Applying positive psychology

To help us fully understand the value of positive psychology, it is valuable to explore how and where it can be applied. Let’s take a look.

Introduction

Positive psychology is built upon well-thought-out theories and backed up by research. It uses the scientific method to understand better what enables and facilitates human flourishing while remaining rooted firmly in the real world.

And while it does not suggest dismissing other areas of psychology or directly tackling people’s issues, it offers an approach that focuses on their strengths rather than weaknesses and sets goals that align with their values to build meaningful lives.

As a result, positive psychology has broad application: valuable in the home, at the workplace, throughout education, and within therapy. Indeed, wherever the skills are learned, they are widely applicable and transferrable to life areas. 

After all, seeking the ‘good life’ has no barriers, nor is it only appropriate to specific community segments.

Positive psychology in therapy

It is an exciting time for ‘applied’ positive psychology. Over the last three decades, considerable progress has been made in supporting clients who arrive in the therapist’s office to overcome challenges and in need of creating a life of meaning and value.

Traditionally, therapy focused on the past – attempting to understand and unravel the effects of previous events and influences on how we manage now. Yet, positive psychology in therapy is different; it is not prescriptive but facilitative. It takes the client beyond theory, focusing on their strengths and values to benefit their lives now and in the future.

One such example is ‘Hope Therapy,’ where clients are supported while setting clear goals, identifying paths to success, and fostering the energy, or ‘agency,’ needed to tackle them. Another approach is ‘mindfulness therapy,’ which is particularly helpful in tackling anxiety, putting it in its place, and enhancing moments of joy through moment-by-moment awareness without engagement [6, 7, 8].

Positive psychology in coaching

Coaching typically focuses on helping clients reach their goals, whether in the workplace, sports, education, or beyond.

The positive psychology approach is an ideal companion and stimulus to working with clients, helping them move from surviving to thriving by building on several key elements: positive emotions, relationships, strengths, mindset, and resilience.

The approach combines an awareness of what clients can achieve while building personal resources to live more successfully in the present while finding growth and success in the future. 

And it has been applied in a variety of coaching settings with great results: financial coaches help people understand spending habits and economic aspirations better; leaders coaches maximize leaders’ abilities and their teams; and work-life coaches bring balance and direction where there was none, ensuring that important values are not overlooked [9].

Where is positive psychology currently being applied?

The potential for using positive psychology across every aspect of our lives is limited only by our imagination, awareness, and understanding. In fact, successes can be seen almost everywhere: including healthcare, through a focus on positive mental and physical health; politics, exploring the power of policy to enhance wellbeing; education, empowering students and teachers to create the ideal learning environment; and management, showing the value to business and customers of staff wellness.

Even for those individuals not seeking or expecting help, positive psychology can unobtrusively focus on what makes them feel good, gives their lives meaning, and ultimately, make them happier. The techniques and practices are readily available and can be shared with relatively little training to those from a range of educational and cultural backgrounds. We can also use them alongside existing techniques and approaches without fear of conflict [5, 6].

What theories are being used to apply positive psychology?

Positive psychology theories all have the same goal – to contribute to a meaningful life where the individual flourishes.

Martin Seligman’s original ‘PERMA’ model combines 5 elements (positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments) that contribute to wellbeing, which people pursue for their own sake, and can each be measured independently.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow Theory’ explores how the perfect balance between skills and challenge can lead to an optimum experience where the individual performs at their very best, undeterred by distractions until all tasks are complete.

And ‘Strength Theory’ builds on the work of Seligman and others and years’ worth of scientific data to show how identifying and making good use of our strengths, and focusing on positives rather than negatives leads to happier and higher performing individuals [1, 12].

Applying positive psychology in education

Traditionally, learning can be a little one-dimensional, with little focus on students’ wellness and wellbeing, only on academic success. Positive psychology changes all that. 

As one of its fastest-growing areas, positive education, while helping to prevent difficulties and overcome challenges, aims to enable and foster growth and development in all areas that promote wellness, including resilience, social competence, and positive emotions such as optimism.

By focusing on the positives, the students’ strengths rather than their failures, and creating growth-oriented educational environments, it is possible to foster prolonged growth and development throughout their academic journey. Rather than them becoming disengaged or unmotivated, they learn to use their strengths across the curriculum, boosting motivation and increasing wellbeing of both staff and students [2].

Applying positive psychology in prisons

Historically, punishing criminal behavior has often led to reoffending rather than rehabilitation. Researchers in criminology typically focused on what was deviant or wrong in the lives of those committing offenses rather than how to live more positive, meaningful, and fulfilling lives.

Positive criminology shares many of the same values and goals as positive psychology and focuses on the offender’s positive life experiences, meaningful goals, and growth opportunities.

Teaching resilience to help people cope with stress and uncertainty and recover from a damaging environment can help create growth from trauma and result in more socially acceptable behavior. Similarly, being exposed to positive human values can change the path taken by at-risk individuals. Involvement in volunteering and experiencing positive emotions such as ‘gratitude’ and ‘compassion’ can improve self-examination and encourage more positive life choices.

Someone’s past behavior need not define their future [10].

Benefit finding

So, are there any positive psychological practices we can apply to every aspect of our lives? Well, yes! While some interventions, exercises, and techniques have been created for specific situations, others work well across all areas of our being.

Benefit finding has been well-validated and works anywhere – or perhaps, everywhere. It helps wellbeing by focusing on the positive characteristics of negative life events, enhancing resilience, identifying meaning, creating purpose, and building compassion.

And it’s simple. Think back to a difficult time or incident – something that fills you with complex feelings and emotions. Visualize it as though watching a movie. Maintain some emotional distance and ask yourself, ‘What did this experience teach me?’ ‘How did it equip me for what was to follow?’ ‘What positive outcomes would not have occurred otherwise?’ It is not an easy exercise, and you may want to revisit it several times to fully appreciate the light in an otherwise dark situation [1].

The Art of Savoring

We are great at thinking and talking about the negatives, but the good things often pass over us without a second thought. We miss out on all the positive emotions, deep engagement, meaning, and sense of accomplishment they bring.

Not only is it a great shame, but a missed opportunity to boost wellness and happiness because research has shown that practicing the savoring of good experiences has positive effects up to 30 days later.

Think back to something that happened recently that made you feel good. Close your eyes and imagine the situation when you receive that moment of joy, happiness, or love. Feel the physical sensations, sounds, touch, and taste that it invokes, and let the positive thoughts overwhelm you. Stay in that moment – eyes shut if it helps.

Developing a daily habit of savoring the present increases wellbeing now and in the days ahead.

Applying positive psychology in the workplace

Positive psychology is equally applicable in the workplace as anywhere else. After all, if we take Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of wellbeing, don’t we all want positive emotions, engagement, strong relationships, meaning, and accomplishment in our job?

Of course! It makes us feel happier and improves our physical and mental wellbeing. It boosts personal and team performance, increases business productivity, and, down the line, even enhances customer satisfaction.

And yet, a Gallup report in 2018 found that only 34% of employees are actively engaged.

So, it takes careful consideration to create the right environment, change working practices, and build growth mindsets.  But, if successful, creating environments aligned to employee’s needs, where staff are supported, work-life balanced, environments promote engagement, and our needs for autonomy, mastery, and relatedness are met, we get happy, engaged staff.

[1] Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

[2] Boniwell, I., & Tunariu, A. D. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research, and applications. London: Open University Press.

[3] Hart, R. (2021). Positive psychology: The basics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[4] [Snyder, C. R. (2021). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Ivtzan, I. (2014). Applied positive psychology: Integrated positive practice. Los Angeles: SAGE.

[6] Sutton, J. (2022). How to perform hope therapy: 4 best techniques. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/hope-therapy-techniques/

[7] Lopez, S. J., Floyd, R. K., Ulven, J. C., & Snyder, C. (2000). Hope therapy: Helping clients build a house of hope. In C. R. Snyder (Ed.), Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications (pp. 123–150). Academic Press.

[8] Sutton, J. (2022). How to use mindfulness therapy for anxiety: 15 exercises. Retrieved  from https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-for-anxiety/

[9] Sutton, J. (2022). Applying positive psychology in coaching: Your ultimate guide. Retrieved  from https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-coaching-guide/

[10] Sutton, J. (2022). Positive criminology: Applying positive psychology in prisons. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/positive-criminology/

[11] Souders, B. (2022). Flow at Work: The Science of Engagement and Optimal Performance. Retrieved  from https://positivepsychology.com/flow-at-work/

[12] Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. Cincinnati, OH: VIA Institute on Character.

[13] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.

Other references for noting:

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