By Robert E. Gorman, Jr.
There has been a lot of buzz lately about something called positive psychology. Unlike traditional psychology, which focuses on fixing what’s wrong with you, positive psychology starts with the premise that we are all good, though imperfect, and that there are proven strategies for living more happily.
Although there are many voices in the positive psychology movement, Martin E.P. Seligman is generally credited with being the father. Seligman’s book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life was first published in 1991. Seligman’s core position is that it’s possible to learn how to transform negative thoughts and to talk yourself out of defeat. The book presents strategies to do this.
For example, by changing your inner dialogue, Seligman argues, you can begin living a life of “flexible optimism.” Based on 20 years of clinical research, Seligman outlines techniques that help people rise above pessimism and gain a new, optimistic outlook on living life.
In Seligman’s 2002 book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, he states that happiness can be cultivated by using many of the strengths that we already have, such as kindness, originality, humor, optimism and generosity. By calling upon these “signature strengths” in our work lives, relationships and parenting, we can develop natural buffers against negative emotion and move up to living on a more positive plane.
Seligman fleshes out strategies we can use to generate and maintain positive emotions about the past, present and future. The strategies that focus on the present speak directly to the recovery community.
The “One Day at a Time” philosophy is consistent with the positive emotions of pleasures and gratifications that Seligman describes. Pleasures are “delights that have a sensory component—what philosophers call ‘raw feels’ such as ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth, exuberance and comfort. They are temporary and involve little, if any, thinking.”
Gratifications are activities we enjoy doing: having a good conversation, reading a good book, dancing, rock climbing, fishing. Gratifications engage us fully. They last longer than pleasures and involve a lot of thinking and interpretation. They are supported by calling upon our signature strengths.
The focus on the present includes two important pieces: savoring and mindfulness. Savoring is “the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure.” Examples include sharing with others, memory building, self-congratulation, sharpening perceptions and meditative absorption. Mindfulness techniques allow us to see the present moment anew. Mindful attention to the present slows down the speeding Western mind. Transcendental Meditation is the most easily available practice that supports mindfulness. Seligman notes that much of what science has documented about savoring and mindfulness had its origins in Buddhism.
In Authentic Happiness, Seligman takes us on a journey that includes defining the meaningful life as “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” Alcoholics Anonymous’ philosophy of shifting the focus from me to we comes to mind, as does spiritual awakening and carrying the message to others.
Beyond Seligman, the positive psychology movement has many other champions. Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, links individual happiness and organizational success. He talks about the return on investment of positive psychology in the workplace. The goal of Achor’s “Good Think, Inc.” technique is to help raise the brain’s ability to construct a picture of reality in which both happiness and success are possible.
Bill O’Hanlon makes a living talking about how faith, hope and charity fuel positive psychology and contribute to successful medical recoveries. Other voices include Andrew Weil, the author of Spontaneous HappinessHappierStumbling Upon Happiness and Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project.
Positive psychology has much to offer the recovery community because it teaches and reinforces what works in life to gain peace and serenity, optimism and happiness.
Robert E. Gorman, Jr. is a communication consultant who works with businesses to accelerate performance. He also writes and edits articles, speeches and books.