It seems more and more of my health coach colleagues have pursued further certification in the field of Positive Psychology. One of them has developed a guided journal – The Book of Extraordinary Things – based on the principles of Positive Psychology. It is designed to encourage self-awareness, positivity and well-being. And I recently facilitated a program about resiliency and one of the key skills to helping build resilience is the ability to harness positive emotions – to find the silver lining in even the most challenging circumstances. All of these factors prompted me to learn a little more about Positive Psychology and how it can help individuals maximize their health and well-being.
What is Positive Psychology?
Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, is a leading authority in the fields of Positive Psychology and resilience. He has written several books about it including his recent one, Flourish. He describes Positive Psychology as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” It is grounded in the belief that people want to lead meaningful lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. In other words, it helps us move beyond just surviving to thriving, or even flourishing.
Traditionally, psychology has often focused on dysfunction – what is wrong with you – and how to treat it. Positive Psychology moves the focus to what is right with you (such as your character strengths) and is built on Dr. Seligman’s PERMA™ theory of well-being, which includes Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. In recent years, Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, a graduate of the Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, modified the theory and added Vitality – a focus on healthy habits such as eating well, moving regularly and getting enough sleep.
Let’s take a brief look at each of the components of PERMA-V and how they can help you flourish and achieve “the good life.”
Positive Emotions: Focusing on positive emotions is about more than just being happy. It is the ability to remain optimistic despite life’s ups and downs. Keeping a positive outlook can help in your personal relationships as well as your work. You can increase positive emotions about the past by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness. You can savor the present by practicing mindfulness. And you can relish the future by building hope. Do more of the things that make you happy and bring enjoyment into your daily routine.
Interestingly, Seligman notes that this building block of well-being is limited by how much an individual can experience positive emotions – which is partly linked to biology/genetics as well as the fact that our emotions tend to fluctuate within a range. Due to this limitation, the other components may play an even more important role in our ability to thrive.
Engagement: Engagement is experienced when you are fully absorbed in a task or activity in which self-awareness disappears and time seems to stop or fly by quickly. You may recall this concept of “flow” put forth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when the experience is so gratifying that you are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what you will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Achieving this state of flow or total engagement is natural, especially when you are involved in creative activities you enjoy and are good at. Pursue hobbies that interest you, develop your skills, and consider professional work that is linked to your passion(s).
Relationships: Humans are social creatures, and we rely on connections with others to truly flourish. Connections to others can give life purpose and meaning. Positive relationships with your family members, friends, peers, and colleagues is a key source of joy. Support from and connection with others can also help you navigate through difficult times that require resilience. Having deep, meaningful relationships with others is vital to your well-being. Reflect on the quality (and perhaps quantity) of your relationships with friends, family, and other significant people in your life.
Meaning: A sense of purpose can be derived from belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. Religion and spirituality provide many people with meaning, as can family, professional pursuits, and volunteering for social causes that are important to you. Having an answer to that million-dollar question – “Why am I here?”- is a key ingredient to finding fulfillment. Seek out meaning, whether it be through your work, personal hobbies or leisure activities, or serving others in your community.
Accomplishment: People pursue achievement, mastery, and success for its own sake, whether in the workplace or in personal pursuits and activities. We all thrive when we are succeeding, achieving our goals, and bettering ourselves. Setting goals and putting in the necessary effort to achieve them are important to well-being and happiness. Achievement helps to build self-esteem and provides a sense of accomplishment. Keep your focus on achieving your goals, but also remember to keep your ambition in balance with all of the other important things in life.
Vitality: As you may have noticed yourself, the original PERMA building blocks of well-being tend to be very head-centered or “above the neck,” as some people like to refer to it. This was one reason why Emiliya Zhivotovskaya decided to add this component with an emphasis on the mind-body connection as well as healthy habits around sleep, food, and exercise. It addresses the need to take a more holistic look at well-being, including the inseparable connection between mind and body when it comes to flourishing. Eat healthy foods to fuel the body, move your body every day and develop good sleep habits that allow you to wake feeling rested.
This is clearly just a high-level view of Positive Psychology but if it has sparked your curiosity, I encourage you to learn more through some of the books, speakers and websites cited in my post.
The Book of Extraordinary Things
As I mentioned earlier, a coaching colleague has created a guided journal to help explore the principles of Positive Psychology. I ordered one to support my continuous journey to optimal health and well-being. I plan to use it to focus more on the good things in my life and the strengths that I bring to the table in both my professional pursuits and my personal life. I am just starting to explore my journal so stay tuned for Part 2 of this post where I will share my experience with it. (And if you think you’d like to order a copy, you can do so here.)