once identified, can be found lurking around all corners of psychology literature. It is exactly this focus on bias that is preventing psychologists from perceiving other important human processes and characteristics.
Research findings from positive psychology are intended to supplement, not just replace what is known about human suffering, weakness, and disorder. The goal is to have a more complete and balanced scientific understanding of the human experience. The highs, the lows, and everything in between. Thus, a complete practice of psychology should include a broad understanding of suffering and happiness, especially the interaction between these two.
Happy but dumb? Let’s take a closer look at this world famous happiness myth…
Happy people are stupid people: There seems to be a cultural assumption that happy people are anti-intellectual, delusional, or shallow. Blonde jokes can be quite consoling to shrewd, less popular brunettes. Part of the problem is that everyone knows someone who is brilliant and unhappy. Additionally, everyone knows someone who is successful and not happy.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth. A decade of research suggests that both of those individuals (smart/unhappy, and successful/ unhappy) are actually under performing what their brain can do. The reason I say this it’s because if you raise the levels of positive emotion, the cognitive abilities and success rates go up. The real story of happiness is based on the idea that every person has a range of potential- in terms of intelligence, athletic ability, musicality, creativity, and productivity- and we are more likely to achieve the nirvana of our brain’s potential when we’re feeling positive, rather than negative.
Happiness as a Work Ethic
Achor (2010) took positive psychology to a whole other level and incorporated into the workplace. He sparked a revolution in how companies think about work performance and job satisfaction. His research from Harvard and from Fortune 500 companies revealed that the good o’l formula should actually be the other way around. So, instead of thinking: success brings happiness, we should be thinking: happiness brings success.
In his book, Achor (2010) describes how only 25 percent of your job success is predicted based upon your intelligence and technical skills. This is surprisingly small given companies’ recruitment policies, and the importance of educational attainment in society. The bigger question is: why are we ignoring the other 75 percent of potential? Well, this “silent” 75 percent of long-term job success is based upon your ability to “positively adapt to the world“: optimism, social support creation, and viewing stress as a challenge.
We often wrongly think that the “deep” people are the ones who sulk. The darker the movie, the less fulfilling the ending. The more messed up the painter or the musician’s life, the more creative we assume they were. But this is just simply not true. It actually requires a supreme amount of depth to be positive and hopeful in the midst of misfortune. In essence, negative emotions stem from the most primitive part of the brain that responds to fear and threat. Basically, seeing the negative is just too damn easy; formulating a cognitive strategy about how to positively respond to challenge requires a much higher-order functioning in the brain.
Researchers like Barbara Fredrickson have found that when we are negative, our brains resort to “fight or flight” thinking about the world. But when we are positive, our brains “broaden and build”, which allows us to create new patterns of success and expand the amount of possibilities our brains can process.
Positive Psychology and Positive Parenting
Even though being a parent often seems like a disconcerting task, the teachings of Positive Psychology can help us sail through rough and troubled waters.
From the propositions of positive emotion and positive relationships, to resiliency and motivation, there is not a topic covered in this emerging science that does not have some relevance to child development. Let’s look at some examples:
- Psychologists Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan’s research of self-determination theory (2003) shows that children’s social behavior naturally becomes more self-regulated as they grow. Autonomy is not only a naturally occurring part of growing up, but a sign of a healthy development. In studies of children’s abilities to manage their own behavior at school, Brown and Ryan found that autonomy and a greater ability to self-regulate is often associated with greater pleasure and interest in studies, resulting in the ability to handle stresses more effectively.
- Research has also found that people are happiest, most productive, and most creative when using their personal strengths. The field of Positive Psychology calls these signature strengths, those special skills and abilities that allow an individual to shine. The VIA signature strengths questionnaire for adults has been supported with millions of people across multiple cultures. The childhood version of this survey, VIA Strength Survey for Children, is freely available for children to identify their unique strengths.
- Philanthropy is known to elevate positive feelings. Though children have limited financial resources, they have much of value to give others. Examples might include donation of toys to needy children, and participating with parents in charitable activities such as working at a food pantry.
- Encouraging children to examine the known facts of the situation, separating facts from fears. Remind your child that most fears do not come true, and if they do, the result isn’t as bad as was initially feared. It helps to examine the worst that can happen and decide on a course of action, should it occur.
These are just a few tips that you can implement in your parenting style. It not only provides opportunities for children to experience success on their own terms but it also supports them in learning to notice, name and regulate their emotions.
What are your thoughts?
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822–848