So you’ve heard the term ‘Positive Psychology’ being bandied about, and wonder what it is, or perhaps suspect it’s just the old adage of ‘think positive’. Here’s a quick introduction and clarification.

Positive psychology refers to the scientific study of happiness, psychological wellbeing, and what has been termed ’emotional flourishing’. It is one of the newest branches of psychology that has caught the attention of the academic community and grown within the last decade. In contrast to traditional psychology, positive psychology does not aim to discover what’s wrong with a person’s life in terms of dysfunctional and abnormal behaviour. Rather, it aims to uncover and promote ‘what’s working’ – the virtues and mental attributes and habits that make life worth living and its intention is to complement the practice of traditional psychology, rather than replace it.

This increasingly popular area of psychology was co-founded by Martin Seligman, an American psychologist who is the Director of the Positive Psychology Centre (PPC) at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a leading authority in the fields of positive psychology, optimism, learned helplessness, resilience, depression, and pessimism. Along with Seligman, the experts at PPC aim to help individuals and communities to lead more fulfilled and rewarding lives by helping them to achieve their full potential. This is done through research, training, education and the distribution of their message and findings when it comes to positive psychology.

The 5 Pillars of Well Being

Based on scientific theories and studies, positive psychology has identified what makes normal life more fulfilling. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of life, it proposes that we take the best things in our lives and build on them to increase our feeling of happiness, fulfilment and well-being.

Seligman suggests that there are five ‘pillars of well being’.

  1. Positive emotions
  2. Engagement in a task or activity
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Accomplishment

To achieve the best chance of living a content and satisfying life, Seligman suggests that we should aspire to do our very best to improve each of these five areas. Improvement can take place when the three central concerns of positive psychology are explored.

The 3 Central Concerns of Positive Psychology

The study of positive psychology is based on three central concerns, and these are positive emotions, positive institutions and positive individual traits. Let’s take a look at each of these fundamentals and upon understanding what each one refers to, you’ll see why they play such an important role in the quest for a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

Positive Emotions – Understanding positive emotions involves the study of contentment with ones past, feelings of happiness in the present and aspirations of hope that are held for the future.

Positive Individual Traits – Exploring positive individual traits refers to the study of strengths, such as the capacity for love and work, self-knowledge, courage, resilience, creativity, integrity, moderation, self-control, wisdom and curiosity.

Positive Institutions – Understanding the element of positive institutions denotes the study of the strengths that foster better communities such as teamwork, tolerance, responsibility, justice, leadership, purpose and civility.

Applying Positive Psychology

By focusing your attention on the five pillars of well being, you channel more energy into what makes life worth living, and by choosing to apply the principles of positive psychology, it’s possible for both individuals and communities to build a feeling of happiness and well being into all aspects of life, including education, business and personal life.

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Education in Positive Psychology

There are a small but growing number of Masters level (post-graduate) and related courses now available for those who would like to achieve formal academic qualifications in this field.

In Ireland, UCC offer an MA in Applied Psychology – Coaching Psychology with a large Positive Psychology emphasis.

In the UK, the main MSc is the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) programme at UEL (University of East London). This follows a similar programme to the original MAPP at the University of Pensylvania (setup by Martin Seligman) and he holds and Honorary professorship at UEL.

Buckinghamshire New University also offers an MSc in Positive Psychology