Examples of Positive Psychology and How to Practice It
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Examples of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology can be applied across many different situations, life roles and environments. It can be used to strengthen relationships at home, work and school. It can boost enjoyment in personal pursuits, expanding the range of one’s leisure activities. Positive psychology can also be used by supervisors, administrators, and other leaders in creating happier workplaces.

What are some examples of positive psychology?

Positive psychology can help practitioners enhance resources and attributes that contribute to health and well-being. According to Scott Glassman, PsyD, director of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at PCOM, examples of positive psychology in practice include:

Focusing on your strengths

Students sit in a lounge smiling and discussing examples of positive psychology"When we become negatively self-focused, which can include ruminating on our deficits and weaknesses, we are more likely to experience distress," Glassman explained. "In contrast, having an awareness of our strengths, while using them in some way, is associated with mood improvements. Researchers have also found that identifying our top strengths and using them actively can increase our happiness. There are a number of ways to do this. A first step would be to get a better sense of what your strengths are. You could ask friends or family, explore a list of character strengths, or fill out a formal strengths survey. After you've highlighted some of your stand-out strengths, you could plan to use one of them in different ways throughout the week. For example, if one of your key strengths is creativity, you might decide to make a painting, work on a short story, and cook something you love in a new way. You can deepen the impact of this 'strengths experiment' by measuring any positive changes in your mood as a result of your efforts. Rating your happiness before and after each creative activity can show you which one was most rewarding."

Recording your experiences

A common practice in positive psychology involves writing about and reflecting on good experiences to enhance well-being. One form of this practice is the “Three Good Things” or “Three Blessings” exercise, developed by Dr. Martin Seligman. The exercise asks you to write down three good things that happened at the end of the day and reflect on why they happened. Engaging in this activity for at least a week has been associated with increases in happiness and decreased depressive symptoms, improvements which were still present six months later.

"The reflection process can also be expanded, as we do in A Happier You, to include what those good things mean about yourself, your relationships, and your future," Glassman added. "There is reason to believe that the more often one accesses this kind of positive attentional space, the greater the effect."

Being grateful

There is a growing body of evidence which ties gratitude practice to well-being, with positive effects on life satisfaction, mood, sleep, and relationships. Gratitude practice can be entirely self-contained, where someone generates thoughts and feelings of appreciation but chooses not to share them with others. That appreciation may focus on anything: self, life, relationships, something in the broader world, or something transcendent. Gratitude journaling can be a private experience in this way, and research suggests that people greatly prefer to write about their appreciation versus sharing it. In one study, writing about one’s gratitude for others for 10 minutes a day for four weeks was associated with higher life satisfaction, greater inspiration for change, and increased feelings of connection in relationships. Other researchers have found that writing about feelings of appreciation more broadly, not limited to others, was tied to lower levels of depression. Participants did not share their gratitude in either study.

Showing gratitude

While private experiences of gratitude can be beneficial, so too can sharing it with one’s benefactors. Dr. Martin Seligman studied “gratitude visits” in which participants wrote a letter of appreciation and delivered it in person to someone who had shown them kindness. After completing the visit, participants reported feeling happier and less depressed, effects that persisted up to one month later. Neurobiological changes have also been observed in the gratitude expression process. Research reflects increased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when people listened to an expression of gratitude, an area of the brain involved in processing positive emotions.

Developing skills to increase positivity

While well-being therapy and positive psychotherapy can be appropriate for some individuals, others may benefit from a psychoeducation-based approach. For example, PCOM’s A Happier You program is a group multi-component positive psychology intervention, one that does not involve individual cognitive restructuring or problem-focused work. It focuses on skill development where participants learn to cultivate mindfulness, to expand positive experiences, and to integrate new practices in the areas of gratitude, personal strengths, humor/lightness, activities, kindness and love.

Who can benefit from positive psychology?

While we know that “pain points” in life often prompt change, the nature of that change may be more focused on alleviating the discomfort or reducing conflict rather than reaching optimal levels of well-being. In other words, relief may be the driving force rather than life enhancement. If that’s the case, the first goal may be stability. Positive psychology, however, can still inform and complement our approaches to troubling situations and negative emotional states. Self-compassion and acceptance-based practices represent one form of this application.

Another application overlaps with behavioral activation, an evidence-based approach to treating depression that involves the scheduling of enjoyable and meaningful activities. Positive psychology can enrich the behavioral activation process. Added components of mindfulness, positive emotion labeling, positive thought records, strengths identification, and gratitude practice may heighten the effects of the enjoyment and meaning derived from those activities.

If someone is not experiencing clinical depression, but merely feels stuck in the status quo, not progressing or growing in the ways they would like, positive psychology strategies can help here too. One might choose a form of activity scheduling that begins with a thorough assessment of core values, leading to a re-alignment of daily activities with those values. This may extend beyond the short-term. Open-ended questions like “What is most important for me to add into my life over the next five years?” can evoke a clearer direction for growth in relationships, a job, health, or another critical life domain. Feeling uninspired or stagnant in any area of life–spiritually, intellectually, physically, emotionally, socially, financially, or occupationally–suggests one might want to turn toward what positive psychology has to offer.

If our goal, however, is to identify signs we might “need” positive psychology, we are missing a deeper point about the concept of flourishing that’s essential to its humanistic roots. The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers proposed that we have an “actualizing tendency,” or a natural inclination to reach toward our full potential, just like a flower grows from its seed given the right environmental conditions. So from this perspective, being human means that we always have a drive to be creative, to determine our own direction in life, and to allow our best qualities and interests to shine. That drive may be accelerated or dampened by a wide variety of individual and environmental factors. Obstacles can include major life stressors, inhospitable environments, and developmental challenges. One could say then that applied positive psychology is both a process of facilitating growth already occurring and unblocking growth that could occur.

How do I practice positive psychology?

"There are a number of ways to receive guidance in applying positive psychology techniques on a personal level," Glassman advised. "It’s advisable to talk to a life coach, therapist, psychologist, or professional counselor with education and experience in the area."

Research suggests that longer, individual interventions may be more effective. There is evidence, however, that group-based and self-help versions also have a significant effect on well-being. Multi-component positive psychology interventions, or interventions that use a variety of approaches (such as gratitude, strengths, and kindness), may be more effective than single-component interventions, particularly when it comes to subjective well-being.

How long does it take to experience the benefits of positive psychology?

According to Glassman, the length of time it takes to experience the benefits of positive psychology varies.

"In terms of changes in emotional states, it can happen immediately," he said. "When someone thinks of a success or a strength, for instance, it can lead to an immediate boost in positive thoughts and feelings about self, world or future. How long these state improvements last can vary based on the type, length and intensity of intervention, individual traits, and environmental factors, among other variables."

Studies have shown significant differences in well-being immediately after some positive psychology interventions; however, effects may not appear until later, perhaps as a result of the need to practice a new strategy longer.

How do you measure the success of positive psychology interventions?

The success of positive psychology interventions can be examined at the level of the individual, group, or institution.

PCOM South Georgia students stand outside and chatAt the individual level, that assessment can take the form of administering questionnaires in the domains of interest before and after the interventions. Self-report through rating scales and qualitative responses to open-ended questions are two common data-gathering modalities. One can look at the impact on overall life evaluations through measures like the Satisfaction with Life Scale and Quality of Life Inventory. Short-term experiential change is captured by instruments like the Positive and Negative Affect Scale. Measures that examine meaning in life include the Meaning in Life Scale and Purpose in Life Questionnaire.

Reduction in psychological distress and mental illness can be determined through clinical assessments like depression and anxiety inventories. Changes in stress biomarkers like cortisol and brain imaging studies offer additional windows onto intervention effectiveness.

"It’s important to keep in mind, however, that reducing negative emotions does not automatically result in an increase in positive emotions, and vice versa," Glassman cautioned. "Studies have found some degree of independence between these two basic areas of human experience. A mother, for instance, can feel both joy and sadness at her only daughter’s graduation from high school, knowing that this achievement will soon be followed by her departure for college."

The success of positive psychology interventions deployed on an institutional scale can be measured by an organization’s productivity, involvement in social responsibility initiatives, employee health and well-being, climate surveys, amount of absenteeism, and job separation rates, among other variables.

What is an example of a positive psychology intervention in the work place?

Positive psychology practices can be either proactive or reactive in nature. Proactive applications center around life enhancement versus problem solving.

"For example, things may be going fine in your job, but you could see opportunities to raise the level of enjoyment and meaning in what you do," Glassman said. "As a result, you might propose a new project to your boss that you feel excited about. Let’s say that your boss agrees. The application side of positive psychology does not just include proposing and starting the project, but being aware of how this new level of engagement improves your sense of well-being in key areas. You might find that your mood is better and you’re more motivated to exercise. You might also notice that you leap out of bed in the morning instead of hitting the snooze button. You can begin to observe which personal strengths are activated by the project, like your creativity and your connection with other co-workers."

In this example, the positive psychology pathway extends throughout the entire process. From a theoretical standpoint, it begins by recognizing that positive emotions and deep engagement in life activities are pillars of well-being.

After the project is complete, you might engage in self-reflection about where peak experiences occurred (e.g., was it while collaborating with co-workers or seeing the final product, or both?). The evaluative side of applied positive psychology may be the most important personally, since it can suggest further “tweaks” in your approach, such as planning more time with the tasks that led to the greatest social and emotional benefits.

"Seeing what went well as a result of your efforts can also increase a sense of confidence and control over how good you feel more generally around that domain of life," Glassman added.

Become a powerful positive force for change

As a graduate of PCOM’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program, you will develop skills in helping individuals, families, communities and organizations flourish. Take the first step toward an exciting and rewarding career that embraces wellness, life satisfaction and optimal functioning.