Andrea Markowitz, Ph.D.
July 7, 2010
The Positive Psychology (a.k.a. Authentic Happiness) movement is backed by empirical research that concludes you can learn to be happy—and happier.
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology is a new branch of psychology founded by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Seligman's early research focused on "learned helplessness" (a form of depression that's learned in response to repeated adverse situations that you feel powerless to escape or change). He then developed a method of unlearning learned helplessness and of learning to defeat self-defeating thoughts, which he called "learned optimism."
Positive Psychology is Dr. Seligman's most recent contribution to helping people lead happier, more satisfying lives.
What's So Great About Being Happy?
Research evidence that's cited on the Positive Psychology Center's Web site shows that optimistic or happy people perform better in work, school and sports; are less depressed; have fewer mental and physical health problems; and enjoy better relationships with other people.
You'd probably want your doctors to be happy when they're examining you, too— one study found that physicians who were experiencing positive emotions made more accurate diagnoses.
How Can You Learn to be Happy(ier)?
Positive Psychology's goal, according to Dr. Seligman, is to understand and build three kinds of happy lives: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life and the Meaningful Life.
The Pleasant Life refers to happiness as pleasure—hedonistic happiness. The Good Life refers to knowing and using your signature strengths (your five strongest character strengths as measured on a Values In Action [VIA] survey) in work, love, friendship, leisure and family life, so you'll increase your opportunities to experience flow (a state of complete immersion in a task or situation that gives you intrinsic gratification). The Meaningful Life refers to using your signature strengths altruistically.
Dr. Seligman and Dr. Christopher Peterson, the VIA Science Director and a professor at the University of Michigan, developed the VIA as a tool for measuring and advancing your happiness. The survey, which is free and available online, evaluates 24 character strengths. They are creativity; curiosity; open-mindedness; love of learning; perspective; bravery; persistence; integrity; vitality; love; kindness; social intelligence; citizenship; fairness; leadership; forgiveness and mercy; humility and modesty; prudence; self-regulation; wonder; gratitude; hope; humor; and spirituality.
Upon completing the VIA survey, you'll receive a free report with your character strengths. For $40 you can download a comprehensive report that interprets your scores on character strengths, signature strengths and core virtues (wisdom and knowledge; courage; humanity: justice; temperance; and transcendence). This report also describes how to integrate your strengths into your life so you can, in Dr. Seligman's words, feel more satisfied, be more engaged, find more meaning, have higher hopes and laugh and smile more, regardless of your circumstances.
The Authentic Happiness Web site is loaded with additional happiness-building and training information and tools, including Authentic Happiness Newsletter articles.
Does Authentic Happiness Training Work?
According to a 2005 study conducted by Dr. Seligman and three colleagues, Authentic Happiness training exercises increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. The positive effects lasted longest for participants who continued their exercises over a longer period of time.
For more information visit Authentic Happiness, VIA Institute on Character and the University of Pennsyvania Positive Psychology Center.