Just What Is Positive Psychology?

This is a really important question and the answer is not as simple as it seems. Before I go into what I believe positive psychology is and how it can contribute to the world of well-being lets look at the technical definition. “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing, and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities and organisations to thrive” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, Sheldon & King, 2001). What this means in lay terms is that it is the science of flourishing, it is moving us from living an average/normal/comfortable life we move to one that is flourishing. Flourishing is a big word meaning that we are really alive and living in the present. This concept of living in the moment. This one, right now.

There are four levels to human psychology –  psychological disorder (where you need medical interventions), languishing, moderate mental health, flourishing. Most of us are either in languishing or moderate mental health stage – we are not entirely aware of our purpose, we don’t know how to manage our time and resources, and we certainly have not set our standards. To move to flourishing there are some strategic steps that one can take, and I will share how you can do that in a later blog post.

Four of the major aims of Positive Psychology:

- Rise to life’s challenges, make most of setbacks and adversity

- Engage and relate to other people

- Find fulfillment in creativity and productivity

- Look beyond oneself and help others to find lasting meaning, satisfaction, and wisdom (Keyes & Haidt, 2004).

OK, we have so much more we can talk about in terms of the definition but here what I really want to do is talk about what positive psychology is and what it isn’t. I did a quick google search for the term ‘what is positive psychology’ and there were 6.5 million answers! To me the key aspect of what positive psychology is that it is strengths based, focused on flourishing and aimed at increasing happiness and wellbeing. Lets go through these one by one.

Strengths based

You can discover your strengths with this free test. There are a lot of questions in there but it does give you your top give strengths and that is very powerful because you have more awareness of how you tick. Your strengths are a foundation of personal and professional strength.

Flourishing

This is about developing successfully and rapidly, it is the opposite of languishing, and languishing is really just living life and not really doing much to push yourself.

Increasing happiness

There is an incredible concept called the happiness set point. This concept states that – 50% of your propensity to happiness is genetic: it’s gifted from your biological mum and dad; 10% of it is your circumstances, it is to do with your physical environment, your home, your income, your marriage (or lack of!), etc. The other 40% is really interesting and this is where the secret sauce lies. It is in your control and is based on your thoughts and actions. What this is telling us is that to a large degree happiness is within your control.

Interestingly as a Muslim I know that one of the challenges is being content. This is why we are told in numerous authentic hadiths to look at being contentment – here are a couple:

Richness is not having many possessions. Rather, true richness is the richness of the soul.

لَيْسَ الْغِنَى عَنْ كَثْرَةِ الْعَرَضِ، وَلَكِنَّ الْغِنَى غِنَى النَّفْسِ

(Sahih Bukhari, Book #76, Hadith #453)

Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was upon the pulpit mentioning charity and abstaining from begging and he said:

الْيَدُ الْعُلْيَا خَيْرٌ مِنْ الْيَدِ السُّفْلَى وَالْيَدُ الْعُلْيَا الْمُنْفِقَةُ وَالسُّفْلَى السَّائِلَةُ

The upper hand is better than the lower hand, the upper hand being the one that gives and the lower hand being the one that receives. Source: Sahih Muslim 1033, Grade: Sahih

The last thing I’ll say here on the happiness set point is related to something Imam Shaafi RadhiAllahu Anhu said - “I knew that contentment is the core of richness, and I adhered to it, so I never stood at anybody’s door, or begged anyone. Consequently, I became rich without a dirham, passing by people as if I were a king.”

Imagine having that as an attitude to life? Where you are focusing on contentment and not wealth.

Interestingly when it comes to positive psychology and wealth all the research shows that really there is no relationship after a certain level. The Easterlin Paradox  explains this in more detail. If you are in America, you can find out what your happiness income level is here, the average being $75,000 (sadly, we don’t have data for the rest of the world). So essentially if you earn more than $75,000 the extra income will not increase your level of well-being or happiness.

Well-being.

Let’s now look at well-being and factors that affect this. Mind in the UK has a wonderful idea called 5 steps to well-being they are summarised below, if you want to find out more click this link.

Connect

We all need to be linked to someone else – remember Allah created Eve (Hawwah) as as a companion for Adam as, right? Who can you hug or meet with today, and on a daily basis?

Move

Be active. Physical activity reduces depression and worry at all ages and all stages of life. I know for me when I do not exercise then I find that I am more prone to feeling sad. And I read this somewhere once, but no, praying five times a day is not sufficient exercise for your body! Go out for a walk, run, skip (jump rope), anything you enjoy.

Savour.

Take notice of what is happening in your life and around you. It can be as simple as eating food more slowly, or it can be as sophisticated as going to a park and reflecting on Allah’s creation.

Learn.

I really believe that we stop learning and developing when we die. Until then you owe it to yourself to be the best you can be and you do that through continually growing and learning and developing.

Imagine, where you could be in the next six months if you learn something new, or read a book that inspires you, or do something new?

Charity.

We all know that giving charity makes us feel awesome, and more importantly it creates a difference in someone’s life, right? As a Muslim we have been told that we should give a charity for each one of the 360 bones in our body! That sounds like a lot, right? How about focusing on smiling as a charity? You could also have a little box in your home that you put a coin or two in every day and make it a deal to send the money to a project of your choice. People who say that they have an interest in helping others are more likely to say that they are happy.

“Positive Psychology is not a self-help movement or a re-packaging of “the power of positive thinking.” It is not American-style “happy-ology,” and it is not a passing fad. Positive Psychology is a science that brings the many virtues of science – replication, controlled causal studies, peer review, representative sampling (to name a few) – to bear on the question of how and when people flourish." (Robert Biswas-Diener, 2008).

Positive Psychology 2.0

Briefly, I’d like to mention Positive Psychology 2.0 as I think that this is a very welcome shift that responds to the current status of the world.  Positive psychology originally had four key foundations – meaning, virtue, resilience and well-being. In the new wave of Positive Psychology an investigation is talking place looking at the following – a complete organisation of positive psychology, realising that meaning and happiness are two different things and create two different outcomes, and lastly what is the relationship between negative and positive emotions and outcomes? The researchers involved in this work are looking for something that is more balanced, and as a positive psychologist I think that this is a welcome move forward.

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