Most of 20th century psychology has worked with a medical model of helping people rid themselves of negative and painful states. Positive psychology, which is about 25 years old, is a term that includes the study of positive emotions, engagement in activities, virtuous characteristics and paths to meaning in life. One of the fathers of modern positive psychology is Martin Seligman who decided that the study of mental health should include what makes people happy as well as what makes people unhappy (depression, various personality disorders, etc.)
Although taken up by in recent years, the study and practice of positive psychology is ancient. Virtually all religions offer paths to inner peace and fulfillment. Philosophers from the Greeks onward have offered schools of thought on finding happiness. Aristotle believed that happiness is achieved through knowing your true self and acting in alignment with your virtues. Philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, including John Stuart Mill, believed moral actions maximize happiness. The Romantics valued individual emotional expression and passion.
An interesting and important finding of positive psychology is that happiness is about 50% inherited, 10% a function of your circumstances and 40% within your control. That leaves a lot for us to work with.
Maybe you think that you would be happier if you got a new job, a new car, lost weight or traveled more. Not likely. Martin Seligman along with Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan looked at routes to happiness and found three ways to start:
Seek Pleasurable Emotions: Focus on the good in your life and the good you receive. Practice cultivating gratitude, enjoying moments with family and friends, laughing. Tell people that you appreciate what they have done for you. Appreciate unexpected pleasures such as a beautiful sunset, the smell of a flower. Really take them in. Savor them.
Another aspect of feeling good is avoiding negative emotions. These often belong in the category of expectation and entitlement. These are our beliefs that things should go the way we want them to because we shouldn’t have to put up with things we don’t like. Things like becoming upset because the traffic is slow or the TSA line is long. Or perhaps you always expect your 6-year old to be ready for school at 7:30. Or you expect your husband to remember Valentine’s Day. Expectation and entitlement are setups for bad feeling. Any time you become annoyed consider what you believe you are entitled to.
Engage Fully: Pursue goals and activities that engage you, that you really enjoy. The researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done extensive work on happiness through engagement which he presents in the book Flow. In the state of flow, time slows down as we become engaged and absorbed. Spend time with people you enjoy doing activities that you enjoy. Study something that intrigues you.
Searching for Meaning Outside of Yourself: This could be helping a neighbor in need, volunteering with an organization that you care about, becoming active in your church. The important thing is doing for others.
Stay in the Present: A related area of research suggests that people are happiest when their minds are focused in the present. Harvard psychologists David Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth developed a phone app to look at how frequently people’s minds wandered and how it affected their mood. They found that people spend about half of their time thinking about events in the past or future. This does not make us happy. We are much happier when our focus is in the present.
We have the power to enhance our happiness by cultivating positive emotions, avoiding negative emotions, engaging in activities we enjoy and serving others. Even though we inherit 50% of our base-line of happiness, we control 40%. That gives us a lot of room for change!