06Positive Psychology

What is Positive Psychology?

In the past, psychologists focused on studying psychological dysfunctions and mental problems with the intention of finding effective ways to treat these dysfunctions and problems. In recent decades, researchers and psychologists started to have interest in studying how to help people to achieving well-being and fulfillment in life through exploring the positive domain of human psychology.  A field, Positive Psychology, is gradually developed after Dr. Martin Seligman introduced a concept learned optimism in 1990s.  Positive psychology is a field studying positive emotions, strengths of human beings, engagement in meaning activities, as well as attainment of well-being in life. It is a field with growing scientific evidence and now being applied widely by mental health professionals.

How manifesting one’s character strengths leads to well-being?

According to Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, author of the manual “Character Strengths and Virtues” (2004), character strengths are positive traits that are personally fulfilling.  They are capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving across different contexts.  They are also the building blocks for a flourishing life and aspects of personality that lead to well-being.  In the manual, Peterson and Seligman described six universally valued virtues, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence and wisdom.  Within each virtue, there are a number of associated character strengths that representing the different qualities of an individual.  Everyone possesses these character strengths to a greater or lesser extent.  Those character strengths that we exhibit more easily or naturally are our signature strengths.

These character strengths are:

Virtue Character Strength
Courage Integrity
Humanity Social or emotional intelligence
Justice Teamwork
Temperance Mercy
Transcendence Appreciation of beauty
Wisdom Creativity
  Love of learning

In order to achieve a flourishing life and well-being, an individual needs to identify one’s signature strengths.  Research showed that identifying one’s strengths and use them in new and different ways every day could enhance happiness and reduced depression.  At workplaces, employees who use their signature strengths at work had better work performance, organization citizenship behavior and stress coping.  At schools, educational programs focusing on working with students’ signature strengths promoted students’ well-being and positive classroom outcomes. Character strengths are also applied in many other domains, such as physical health, addictions, marital relationships, etc.

A person can use one’s core signature strengths and at the same time, develop one’s lower level character strengths.  Although not yet thoroughly studied, it is apparent that working on signature strengths is more self-reinforcing and leading the person to be more authentic. The person allows the core self to be expressed and will be more connected in relationships and more accomplished in life.  This explains why identifying and using our signature strengths can enhance our well-being.

What is self-compassion and what is the benefits of developing self-compassion?

Psychologist Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as having three components.  The first component is self-kindness, the ability to understand one’s suffering and be able to soothe and nurture oneself in face of adversities.  The second component is common humanity.  It is an awareness of the commonality of human beings as being imperfect and not being judgmental of one’s inadequacies and failures.  The third component is mindfulness.  This is the present moment awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, without judgment and with acceptance. 

Psychologists pointed out that people who are self-compassionate tend to be more resilient, optimistic and higher in positive affectivity. When they are confront with negative events, they are still able to react with self-direct understanding and kindness. Oppositely, people who are self-critical tend to have lower self-esteem, to be more depressed and perfectionistic.

Some people think that encouraging self-compassion means to promote self-indulgence, which could undermine personality responsibility for one’s problems. It could also turn an individual into being self-centered, selfish, narcissistic and less motivated to strive for success. However, numerous research show that self-compassion is positively associated with our emotional well-beings through improving life satisfaction, reducing depressive mood and anxiety, and enabling us react to negative events more equanimously. Moreover, it is positively related to optimism, wisdom, initiative, curiosity and agreeableness. Since the self-compassionate individuals do not interpret trying and failing as threatening, they tend to be more motivated to strive for success and to encounter obstacles toward goal progression.

Over self-criticism is not the right track towards success.  It could suffocate us with overloading stress. On the contrary, being self-compassionate can bring us a happy and fruitful life.

The Art of Gratitude

Gratitude itself is neither limited by environment nor experience. Most importantly it depends on whether we are able to appreciate the details of daily life, and to experience life in different ways. From psychological perspective, according to some recent studies, an individual’s trait gratitude is related to his/ her own cognitive process.

In 2008, psychologists from The University of Warwick, University of Leicester and University of Nottingham in the UK, have done a study, asking the student participants to record daily their experiences about receiving assistance in the 15 days during the research. Results showed that participants with stronger trait gratitude were more likely to have positive appraisals towards the assistance they received than participants with weaker trait gratitude. Participants with stronger trait gratitude were more likely to perceive the givers as altruistic and had paid higher costs; the assistance they received was more valuable. In another study, psychologists found out that if the objective benefits of the assistance were controlled in the experiment, it would influence participants’ appraisals towards the assistance, the gratitude state of participants would thus be influenced too. It proves that our state of gratitude after receiving assistance is partly attributed to our own trait gratitude, and this relation is related to an individual’s cognitive process.

In recent years, we can learn from positive psychology that people with stronger trait gratitude experience various positive emotions more easily, such as happiness, peace, satisfaction and more. To develop stronger trait gratitude, we can have a more positive attitude when we receive assistance from others and avoid negative thinking.

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