Earlier this year in January, I watched Tom Hanks play the role of American psychologist Carl Rogers in the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. It's an uplifting movie that leaves you with a renewed sense of hope, warmth, and goodness.
Rogers was also the beloved host of a popular children’s show and was fondly called ‘Mr Rogers’. Through the show, he helped children deal with troubling emotions and feelings like disappointment, anger, sadness, and guilt. One of his lines—“We are just giving children positive ways to deal with their feelings”—resonated with me.
I remember discussing the film with colleagues and remarking how relevant Mr Rogers’ teaching was, even for adults. I wondered if there was a larger body of work around these themes.
Fortunately, given Harappa’s emphasis on psychology and behavioral science, we have team members who specialize in this field. They pointed me in the direction of positive psychology and like an eager student, I started my exploration.
The Power of Positivity
Positive psychology is a more recent field within the domain of psychology. It emerged as practitioners and experts wanted to diversify from psychology’s conventional pathological approach, which focused almost exclusively on ailments and disorders. This had generated significant research and practice on finding cures for mental illnesses and unearthing their causes.
However, there was an emerging school of thought which believed that the ‘good things’ needed attention too. This meant focusing on positive emotions that make you feel good. Were there ways to make people more likely to experience these and for sustained duration?
This led to a lot of work on topics like well-being, happiness, hope, compassion, mindfulness, and resilience. Today, findings and experiences from positive psychology are often integrated with traditional psychological approaches to help people deal with mental health issues and boost their sense of well-being.
Build What's Strong to Fix What's Wrong
Martin Seligman, considered one of the pioneers of this field, summarizes its core philosophy as “build what's strong” and use that to “fix what's wrong”.
Seligman, along with other colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, integrated this approach with traditional psychotherapy to help treat depression. They did this by helping people develop positive emotions, character strengths, and sense of meaning, instead of a sole focus on reducing negative symptoms.
Towards this, they used a combination of exercises that could be practiced by groups or individuals. This included identifying and using your signature strengths i.e. something you are naturally good at.
They also focused on helping people practice gratitude and kindness by recording and savoring good things that happened to them or expressing gratitude to someone in writing or verbally.
While exploring the field, I realized that though positive psychology has been useful to many people, it has also accumulated its fair share of criticism and naysayers.
This field positive psychology is often dismissed as ‘happy talk’ that hands out simplistic platitudes and undermines the severity of mental health issues. So let’s get some misconceptions out of the way.
While positive psychology does focus on positive, feel-good emotions, and personal strengths, it doesn’t endorse ignoring or avoiding ailments like depression or anxiety
Most experts consider it complementary to traditional psychological interventions like psychotherapy or medication, but it is not a replacement for them
Evidence that supports efficacy positive psychology interventions is promising. However, there is still a need for large-scale and long-term studies and experiments to generate more definitive and conclusive results.
The How of Happiness
I recently finished reading a book called The How of Happiness by research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. In the first go, many of the recommendations in the book seemed cliched and commonplace.
But the fact that most of us aren’t able to execute seemingly simple platitudes such as being kind or grateful in our everyday lives, is a testament to how laborious they are.
Personally, this introduction to positive psychology has been a revelation. It had a significant impact on my mood, mental fortitude, and well-being. Above all, it led to meaningful reflection that has enhanced my self-awareness about emotional states and feelings.
An important takeaway for me was that most interventions in positive psychology require conscious and continuous practice. This ensures that over time they become a way of life, instead of feeling like a separate task or to-do. For instance, after a few months of journaling things I was grateful for, I realized my feelings of gratitude for people and things around me, were getting activated more frequently and automatically.
If my experience has made you curious, then you can launch your own exploration with this starter pack on positive psychology I have jotted down. Please note that this is put together by an eager rookie. For detailed or technical information, I would implore you to consult subject experts.In the movie, Mr. Rogers’ wife Joanne Rogers, says about her husband, "If you think of him as a saint, he’s unattainable. It’s practice, he works at being who he is.” And I couldn’t agree more. So here’s hoping you derive meaningful insights and knowledge from the field and put them in action in the ways most beneficial for you.
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Saumya is a Specialist in the Curriculum Team at Harappa Education. She is also a pistol shooter and a devoted snacker who loves finding simple ways to express complex ideas.
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