1. What is “Positive Psychology”? How did you first begin studying it?
Positive psychology is the science of improving our quality of life.
It is the study of positive states like happiness and gratitude, positive traits such as character strengths and positive institutions, which include aspects of work, culture and government that facilitate flourishing.
My passion for Positive Psychology is driven by an intense desire to reach my full potential. I earned my masters from Claremont Graduate University (CGU) in 2012 in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation and am now working toward a Ph.D.
My journey to the Ph.D. program at CGU began as a young adult when I was learning how to recover from depression and tragedy after my dad committed suicide.
I read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which said that I could improve the quality of my life by learning how to focus and control my attention. Soon thereafter I began a yoga practice and learned how to meditate, which helped restore my equilibrium and reignite my passion to reach my full potential.
2. How is Positive Psychology different than traditional psychology?
Traditional psychology often focuses on what goes wrong with people, but health and wellness is more than an absence of disease.
Psychiatrists and the medical field use the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to classify how people are abnormal, but not much was known about what constitutes a flourishing life.
In 2000, the field of Positive Psychology became officially recognized as a branch of the American Psychological Association and is focused on building an evidence base of optimal human functioning.
3. How can people use the principles of Positive Psychology to improve their day-to-day lives?
Positive psychology is not a magic bullet to solve life’s problems; however, what distinguishes the field from the self-help industry is the use of the scientific method, along with a peer review system, to generate credible evidence.
A number of positive psychology principles can help improve one’s daily life to encourage post-traumatic growth, foster positive relationships, and cultivate the presence of meaning and hope.
One of the most robust areas of investigation about daily life is flow, the feeling of being completely focused and absorbed in an activity.
Flow experiences happen when you perceive the challenge to be just greater than your skill, you have clear and proximate goals and feedback about your performance is immediate.
Some people find flow in their work; others find flow in exercise. The beauty is you don’t have to chase extreme experiences to improve your daily life.
You can learn to create a flow experience in the most mundane daily tasks. When you pay your bills or wash the dishes, try to frame this part of life as a challenge or opportunity, and then focus attention on feedback.
Over 35 years of research points to the experience of flow as generally contributing to a high quality of life. However, even flow is not the be all and end all of happiness or fulfillment. There is a dark side to pursuing a state of total absorption if it impinges on the growth of other important areas of health and well-being, such as relationships and self-care.
4. How does Positive Psychology help people find a positive perspective in a world filled with negativity?
I can think of two concepts to help people cultivate a positive perspective.
The first is Growth Mindset and the second is to understand how positive and negative emotions influence behavior.Research psychologists such as Carol Dweck at Stanford have demonstrated that mindset has a huge impact on the quality of our life.
Dweck coined the terms “growth” and “fixed” mindset to refer to a habitual way people perceive opportunities and outcomes.
People with a growth mindset see challenge as opportunities and failure as a crucial ingredient to success.
People with a fixed mindset see failure as a definitive truth that they aren’t good enough.
As a result, people with a fixed mindset tend to avoid taking risks and rob themselves of the joy inherent to learning and growing.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and her team and the University of North Carolina have built a robust evidence base that the evolutionary basis of positive emotions is to broaden and build our thought-action repertoire. In general, positive emotions facilitate divergent thinking while negative emotions cause a narrowing of attention.
For example, receiving a loving message from a friend might make us want to give and contribute to our community whereas getting your wallet stolen might make you mistrustful and more insular.
Furthermore, our mind is engineered to remember the negative more than the positive. Therefore, getting daily doses of joy, excitement, awe, and/or peacefulness is crucial if you frequently consume media or work in a difficult environment.
5. If you could recommend 3 daily activities to engage in that would boost a person’s mood and bring them closer to reaching this “Flow” state you mentioned, what would those be?
Three daily activities to boost mood and increase your likelihood to experience flow would be:
Participating in active leisure
Getting into nature
Reducing or becoming more intentional about watching TV
In general, the activities in our daily (waking) life can be split into thirds:
3. Maintenance activities (i.e. personal grooming and grocery shopping)
Flow is reported most often during work and least often during maintenance activities.
Our leisure activities can be split into passive (watching TV) and active (playing tennis) categories. Although one may not be better than the other, the benefits we get from participating in passive vs active leisure can be quite different.
Active leisure means doing something that gets your body moving. This will release mood enhancing endorphins and reduce the negative effects of stress. We all need routine in our lives, and in that case joining a sports league or dance class would help. But in addition, we can also seek out hidden opportunities in the day to stretch, move and play.
One of the biggest game changers in my life has been making a daily commitment to commune with nature. We sit, walk, run or hike in a park or in the mountains for a minimum of 30 minutes a day.
Nature has restorative properties for our attention and mood. You can boost these effects by being in silence and savoring the sounds, smells, colors and patterns of the natural environment.
If you’re a big TV watcher, you might benefit from being more intentional about the programs you watch and why.
Research about daily life has found that Americans spend a significant amount of their leisure time watching television, yet they report their mood during these times is often unsatisfied and lonely. Furthermore, the seemingly infinite array of choices at your fingertips may be further exhausting an already stressed out mind from work.