Positive Psychology: The science of human flourishing

By Mary Zenzen, Better World Organizations

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is a new branch of psychology. It focuses on what is right with people. Researchers study the difference between people who are happier and more resilient, productive, and engaged than others. They work with neuroscientists to understand the connection between what we think about and the body’s physiological response to those thoughts, and/or a system of thoughts (our beliefs). They also study how to promote more of the conditions where our minds and bodies respond positively and serve our mental and physical health goals. The principles of positive psychology can apply to individuals, groups, and communities.

It is important to note that positive psychology is not all about being positive. It is about understanding what builds total psychological capacity, which leads to greater levels of happiness, resilience, productivity, achievement, and learning – for starters. When negative events occur, people with more psychological capacity have deeper reserves of emotional and cognitive resources. They productively handle challenges and bounce back better than people with less psychological capacity.

The PERMA-V Model

Researchers have organized the basic ingredients of human flourishing into five main areas. They are considering a sixth ingredient (the ‘V’) to complete the picture. The PERMA-V model stands for:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning and Purpose
  • Achievement
  • Vitality

Research supports several strong pathways or enablers which lead to optimal levels of wellness, mental health, and human flourishing. Think about the list below in terms of how each area “enables” these optimal outcomes.

  • Gratitude
  • Savoring
  • Nurturing Social Relationships
  • Kind Actions
  • Goal Setting and Meeting
  • Optimism and Hope
  • Forgiveness
  • Flow Experiences
  • Faith, Religion, Spirituality
  • Mind-Body Care

For example, extremely strong evidence shows that people who have a grateful mindset are happier and healthier. Their habit of looking for what is good in life sets off an upward spiral of positive emotions that has a multiplier effect and a contagion effect.

Each pathway to flourishing requires intentional effort and practice. Creating rituals and routines around each pathway to flourishing helps to ensure continued practice.

For example, if we want to develop a grateful mindset. It takes effort: (1) to regularly make time to think about the many positive things going on in our lives; (2) to actually write down those things for which we are grateful; (3) to notice who is directly and indirectly responsible for providing these benefits to us; (4) to make an effort to express gratitude to those who have benefited our lives.

Some people make a point to write down three things they are grateful for every day before they go to bed. When this practice becomes a lifelong habit, it becomes easier and more natural to access positive thoughts. While there are many benefits of becoming more positive, such as becoming happier in general, the main point of this article is that intentional effort and practice, such as a regular gratitude practice, produce positive change. The good news is that there is now an ocean of positive psychology research available to all people who want to learn how to create positive change in all areas of their lives. For example:

Books by leading researchers

  • Flourish by Martin Seligman
  • Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
  • Love 2.0 by Barbara Fredrickson
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
  • The How of Happiness by Sonya Lyubomirsky
  • Curious? By Todd Kashdan
  • Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  • The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work
  • Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge by Fred Luthans, Carolyn Youssef, and Bruce Avolio
  • Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim Cameron
  • Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications by Kate Hefferon & Ilona Boniwell
  • Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace edited by Bryan Dik, Zinta Byrne, and Michael Steger

Additionally, certificate programs, professional associations, and conferences are available to people who want to deepen their knowledge of positive psychology. For starters:

  • The Flourishing Center
  • Center for Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
  • Center for Positive Organizations, University of Michigan
  • Greater Good Science Center, University of California at Berkeley
  • International Positive Psychology Association

As we look to create the best possible future for ourselves, our families, and our communities, I encourage you to immerse yourself in the wonderful world of positive psychology research. It will equip you with the knowledge and practical tools for becoming a leader in creating positive change in every domain of life in which you participate. Additionally, it will positively prime your mind with the creativity, confidence, and motivation you need to purposefully achieve any goal you seek!