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Amy Tardio

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Is the World Ready for a Positive Psychology?

Posted: 07/15/09 03:13 PM ET

Imagine that by the year 2051 51% of the American population is feeling engaged at work, in meaningful relationships and is healthier, more grateful and calm. Government, education and health care leaders recognize and act on scientific evidence that societies function better when people are doing well. It sounds far fetched, but then again, ten years ago so did the notion of a psychology dedicated to the scientific study of positive emotions, strengths and virtues. Historically, psychology in the United States since WWI has been illness based. Often, healing was attempted by uncovering troubling issues from the past. Those doing well, even in the face of tremendous adversity got no attention.

The emerging field of Positive Psychology is intended to compliment, not to replace traditional psychology. By scientifically studying what has gone right, rather than wrong in both individuals and societies, Positive Psychology hopes to achieve a renaissance of sorts. In other words, an understanding of the important role of positive emotions and experiences that leads to the broad practice in institutions from politics to preschool to insure our personal and collective best.

Last month over 1500 researchers, coaches, students, and practitioners in fields from exercise physiology to law and politics gathered in Philadelphia for the First World Congress on Positive Psychology. The group included renown pioneers in the field such as Dr. Martin Seligman, considered the founder and self-described "voice" of Positive Psychology, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi author of the concept and book Flow described by Seligman as "the brains" behind Positive Psychology and Dr. Philip Zimbardo famous for The Stanford University Prison Experiment and his work on situations that foster terrorism and/or heroism. (He wore both "Dr. Evil/Dr. Angel" t-shirts during his speech!) The halls were often standing room only and fire marshals were on patrol. But the mission even from the back of the room was clear; the collaborative energy and collective brain power in the exploding field of Positive Psychology has the potential to impact our heath, energy levels, passion, enjoyment, ability to focus, connect, be resilient, hopeful and loved; otherwise known as our ability to thrive. According to Martin Seligman if Positive Psychology gets it's way, a majority of Americans over the next several decades will be thriving.


Oh...And Did I Mention The Word Happy?

Happiness is a favorite topic in both mainstream media and Positive Psychology. In both fields the word Happiness is widely seen in book and research titles, headlines and on magazine covers. Obviously -- like sex -- happiness sells. The basic premise is that given our personality type and current situation we can still learn to be happier. How much happier and for how long is a ripe topic for discussion. Scanning the newsstand one would believe happiness is instant and enduring. "5 Quick Ways to a Happier you" or "How to be Your Happiest Self" are catchy cover lines but the concept of thriving (positive psychologists also like to use the word "flourishing") is not a quick fix and requires effort, expertise and strategies that have been scientifically studied. In fact, some researchers believe that without sustained effort to be happier we may revert back to a "set point." Still others believe that our set point can be raised. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. a smart, down-to earth mom and highly regarded researcher at the University of California, Riverside is confident as much as forty percent of our happiness is within our control. The trick is to pick a happiness activity that is a good fit with ones personality, lifestyle and means, vary the activity to avoid boredom and adaptation and commit -- as one does with exercise -- to make a lasting change. Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. a calming, and acclaimed researcher at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill describes negative emotions as much more memorable and longer lasting than positive emotions. Much of her strategies involve stacking the deck as much as possible with positive experiences, thoughts and feelings in an effort to outweigh the influence of negativity. Fredrickson describes a ratio of 3:1, positive to negative emotions as the "tipping point" toward overall well-being.


Getting Connected ...

There are some great books and websites by leading experts in the field of Positive Psychology designed for the general public. Most offer explanations of recent research, reliable surveys and exercises recognized to boost positive emotions. Lyubomirsky has recently launched the "Live Happy" iPhone application (free on iTunes) and one can only guess the synergy between Positive Psychology and technology is about to take-off.


Check out a few. What's the worst that can happen?

www.talbenshahar.com: Tal Ben-Shahar is the Author of Happier and Perfect and is a Harvard University Professor known for teaching the most popular course on campus; "Positive Psychology."

www.Authentic Happiness.sas.upenn. Founded by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. and run by The University of Pennsylvania. This website is designed to promote research and offer strategies toward thriving. Seligman is also the author of several books including Authentic happiness: using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment.

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. An easy to follow, practical guide to finding happiness strategies that are a good fit and lots of easy, different ways to implement them.

Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. A look at why positive emotions broaden our minds, open our hearts and increase creativity. The science behind the 3:1 ratio and great tips for recognizing and savoring the best of life.

Curious by Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. One of the young rock stars of the Positive Psychology Conference. Kashdan's studies recognize the importance of mindfulness in unleashing curiosity, dealing with times of fear and being open to what life has to offer.