Positive Psychology 101

As a student, much of our classroom dialogue centers around grounding public policy and workplace practice in scientific research; that is, making sure that the practices we use are backed up by research.  And so, it seems only fair to ask whether a month of inspiration is a worthwhile pursuit or just wasted effort.  Is there any point to these daily challenges?  Do they really work?

It turns out there’s an entire field of psychology devoted to better understanding how to make life more fulfilling and productive, called positive psychology.  Since World War II psychology has been dominated by mental illness and pathology, but in the past decade there has been increasing recognition that absence of mental illness is not necessarily emotional well being, and that strengthening positive mental states can actually prevent pathology.  Inspiration touches on many themes explored by positive psychology.  Here’s what the current psychology research has to say about inspiration and happiness.

The “science of happiness” divides the pursuit of happiness into three major approaches:

The Pleasant Life.  The focus is on pleasure or positive emotion.  Increased positive emotion leads to increased happiness. We achieve this by directly pursuing activities that increase pleasure like having a glass of wine or watching a movie, or indirectly by changing how we interpret life events.

Past events: Cultivate gratitude and forgiveness
Current events: Increase mindfulness, or living in the moment.  In other words, positive psychology encourages us to stop and smell the roses.
Future events: Increase optimism and hope, or bring positive emotions to future events.

The Engaged Life.  Happiness comes when we do activities that fully engage us.  We become absorbed in the task, and this process of absorption brings great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, which translates into increased happiness.  This can be engagement in a really good conversation or accomplishment of a difficult task at work or for school.  In other words, any activity where we dive right in, lose track of the time and become fully absorbed in the process, falls under this category.  It may not always be a pleasurable task, but the state of absorption itself brings happiness.  Engaging activities ask us to draw upon our strengths like creativity, perseverance, sense of humor.  In doing so we build on our strengths while creating something worthwhile.

The Meaningful Life.  Happiness also comes when we are engaged in activities that give life a sense of meaning or purpose, i.e. when we work in service to a cause larger than ourselves.  Here the focus turns outwards to the world at large, and our strengths are used for the greater good.

The three pursuits to happiness are not mutually exclusive, but they do take different approaches to happiness.  The pleasant life treats happiness as the goal.  All activities are designed to create positive emotions.  The engaged life treats happiness as a process that is achieved through the process of engagement.  The meaningful life treats happiness as a byproduct.

Some activities combine two or more of these approaches.  Community service in a soup kitchen, for example, might produce pleasure from meeting new people, full engagement in the chopping or sorting or cooking process, and meaning in service to those less fortunate than ourselves.  Indeed, use of all three approaches is called “The Full Life.”

All humans differ in our tendency to rely on one approach or another to bring us happiness.  Some use only one of the above, some combination of two, or all three.  Studies have shown those who use all three in “the full life” have much greater life satisfaction.

A month of inspiration is a month dedicated to increasing happiness.  Inspiration touches on all three approaches to happiness.  Daily inspiration increases “the pleasant life” by calling on us to notice our day-to-day surroundings i.e. mindfulness.  It also encourages pursuit of our dreams, which brings hope and optimism about the future.  Inspiration pushes us to try something new or take on a new project, which allows us to live “the engaged life.”  We build new strengths and experience satisfaction from the flow of our work.  Inspiration also pushes us to think about our larger dreams in life and what we’d like to accomplish with our lives, encouraging us to spend our time on activities and causes we find meaningful.

Day 10 Challenge: Focus on one of your senses.

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