Positive Psychology & the Quest to Find Happiness

Positive Psychology & the Quest to Find Happiness

Psychology September 12, 2012 / By THNKR
Positive Psychology & the Quest to Find Happiness

Research suggests that happiness is rooted in interpersonal virtues such as kindness, gratitude and the capacity for love. Gretchen Rubin shares what she found on her journey to discover exactly what makes her happy.

When Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he was asked to select a theme for his term. Seligman chose positive psychology.

Since the start of World War II, psychology has largely been concerned with healing and fixing. Psychologists have approached happiness based on the idea that humans need to be fixed, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and schizophrenia. According to Seligman and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “This almost exclusive attention to pathology neglects the fulfilled individual and the thriving community. The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities...psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness, and damage; it’s also the study of strength and virtue.”

While psychologists have been studying happiness for decades, the field of positive psychology is relatively new. During the 1950s, psychologists Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Maslow started exploring the field of humanist psychology, developing theories about happiness and optimism in humans. This set off a flurry of self-help books and happiness how-tos and laid the groundwork for positive psychology. The field has grown exponentially since its inception just over ten years ago.

The obsession with finding happiness and meaning doesn’t seem to be a trend – books have been published, blogs started, magazines dedicated to exploring and understanding happiness. Is this search futile? What is the importance of happiness? Why has the field exploded with research?

Finding happiness and meaning in life is important. Not only is happiness linked to a healthier life – and vice versa – it can also lead to a longer life, both qualities people often associate with a good life. Happiness has also been linked to increased generosity, courage, and creativity. Happiness is also contagious – happy people are more likely to give and simple gifts are linked with increased pleasure. More happy people could lead to larger societal happiness and, ideally, a better world.

Hundreds of studies have been conducted to better understand the root of human happiness. A study on twins by David Lykken indicates that about 50% of a person’s happiness is based on genetics. The next 50% of a person’s happiness is based on circumstance (10%) and voluntary activity (40%), two things a person can, to some extent, control.

Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to represent the five areas that have been shown to contribute to happiness: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment. Finding meaning and purpose in life, having close relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and contributing to society are all things that can lead to a better quality of life. It’s figuring out what those meaningful things are that can often be troubling.

Many people have embarked on the journey to discover what it is that will make them happy and lead to a fulfilling life. Among them is Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. Embarking on a 12-month journey to figure out exactly what made her happy, Gretchen took advice from everyone – from psychologist Martin Seligman to the Dalai Lama to Oprah – and in the end, found a natural balance that worked for her.

Not all people have as much time as Gretchen to devote to discovering what makes them tick. There are a few things that psychologists have uncovered that can help in the meantime. In a study by Daniel Kahneman, getting enough sleep routinely led to a happier and more emotionally stable life, as well as increased enjoyment of daily activities. Seligman also found that “the cerebral virtues—curiosity, love of learning—are less tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.” In a study by Seligman and psychologist Edward Diener (often referred to as “Dr. Happiness” for his extensive research on the topic), the two found that the happiest people are those with close relationships with their families and those who spend time with their family and friends. Simple exercise, like jogging or hiking, has also been linked with increased happiness.

There is a natural human desire to find balance, happiness and lead a fulfilling life. Whether you find time to dedicate to finding what makes you happy or just live in the moment, hopefully you can find time for family, sleep, and a little exercise in the meantime.

Watch Gretchen Rubin and more discuss The Happiness Project on BOOKD:

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