For a long time, there was a gaping deficit in the study of psychology.
In a quest to understand what made people sick, irrational, or miserable, psychologists all but ignored the quest to understand what made people happier and healthier.
In the 1950s, this deficit started to shift. And in the 21st century, we might say that we’ve finally found some balance in our quest to understand the human mind.
Of course, this didn’t happen by accident. Researchers have actively sought to bridge the positivity deficit. Indeed, such has been the scale of this endeavour, it’s now considered a subfield of its own: positive psychology.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of how positive experiences and traits contribute to our happiness and well-being. In other words, it flips the script. It turns the conventional focus of psychology on its head.
And most importantly, positive psychology has unveiled some remarkable insights on how we can live happier, healthier, and more fulfilled lives.
Let’s explore some of them.
Idea #1: The Flow State
Time flies when you’re having fun. Or more accurately, time flies when you’re in a “flow state”.
Flow is a state of complete absorption in the activity at hand. It’s a state of energised focus and involvement, where nothing else seems to matter. And it transforms our perception of time.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dedicated his career to understanding these autotelic experiences. Fascinated by painters that became lost in their work, his research has focused on flow experiences across many walks of life.
The accumulating research points to several important conclusions.
First, people seem to be happiest and most creative in a state of flow. Like a form of meditation, flow allows everything else to dissolve into irrelevance. We become one with the activity.
Second, the flow state is our optimal state for intrinsic motivation. When our work facilitates flow, no other carrot compares. Flow breeds engagement and mastery. And beyond our basic needs, that exceeds the motivational potency of financial incentives.
Third, to experience a flow state, we should identify Goldilocks activities. Flow is found when work is neither too hard nor too easy. Flow flourishes when we are stretching ourselves enough to intrigue and engage, but not so much as to demoralise.
Idea in action: Ask yourself if your work provides opportunities for a flow state, and how you might find more.
Idea #2: Learned Optimism
Martin Seligman is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of positive psychology. At age 25, along with his colleague Steven Maier, Seligman became a star in the field for his theory of learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is a tendency to believe we cannot control a current situation because of repeated past adversity and lack of control. (Seligman and Maier famously illustrated this concept through a controversial experiment with groups of dogs.)
But Seligman didn’t build a career in positive psychology by focusing on our helplessness. Instead, he dedicated much of the rest of his career to understanding those that didn’t conform to the theory.
And here’s the good news. Seligman believes we can teach ourselves to be like them. We can learn optimism.
In his 1991 book, Learned Optimism, Seligman articulated this case in detail. Through adapting our explanatory style – that’s how we explain our experiences to ourselves – we can resist the trap of learned helplessness and cultivate optimism.
Seligman suggests a simple model of five steps to slowly rewire our self-talk, starting with reflection on events, thoughts, and consequences, and then challenging those beliefs.
Idea in action: Pay attention to self-talk. Objectively reflect on reactions and thought processes. Challenge their reasonableness.
Idea #3: Self-Determination Theory
Developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) suggests there are three needs which underpin our intrinsic motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Extensive research has shown that these three needs are positively correlated with psychological health and well-being.
Opportunities for autonomous work breed increased motivation and creativity. Conversely, when our perceived options and control are restricted, our intrinsic motivation and creativity can be crushed.
Motivation is also the fruit of the pursuit of mastery. As we know from the flow state, tasks that hit the sweet spot for difficulty and propagate self-development make us happier and more motivated.
When we add relatedness to this mix, we have the ingredients for optimal motivation. Activities that connect us to others have a mutually beneficial effect for our well-being.
And this isn’t a simple question of feeling good about ourselves. Interpersonal connections can have a very real impact on physical health outcomes. In fact, research suggests that weak social connections pose a greater risk to lifespan than obesity, lack of exercise and excess alcohol consumption. (Yes, you read that right.)
Thankfully, opportunities to find autonomy, competence and relatedness aren’t limited to our work lives. High-quality leisure is characterised by these qualities. While we may be weary from a hard day’s work, intentionality in our leisure has a significant pay-off.
Idea in action: Ask yourself to what extent your work and hobbies provide autonomy, competence and relatedness. Seek out ways to add these qualities.
Idea #4: The Science of Gratitude
There is now a wealth of scientific evidence pointing to the benefits of gratitude. Studies suggest that expressions of gratitude improve our psychological well-being and mental health.
And we needn’t feel perpetually grateful to take advantage of this idea. In one study, participants merely wrote a weekly list of things for which they were grateful for 10 weeks. They were then found to be more optimistic, experience fewer physical symptoms, and exercise more than participants that wrote lists of annoyances or neutral things.
Positive psychology research points to our brain’s response to gratitude as a possible explanation. A brain-imaging study found that the mesolimbic pathway lit up in those expressing gratitude. This region is the reward pathway of the brain, carrying the feel-good chemical dopamine. The results therefore suggest a neurological basis for the improvements in well-being demonstrated in other studies.
The best part of this area of positive psychology research is the seeming ease with which it can be implemented. Simple practices, like a weekly gratitude list or sending more thank you notes, can have transformational effects on our mindset.
Idea in action: Start a weekly gratitude list and stick at it for at least 6 weeks. Research tends to demonstrate the benefits after this point.
Idea #5: Mindfulness Meditation
Perhaps the most popular idea to emerge from positive psychology is that of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the new buzzword in businesses. And there’s good reason for it.
Research is increasingly looking at the neurological impacts of meditation – and identifying some startling results.
Studies have found that a programme of mindfulness meditation as short as 8 weeks appears to have a discernible impact on the shape of our brains. Research links meditation with increases in grey-matter density in brain regions associated with attention, learning, emotional regulation, and memory processes.
What’s more, studies have shown that meditators exhibit less amygdala activity. This suggests improved emotional regulation in meditators.
Further research links meditation with improved decision making and cognitive performance, improved quality of sleep, and a range of other benefits for our physical and mental health.
Before you reject meditation and mindfulness as a 21st century fad, give the extensive research some consideration.
Idea in action: Give meditation a shot. There is enough research out there to convince even the biggest sceptics to give it a go.
Our fascination with the science of happiness is only going to accelerate as growing prosperity across the world continues to shift priorities from survival and shelter to thriving and fulfilment. These five ideas are just the tip of the research iceberg.
For more comprehensive introductions to some of the latest ideas and research, explore the full psychology archives on this blog.
For further in-depth reading, I recommend the following three books as introductions to some foundational ideas in positive psychology.
- Flow: The Psychology of Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. An introduction to the flow state, its underpinning research, and its importance for our happiness and motivation.
- Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. An exploration of how happiness can be cultivated by focusing on the traits we already possess.
- Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan. Practical techniques to identify, measure and cultivate what Dolan considers to be the key happiness inputs.