What positive psychology means to me.

For me, the concept of positive psychology has grown to hold two meanings. In my mind, it has developed in popularity in recent years, to such an extent as to have become a victim of its own success in certain aspects. Scientifically grounded positive psychology, when understood and applied correctly, offers wonderful opportunities for people. On the flip side, however, when distorted, it presents risks and a potential for causing harm.

Breaking positive psychology down to its most basic concepts, it is the study and application of the aspects of human psychology and behaviour which contribute, not only to psychological well-being, but also to people’s ability to prosper in a challenging world.

Confusion about positive psychology

The risks arise when people confuse positive psychology with the concept of manifesting your greatest wishes and desires through ‘the power of positive thinking and self-affirmations’. Sadly, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that one can manifest a Lamborghini by sitting into your floral patterned recliner and imagining it as a bucket seat in a speeding supercar, whilst repeating the mantra that you are getting better in every way, every day. This is not positive psychology.

Having, or developing the self-confidence and optimism to go forth into the world and create opportunities for oneself to earn the money to buy a Lamborghini, along with the resilience to overcome unexpected challenges along the way, is more akin to putting positive psychology into action.

Whilst it is wonderful that the internet and the world of our interconnected social media disperse invaluable knowledge so readily, it is not so wonderful when misinformation makes its way into the accepted knowledge base. Internet memes and motivational posters, which promote a one size fits all notion that everyone can vastly improve their life by simply by being positive, does the science of positive psychology no good, when presented as being the basis of the field.

We don’t have to be happy all the time

It is OK not to be positive some times and it should be expected that one might not always feel positive. For a person suffering from depression, the last thing they want to hear is ‘Smile and everything will be OK’. If it were that simple, then there would be no depression and people who outwardly portray themselves as being the life and soul of the party would not succumb to the tragedy of suicide. Indeed, as research indicates, a person with low self-esteem who attempts to force themselves to be positive by repeating positive affirmations, may actually end up feeling worse. It seems that it is not that easy to kid yourself. [1]

Applying positive psychology takes time, work and it is not necessarily an easy, or painless path. It is not about fooling yourself into believing untruths. It is about learning, developing and nurturing skills to allow a person to operate at their optimal level – not a level which an internet meme states that they should operate at.

With regards to my path, I consider myself fortunate to have developed my interest in positive psychology from the perspective of someone who has a background in studying ill-health and disorder. While my undergraduate studies taught me how disorder and ill-health can teach us so much about the workings of the mind, the primary focus was not upon such topics. The primary topics of focus were upon human interaction in a social world, along with child development, the study of the cognitive mind and biological psychology. When I progressed to a M.Sc. in Applied Psychology, the primary focus was most certainly upon ill-health and disorder.

During that time, I advanced my knowledge of how complex such matters are and likewise, how crucial scientific validation of treatments and interventions is. Importantly, I also learned that I did not wish for a focus upon disorder to be the main emphasis of my career. As my undergraduate degree had taught me, there is so much more to human psychology than disorder.

The grounded theory of laughter

With this in mind, I set out to progress to doctoral level studies, not with a focus upon ill-health, but with a focus upon behaviour which permeates daily life, but which we tend to take for granted. I chose to learn more about a topic which has always been close to my heart – that of laughter. From my perspective, I see laughter as being obvious in its presentation, but not necessarily in its function. I put together a proposal to carry out PhD research into the topic and as of now, my research is still ongoing.

Interestingly, I did not come to study laughter with a ‘positive’ hat on. Rather, I am researching the topic from a ‘Grounded Theory’ perspective, an approach which requires me to allow the most salient features of laughter to emerge from the data which I collect, rather than a situation in which I set out with an assumption, or set of assumptions about laughter, which I would then aim to verify through experimental studies.

During the course of my research, I have discovered many aspects of laughter which are relevant to positive psychology, both from the perspective of laughter being a factor in promoting well-being, but also, from the perspective of how we must be cognisant that laughter isn’t necessarily a one size fits all panacea for psychological ill-health. I look forward to sharing these aspects with the community of the Positive Psychology People, along with other, equally important and interesting aspects of laughter, through forthcoming blogposts.

About the author: Glen Duggan  can be contacted via his website laughterresearch.com where you can listen to and download fascinating podcast interviews with a variety of experts and entrepreneurs, for whom laughter is a central part of their work.

[1]   Wood, J.V., W.Q.E. Perunovic, and J.W. Lee, Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 2009. 20(7): p. 860-866.

Photograph by Cheriejoyful  This image can be found here https://flic.kr/p/aaThYm. the link to the license is here https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ 


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