Positive thinking, meditation and optimism have been around for millennia. Hope and meaning are two of the cornerstones of human existence - underpinning all stories, both fictional and true. From Victor Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp during WWII, finding solace in helping others despite the harrowing own soul-destroying conditions, causing him to write the book “Man’s Search For Meaning” and later become a psychologist, to the story of Cinderella, who wants to simultaneously please her Stepmother and two Stepsisters as well as realise her own potential. Her unwavering belief creates the conditions in which she is able to break free and meet Prince Charming. Why do her Step-mother and Step-sisters keep her hidden? Described as ‘wicked’, their intentions seem shrouded in evil and are constructed as so but ask anyone why they do anything, and the underlying reason is to be happy. Do they want to keep her hidden so that they can have a chance with the prince? Why? To feel happy. Their intentions are good really. Self-serving but good.
Humanistic psychology believes that people are inherently good and that, given the right conditions, like a plant, we are all able to grow into our full potential or ‘self-actualise’. This is called the heliotropic effect - we grow towards the light. When a plant doesn’t grow, we change its environment, not the plant. Positive Psychology has emerged within the last fifty years or so as a more measurable offshoot of Humanistic psychology, with rigorous research methods that produce quantifiable data.
It’s been coined “The science of happiness” and teams of researchers collaborate in trying to scrutinize the elusive, abstract concept of subjective well-being (SWB) The results of studies are analysed and turned into useful resources in order to help people achieve higher subjective well-being (SWB). This is called Applied Positive Psychology and comes in the form of Positive Psychological Interventions and Coaching. The subjective part is what provides the most difficulties. In scientific experiments, the least extraneous variables, the better, when it comes to producing reliable, valid results. Yet, what happiness is to you differs to what happiness is to your neighbour and your child and your colleague, therefore approaches are emerging which integrate a multidimensional, multi-disciplinary approach that incorporate many areas of life, simultaneously, in order to have a better chance at improving SWB. This includes applying research findings from psychology, philosophy, sociology to four areas of a person or organisation: i) Mental wellbeing (a person's subjective experience, meaning, meditation, personality, language) ii) Physical well-being (The body: the brain, exercise, nutrition, yoga, stretching, sleep) Intersubjective wellbeing (relationships and shared experiences, culture and shared constructions of reality) as well as Interobjective wellbeing (the larger environment: structure, politics and our relationship with our society and the whole planet) It also recognises the cultural situatedness of where we are, e.g. we live in an individualistic, capitalist, developed and industrialized country and how this effects our experience with life, compared with other countries and cultures.
Traditional psychology has been named “the disease model” and criticised by founders of Positive Psychology for focusing on what is ‘wrong’ with people, what needs ‘curing’ or ‘fixing’ those who are mentall ‘ill’. Although important in its own right, it has failed to recognise the other side, the boundless human potential, our strengths, our values, what gives us meaning, hope, makes us resilient and the mentally healthy community.
Many models of happiness exist within positive psychology, perhaps the most famous being Martin Seligman’s, the founder of Positive Psychology. He designed the PERMA model (2001) in his book “Flourish”. Each letter standing for: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments. He, backed by his research, maintains that we need to meet all of these needs in order to achieve eudaimonic happiness: deep, fulfilling happiness, as opposed to hedonic happiness: the short-lived pursuit of pleasure or cheap thrills. We need to feel positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, meaningfulness, awe and inspiration. We need to have relationships that help us to feel connected and give us a sense of togetherness. We need to engage with activities - whether it’s becoming absorbed in our favourite TV show or working on a needlework project or contributing to a cause, we need to engage. We need to find meaning, a why, a purpose.