How unfortunate for the field of positive psychology that many confuse it with the school of rah-rah positive thinking. They’re actually two distinctly different approaches.
One of the well-respected founders of positive psychology, Christopher Peterson, defined it in a blog post several years ago:
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.
The list below, according to Peterson, are some of the things this area of study has discovered. Asterisks behind several of them indicate that I’ve made additional comments that follow.
• Most people are happy.
• Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply along for the happy ride. People who are satisfied with life eventually have even more reason to be satisfied, because happiness leads to desirable outcomes at school and work, to fulfilling social relationships, and even to good health and long life.
• Most people are resilient.
• Happiness, strengths of character, and good social relationships are buffers against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks.
• Crisis reveals character.
• Other people matter mightily if we want to understand what makes like most worth living.
• Religion matters.*
• And work matters as well if it engages the worker and provides meaning and purpose.
• Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people.
• As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia trumps hedonism.**
• The ‘heart’ matters more than the ‘head.’ Schools explicitly teach critical thinking; they should also teach unconditional caring.
• Good days have common features: feeling autonomous, competent, and connected to others.
• The good life can be taught.***
*Not a reflection of Peterson’s personal beliefs, but an acknowledgment of the importance of religion to many.
***This is good news, he notes, though it’s necessary to put one’s newfound knowledge to use regularly in order to sustain progress.
Earlier this month Christopher Peterson passed away at the age of 62.
One of the major contributions he made to positive psychology was the study of character strengths. He encouraged people to take the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Signature Strengths at www.authentichappiness.org. You’ll find it there under “Questionnaires/Engagement.” If you don’t want to spend 20-40 minutes on this test, there’s also a “Brief Strengths Test.”
How can this help you? You’re more likely to attain contentment or happiness if you learn how to capitalize on your strengths that score the highest.
Peterson’s book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, co-authored with Martin Seligman, identifies 24 strengths that fall into six groups of virtues:
- Wisdom and Knowledge
- love of learning
- perspective and wisdom
- social intelligence
- active citizenship / social responsibility / loyalty / teamwork
- forgiveness and mercy
- humility and modesty
- self-regulation and self control
- appreciation of beauty and appreciation of excellence
- humor and playfulness
- spirituality, or a sense of purpose and coherence
Available on the Psychology Today website, Peterson’s blog was called “The Good Life: Positive Psychology and What Makes Life Worth Living.” Material culled from this column will be featured in his next book, Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology, expected to be released in early January.