The Complete Guide To Positive Psychology And How It Can Help You

By: Nadia Khan

Updated June 01, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Avia James

Are you familiar with positive psychology? If not, let's start by defining it for you: the study of human flourishing.

It's figuring out what makes life most worth living. The positive psychology definition can be applied to utilize your strengths and virtues to improve yourself and your life. So many people assume that psychology is all about fixing the broken things and focusing on how to repair negativity and weaknesses.

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And that's why those same people have trouble turning their lives around and feeling better about themselves. Sometimes you need to focus on the positives and learn how to optimize them, that is, use your strengths to your full potential.

Now that you know what positive psychology means, this guide can give you all the details you may have been wondering about, as well as tips for applying the concept yourself. Psychologists, individuals, and even corporations are utilizing this approach to grow, and you can too.

Read on for the eye-opening details.

What Is Positive Psychology?

So you have the definition. That's a start, but it doesn't tell you everything you need to know. Positive psychology is the flip side of the psychological coin. It doesn't explain or fix everything. It is simply one method amongst many for helping humans to make the most of their lives.

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Applied positive psychology can be used to help people with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, to better cope with their issues by focusing on the things they do well or the situations that don't invoke symptoms. That being said, it doesn't mean that we don't still need treatments that address the negative effects of those disorders. They are each necessary components that work in different directions.

The amazing thing about positive psychology is that it's not just for people with mental health issues they need to work through. In fact, a lot of positive psychology is about helping healthy people to continue growing and maintaining levels of happiness. Simply put, this approach can be for everyone.

Is It The Same As Positive Reinforcement Psychology?

Although the names are similar, positive psychology and positive reinforcement psychology are not the same things. Positive reinforcement psychology is about finding ways to correct negative behaviors. Again, that is not the purpose of positive psychology, which focuses on existing positive behaviors and conditions.

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Positive reinforcement psychology, on the other hand, is often applied to weed out negative behaviors by rewarding good behaviors. It can be used in conjunction with punishments for negative behaviors. This type of psychology is often applied to behavior modification for children, teaching them to make the right actions. However, many adults also use it for self-improvement, rewarding themselves when they complete a task, for instance.

That's not to say these two approaches can't be utilized together. It is possible to focus on improving your life by rewarding yourself for positive behaviors.

Positive Punishment Psychology

Positive punishment sounds like an oxymoron, but in this case, positively does not refer to good or bad. Both positive and negative punishments are punishments. Instead, it is used more like a mathematical calculation. A positive punishment is one in which a consequence is something being added. An example of this is when you get lectured for having your phone notification go off at a work meeting. The lecture is "given to you."

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Negative punishment, in contrast, is when the consequence of your behavior is something being lost or taken away. For instance, instead of getting a lecture for your phone notification going off at a meeting, your boss takes away your raise because of it. Your raise has been "taken away."

As you can see, positive punishment is not the same as positive reinforcement.

Utilizing Positive Correlation Psychology

Perhaps more effective at applying positive psychology than either positive reinforcement or punishment is a positive correlation. A positive correlation is when two things happen at the same time, or two variables move in the same direction. If we're talking about the study of positive psychology, then positive correlations become relevant in determining which behaviors are leading to increased growth, happiness, and satisfaction.

For instance, if you tend to feel more rested on days that you go to sleep before 11 p.m., then going to sleep before 11 and feeling rested have a positive correlation to each other. One variable can even have positive correlations with more than one other variable.

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Using the same scenario above, let's additionally say that you feel more productive and better about your day when you start the day rested. Then, it would also be valid to say that going to sleep before 11 p.m. has a positive correlation to you having more productive days that make you feel better.

It's important to note, however, that just because two things have a positive correlation does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. With our sleep scenario, it seems reasonable that going to sleep before 11 leads to the results of the other variables. It is, then, plausible that they have a cause and effect relationship.

You would then need to continue comparing the variables to see how often a correlation arises. Let's say you track your sleep for a month, as well as keeping a journal of how productive you felt at the end of each day. Twenty days that month you went to sleep before 11 p.m. Of the twenty days, fifteen of them were noted in your journal as being especially productive. That would indicate a trend that you do feel better about how your day goes when you go to sleep at that specific time.

In this hypothetical scenario, you've just found something that possibly increases your happiness and leads you to flourish. And that's how positive psychology is applied. You don't need to find a one hundred percent correlation for a behavior or action to be useful for you.

Unconditional Positive Regard Definition: Psychology

We've gone through positive reinforcement and various types of punishments. These tend to work well for problem-focused psychology, but are less relevant to positive psychology. We've also looked at how positive correlations can be used to direct the application of positive psychology.

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But perhaps the most important thing you can possess if you want to use positive psychology to improve your own life is the right outlook. And that's where unconditional positive regard comes in. Here's the unconditional positive regard psychology definition: accepting and supporting a person regardless of their actions or outcomes.

Counselors of various psychological philosophies often utilize this approach when helping a client or patient. Rather than looking down upon the person, they are helping for perceived weaknesses or faults; they continue expecting the best to help them get to the place where they can be better.

You can use this outlook for yourself as well. The idea is that you avoid the common pitfall of putting yourself down when you fail. To grow and be happy, you need to be able to recognize that you are still a good and worthy person even if something doesn't go the way you wanted it to. It's easy to give up if you fail once and then tell yourself you're incapable or worthless. But if you bolster yourself after you fail, you can try again until you succeed, and feel good doing so.

Picking Yourself Up After Failure

How do you bolster yourself after a failure? One helpful method is to remind yourself of your other strengths, especially those that are related to the behavior, habit, or outcome you are trying to achieve. Here are a few other tips.

Feel What You Feel

Don't try to hide the fact that you feel bad after a failure. Ignoring negative emotions is not the same as overcoming them. Instead, allow yourself the time to acknowledge that you feel bad about failing, and then move on to a way to get past it.

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Remember That it's Normal To Fail

Anything you want to be good at is going to take practice. Sure, sometimes failure means you're bad at something (though not always-there are many reasons something can fail). But practice means improvement. If you give up after failing, you'll never get the practice to become good at your goal.

Embrace A Positive Mindset

And here's where positive psychology and unconditional positive regard come in. After you let yourself feel what you're feeling about failure, go back to feeling good about yourself. Think about future positive outcomes. Or think about what is good about this moment, despite one failure.

A More In-Depth Look At Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is ultimately about the pursuit of happiness. The thing is that happiness is not always easy to quantify or replicate. What makes one person happy may not work for another. Here's what research in positive psychology has found about happiness.

Martin Seligman Positive Psychology

Dr. Martin Seligman is one of the first psychologists to have studied positive psychology. He did not, himself, found the study or the term, but he has applied the scientific method to positive psychology and continued to study it and be a proponent of its application.

Seligman positive psychology states that three dimensions of happiness can be cultivated. Those are:

  1. the pleasant life,
  2. the good life, and
  3. the meaningful life.

The pleasant life is achieved by meeting basic human needs. Those include companionship, the needs of our bodies, and enjoying a safe environment.

The good life requires a bit more mental work to achieve than the pleasant life. It is unlocked by recognizing your strengths and virtues and pursuing activities that use those to their full potential. It is about enhancing your life through the creative use of your strengths. Using your strengths to enhance your life often involves contributing to the happiness of other people, as well. In fact, multiple studies have shown that we get greater satisfaction from making others happy than from selfish pursuits.

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That's also where the meaningful life comes in. You have reached the meaningful life when you get a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment from making other people's lives better through the use of your unique strengths and virtues.

With Seligman's view of these three dimensions of happiness, you don't need to choose personal happiness over sacrifice for the happiness of others. The three dimensions can all work together. And none of these mean ignoring reality. Positive psychology is not about a false sense of grandeur about life. It is a way to focus perspective to keep moving forward.

Seligman thought that studying what makes happy people happy can help psychologists and counselors to unlock that happiness potential for others.

The Positive Psychology Movement

During a TED talk, Dr. Martin Seligman discusses the future of the positive psychology movement. The positive psychology movement is a scientific movement. The more the benefits of positive psychology are seen, the more researchers study this particular aspect of psychology.

One of the major pillars of the positive psychology movement involves the study of happiness. Before pioneers like Seligman, psychology focused primarily on mental health problems. The issue with that is it left out tons of information about the human mind and what could potentially make people happier. Happiness is an important area of research for both healthy individuals and those suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic anger, or excessive pessimism.

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Once psychology researchers realized this, the movement to study more about happiness and positive psychology grew. It turned out that this was what was missing from research. Looking at what causes negative psychology is only one part of helping people to function optimally. You also need to know what can lead to happiness and growth.

Applying Positive Psychology To Your Life

In addition to researchers becoming more interested in the ideas of flourishing and optimal functioning, more individuals have started to look for ways to apply this new information to their own lives. Techniques for applying positive psychology concepts can work for people who are healthy as well as for people who are suffering from depression, and rigorous scientific research backs them.

Positive Psychology Exercises

If you'd like to try adding the benefits of positive psychology to your life, you can start with these exercises.

Find The Funny Parts Of Your Day

Did anything funny happen to you today? Or did you observe something funny happening? Write them down or relay them to someone else. A good laugh can boost your spirits, and remembering feeling amused is like getting double the happiness hormones for one event.

You may also want to try finding the humorous parts of negative experiences. If you're able to laugh at yourself, it may help you to feel better.

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Keep A Journal

Journals provide data. You don't have to be a scientist to utilize data to find positive correlations between your happiness and functioning. Once you start keeping track of things that happen and how you feel during your day, you may be able to make connections that allow you to focus your energies in the areas of your life that provide the most reward.

Envision Your Positive Future

You can do this by writing a future journal or just sit and imagine a future scenario. Whichever method you choose, think about a goal you're working toward, and imagine the specific ways in which you will succeed. This can help you to formulate a plan with steps and solutions.

Track Your Gestures Of Kindness

Count how many times each day you do something nice for someone else. Don't do this to expect anything back.

Be Conscious Of Your Outlook

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Being happy is a choice you make. That's not to say it's easy or you can be happy all the time. But you can cultivate a positive outlook by being mindful of your feelings. When anxiety or depression starts to kick in, recognize that feeling and remind yourself that the world is a safe place. Whatever you're worried about hasn't happened yet and may never happen.

Positive Psychology Exercises For Groups

Positive psychology is not just for individuals. It can also be used to strengthen communities, teams, and businesses. Here are some group exercises.

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Name Each Other's Strengths

In a meeting, have your team anonymously write down positive qualities about each other member of the team on small pieces of paper with that person's name. Have someone read each person's strengths that are written in the papers. Or separate the pieces of paper by who they're about, and have each person read their strengths aloud. It can be a huge confidence booster.

Allow Team Members To Apply Their Self-Named Strengths

It's also a good idea to have team members think about what they each consider to be their strengths. But don't stop there. Once they identify a personal strength, encourage each person to find a way they can apply their particular strength to tasks, in ways that benefit the group or make their part more efficient or enjoyable.

Talk About What Went Well

At meetings, make sure you take time to focus on what things worked. Name at least three things that went well with a project at each meeting. This can help your team to replicate positive results, as well as to help the team to feel more confident about what they do.

Where To Find Out More About Positive Psychology

You have plenty of options for finding out more about positive psychology. If you'd like help finding your strengths and increasing your happiness, you can look for a certified counselor with experience in positive psychology or look into the resources below.

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Journals And Academic Resources

Journal of Positive Psychology

Journal of Happiness Studies

Journal of Well-Being Assessment

American Psychologist: Special Issue on Positive Psychology, 2000

Journal of Humanistic Psychology: Special Issue on Positive Psychology, 2001
Journal of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing

Positive Psychology Books

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work


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