Perhaps “Happily Ever After” is possible?
Positive psychology is an attempt to shift psychology’s focus away from “deficits, disabilities, and disorders” (pg 348) and aim it towards the more positive aspects of human nature such as love and goodness (Zimbardo, 2004). It tries to comprehend positive emotions, strengths, and virtues by justifying in a scientific manner how the aforementioned develop and the role they play in enhancing people’s lives (Bacon, 2005). The umbrella term of positive psychology allows researchers from different areas of psychology to come together and share an interest they have in common and this merging of different viewpoints may cause new research ideas to come about or a new reading of previous research (Bacon, 2005). It also unites “scattered and disparate lines” (pg 410) of research on positive experiences, emotions, etc. (Seligman et al, 2005). It “strives toward an understanding of the complete human condition” (pg 109) which encompasses both positive and negative aspects of psychology (Gable & Haidt, 2005). It does not intend however to make it appear that the rest of psychology is negative; it grows from an effort to resolve the imbalance in psychology, which has previously concentrated on mental illness (Gable & Haidt, 2005). There are many areas of positive psychology which can be looked at such as: Happiness, the three desirable lives of Positive Psychology, Subjective Well Being, and Optimism to name a few. This article will focus on the notion of Happiness in positive psychology.
Scientific rationality can be used to study happiness in the same way it is used to study other human experiences (Sugarman, 2007). It can cause effects other than feeling good to occur, such as improved health and success (Seligman et al, 2005). Gross (2009) discusses how the issue of happiness has been debated for thousands of years and a consensus on a definition of happiness has still not been reached. Gross discusses two possible types of happiness which fall under the heading of Subjective Well Being (SWB): Eudaimonic and hedonic happiness. Eudaimonic happiness is happiness that occurs when the person feels that their life has meaning and/or purpose, and when they take part in activities that let them realize their potential. Hedonic happiness occurs when people are satisfied with their lives because there is a low occurrence of negative happenings and a high occurrence of positive happenings. However Gross reveals that there may be problems with defining happiness in this way. He tells us that happiness is “what life’s all about” (pg 20) and it is therefore what every person strives for.
Another aspect of happiness known as Positive Affect (PA) has been said to improve people’s health (Gross, 2009). Pressman & Cohen (2005 as cited in Gross, 2009) explain two types of PA: Trait PA and State PA. Trait PA is a dispositional attribute and State PA is a short period of positive emotion. Gross (2009) claims that there is an association between Trait PA and lower morbidity, also decreased pain is associated with higher levels of both types of PA.
However, people have a tendency to adapt to feeling happy and can then return to a baseline level of happiness rather than maintaining an increased level of happiness (Seligman et al, 2005). It is because of this finding that Seligman et al (2005) began a study into the possibility of maintaining happiness over a period of time. They created a questionnaire designed to detect changes in happiness levels called the Steen Happiness Index (SHI) and used it to reveal changes in happiness levels after participating in allocated assignments over a period of 6 months. They used a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) through the internet to gain participants. They had 5 happiness exercises and one placebo control exercise. The participants had a week to complete their assignment and their happiness levels upon completion were followed for the space of 6 months. The 6 exercises were: (1) Early memories (this was the placebo control) whereby they had to write about their early memories every night for a week, (2) Gratitude Visit whereby the participants wrote a letter of gratitude to someone they had never properly thanked and had to deliver it to them, (3) Three Good Things In Life whereby they had to write about three things that went well during the day and why every night for a week, (4) You at Your best whereby they had to write about a point in time where they were at their best and reflect on it every night for a week, (5) Using Signature Strengths In a New Way whereby they took a test to find their top 5 signature strengths and had to use one of them in a new and different way every day for a week, and finally (6) Identifying Signature Strengths whereby participants had to take the aforementioned test and use all 5 strengths more often during the week. It was found that Using Signature Strengths in a New Way and Three Good Things in Life increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months. The gratitude visit increased positive changes dramatically for one month. The others had positive but not long lasting effects on happiness. Seligman et al conclude that while six months is far away from “happily ever after” that “lasting increased happiness might be possible even outside fairy tales” (pg 419) through the use of positive psychology.
From this evidence we can gather that despite some criticisms about Positive Psychology and its methods (Sugarman, 2007; Gable & Haidt, 2005) it is possible to increase happiness and maintain it over a period of time. Thus there may be good reason to use a positive psychological method alongside a “normal” psychological method in the treatment of people’s problems. Of course if there are negative issues in a person’s life these need to be addressed and not ignored, but focusing on the positive aspects of a person’s life as well and using such interventions as already stated to increase their feelings of happiness, may help to reduce anxiety felt toward their issues and therefore make them easier for the person to deal with. There is also reason to use it as a preventative measure against negative occurrences (Gable & Haidt, 2005) by using positive psychology on already well functioning people. Perhaps, with the use of Positive Psychology, we may all be able to find our “Happily Ever Afters” after all.
Bacon, S. F. (2005). Positive Psychology’s Two Cultures. Review of General Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 2, 181–192.
Gable, S. L. & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 2, 103–110.
Gross, R. (2009). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology. London: Hodder Education.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No.5, 410-421.
Sugarman, J. (2007). Practical Rationality and the Questionable Promise of Positive Psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology , Vol. 47 No. 2, 175-197.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). Does Psychology Make a Significant Difference in Our Lives? American Psychologist, Vol. 59, No. 5, 339–351.