When I was a Psychology major this field was unknown and it is sometimes viewed as the fourth wave. The first three waves were the disease model, behaviorism, and humanistic psychology. They focused on human flaws, overcoming deficiencies, avoiding pain. Positive Psychology focuses on things like well-being, contentment, the pursuit of happiness and meaning in life. Many people dismiss it as being pollyannaish or discounting our feelings. I recently took an online college course in Positive Psychology and this is just part of what I learned.
My professor, Barbara Fredrickson, created the broaden and build theory. She found through tests that people tend to think more broadly when they experience positive emotions. They also score more highly on creatativity tests and are able to solve problems more easily. In a month long study, she found those with more positive emotions also had more resilience.
Positive emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, amusement, pride, inspiration, awe and love. Pride was not considered a good thing when I was growing up. There is a saying pride goeth before the fall. My Swedish background has a saying something like praising yourself doesn’t smell good. However as I get older I do praise myself more. It feels great and it gets easier the more you do it. The class taught us pride leads to further achievements. Love provides connections that improve our health. Awe, as in looking at a beautiful sunrise or sunset, makes us feel a part of something larger.
We know from experience we can’t function as well under persistent negative emotions such as fear, anger or sadness. Positive psychology recognizes these emotions and the need to acknowledge they are a part of being human. We need both positive and negative emotions. Fear can protect us, anger can help us change things and sadness can help us connect to others. It is making sure there are more positive emotions than negative ones in our lives that helps us.
Before the course I heard about the nun study. Back in the 1930s some young Catholic nuns were asked to write short, personal essays about their lives. The documents were forgotten. More than 60 years later the nuns’ writings surfaced again. Psychologists Deborah Danner, David Snowdon and Wallace Friesenat the University of Kentucky reviewed the essays as part of a larger study on aging and Alzheimer’s disease. They read the nun’s biographical sketches and scored them for positive emotional content, recording instances of happiness, interest, love and hope. The nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived up to 10 years longer than those who expressed the fewest! This gain in life expectancy is considerably larger than the gain achieved by those who quit smoking.
In these times of disease, violence and hate I feel we need positive psychology more than ever. One exercise from the class that helped me was to start a positive emotions photo folder. I chose joy. I added pictures of my family, nature like Glacier National Park, dancing, teaching outdoor yoga, great vacations, pets, the Minnesota State Fair. Consider choosing an emotion and creating your own folder on your phone or computer. A gratitude practice is another way to build positive emotions. Or I challenge you to a pride building exercise. Every day for a month think of one thing you did that you were proud of. Tally even the small things if you don’t feel you have anything big. You did the laundry, brushed your teeth, cleaned the kitty litter YAY YOU!