DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m going through a tough time. Do you think positive psychology can help me?
For many years, I was skeptical about various popular self-realization or self-improvement programs. That’s because there weren’t a lot of studies that showed they helped. That’s still true, but I’ve seen individual instances where people clearly seemed to benefit.
My faculty colleague, Dr. Jeff Brown, is a proponent of “positive psychology.” The approaches he suggests take discipline. You have to be committed to not letting your mind travel the negative road. Instead, you need to consciously will your mind to focus on the positive. Of course, this is easier to do when life’s already going well. But positive psychology can also help when you are anxious, depressed or under stress.
Here are some of the techniques used in positive psychology:
- Focus on your strengths and virtues. This helps you identify and build on your unique strong points.
- Consider gratitude. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what you receive, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, you acknowledge the goodness in your life.
- Savor pleasure. Savoring is placing your attention on pleasure as it occurs, consciously enjoying the experience as it unfolds. This is in stark contrast to constantly reaching for the next, better thing to come along — a route to chronic discontentment.
- Go with the flow. Have you ever been so immersed in what you were doing that all distractions and background chatter just fell away? This state of intense absorption is called “flow.” Creating opportunities for more flow experiences can be a potent route to increased happiness.
- Be aware of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment — and accepting it without judgment.
- Practice self-compassion. This means not beating yourself up when you suffer, fail or feel inadequate.
- Try for the meaningful life. Lasting happiness requires that you focus on concerns outside of yourself and feel that your life has purpose. Only you know what gives your life meaning.
Using positive psychology techniques can help you develop the resilience to handle difficulties more easily. If you develop the habit of counting your blessings, for example, you may be better able to appreciate the good in your life that remains even after a difficult event such as a job loss or a death. And helping others, even when you are struggling, can increase your positive feelings and help you gain perspective.
For most of us, each of the elements of positive psychology I’ve listed is easier said than done. You can learn a lot more about the positive psychology approach in Dr. Brown’s newest book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Great Health.”