For me positive psychology provides a route to be the best you can be without having to apologise for who you are. A common criticism of positive psychology is that it ignores the harsh realities in life and focuses purely on the positives. This is not how I see it at all. The first two books I read on positive psychology were “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt and “Authentic Happiness” by Martin Seligman. When you read their work, it is clear that both these authors, like me, are not winners in the genetic lottery of rose coloured spectacles. They are not happy go lucky people who want everyone to see the world as they do, but people trying to understand how to live the best life they can and help others do the same.
I have struggled with depression on and off for most of my life. To use a common metaphor, to me positive psychology means not having to apologise that you naturally see the glass as half empty, but not being stuck with that either. It provides a mechanism to try to fill the glass to it’s full potential rather than trying to make it less empty, and to be armed to refill it again and again when life drains it.
I came to psychology in my late teens as a depressed medical student reeling from a series of challenging life events. At that time medicine did not feel to me like it was really about helping and understanding people. I discovered psychology through a module in my second year of medicine. It was the lecture course most people skipped but I loved it. A supportive psychology lecturer who became a mentor helped me to switch coursesto study psychology to the horror of most people who knew me, who believed the only good reason for leaving medicine was if you were failing (which I wasn’t). I loved my psychology degree. With therapy my depression improved but in the words of Bono “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.
Next, I trained as a clinical psychologist. I think I was a pretty good therapist. I really cared about my clients and genuinely helped at least some of them. Again, I was blessed with a great mentor, Dr Paul Kennedy, who very sadly died in 2016. I still felt something was missing in my work. I did help some people cope with their problems and have better (or less worse) lives, but when I moved into psychology Isomehow expected something more. I expected to help myself and others answer the big questions; what’s my life about? How can I be the best me? What’s my purpose? I wanted to help people live meaningful fulfilled lives, not just be less unhappy.
At this point I became ill with Chronic Fatigue syndrome (C.F.S.) and had to leave work. For many years Istruggled physically and mentally. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapy techniques I knew and the wonderful support of my husband, friends and family helped me to regain a functioning life. I then went straight into having children and the setbacks of two bouts of post natal depression and the exhaustion of parenthood, making my stable CFS more
problematic. I worked my way back to functioning, controlled my negative thoughts, paced my activities and did the best I could. “ But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.
Over the last 10 years a renewed investment in my Christian faith and my discovery of Positive Psychology (the themes of which overlap hugely) have helped set me on a path that I at last feel is going in the right direction. I am now asking the right questions and have both spiritual and scientific avenues to explore these questions and their possible answers for me and for others.
Whilst I know that the majority of doctors and clinical psychologists also work to help people make the best of their lives, Positive Psychology, for me has brought something more than the very necessary treatment of ill health. It brings the promise of a better more meaningful life no matter where you start or what you have to endure. It means a paraplegic motorcyclist can be happier with his life than a city banker and a subsistence farmer more content than a millionaire.
Positive Psychology is a pathway that can help anyone improve their well-being, it is not separate from Psychology as a whole but part of what it has always really been about, understanding how humanity can flourish. I may not have quite found what I’m looking for but I think I’m getting there.
Haidt, J. (2006) The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern
Science. Arrow Books, London.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise
your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. The Free Press, New York.