If you think about psychology as being something to try if things aren’t right, then you’d have been correct for about the last 100 years or so. Psychology as a field started with its focus very much on what was wrong or abnormal. Then a little while after that attention shifted to how to ‘fix’ what was wrong.
Over the last 10 years or so, spearheaded by Dr Martin Seligman, Positive Psychology has become more popular. No longer do we look solely for ‘symptoms’ or why things go wrong. We also want to help you to think about your strengths, what makes you happy, and how to maintain your mental wellbeing.
In Positive Psychology, we encourage you to look for ways you can become happier or more fulfilled. Words like ‘thrive’ and ‘flourish’ have as important a place in defining the goals of therapy as resolving symptoms. This means looking to your strengths, values and hopes, and harnessing these to enhance multiple areas of your life.
Of course this doesn’t mean being happy all the time. Positive Psychology, rather, seeks to create a more balanced view of what you experience as a complex human being. Shifting the focus to wellbeing. Symptoms, regrets, or negative experiences are not ignored, but seen as a part of life that your strengths can help you to manage better.
Seligman’s PERMA model breaks wellbeing down into five key areas that, with a little love and attention, can improve your health, happiness and satisfaction with life.
Positive emotion: Being able to embrace life with optimism, to view life – past, present and future – with a positive perspective. Focusing on the negative can increase chances of developing depression. This doesn’t mean we pretend that there aren’t low points in your life. But experiencing a full range of positive emotions, such as joy, enjoyment and gratitude, can create more fulfilling relationships, inspire you to take more chances, be more creative, and contribute to health benefits.
Engagement: Identifying and involving yourself in activities that absorb you, taking your full engagement. Examples of such activities are those that you love, or that enable you to use your strengths. Engagement helps you to learn and grow, enhances your intelligence and emotional capacity.
Relationships: Humans are social creatures, and our very survival relies on us being able to form social bonds and nurturing relationships. Isolation has incredibly detrimental consequences to our health and wellbeing. But think broadly about the types of relationships that contribute to your wellbeing. These are not just romantic partners or family. Friends, siblings, work colleagues, children, community or professional relationships all help bring a sense of being loved, valued and secure. Think how good you feel after a chance laugh or smile with a stranger in the street. The support network you can create through a range of positive relationships means difficult times can be navigated much more easily.
Meaning: For a sense of wellbeing, we need for things to matter. Having clear goals and values help you to feel that your efforts, time and interests matter – to you and to others. This gives greater meaning to your life. Our brains are constantly striving to make sense of things. Take some time to understand why you do the things you do, and their wider impact, and you may find greater satisfaction and happiness.
Accomplishment: One way to gain purpose and meaning is to engage in activities that bring you a sense of achievement. Having ambition and achieving goals, brings a sense of mastery and control over the course your life is taking. Satisfaction, pride, and fulfillment are all positive emotions that contribute to wellbeing and help you thrive.
If you would like to hear straight from the source, Martin Seligman explains PERMA here.
Measure your wellbeing
It’s Psychology Week in Australia from 6-12 November, and for this week the focus is on creating Ways to Thrive. Follow this link to take a brief survey to get a sense of how you are travelling at the moment. Compare your sense of wellbeing to other Australians, overall, by age group and by gender.
For anyone who might find their results confronting, this might be a good opportunity to talk with someone who can help guide you in the right direction.
Even if things feel like they’re going pretty well, but there’s room for improvement, here at Birch Psychology we feel very strongly that everyone can benefit from therapy if they want to make things better – see our previous blog post on just this topic.
We hope that by taking the survey it might kickstart some ideas for how you can make some changes and ensure you are thriving. We’d love to hear your thoughts on your favourite ways to thrive.
Kate Willcox, Principal Clinical Psychologist