What Is Positive Psychology? And How to Apply the Principles to Your Own Wellbeing

Did you know that our genes are responsible for about 50% of our lifetime happiness levels? And that our actions and attitudes account for 40% of our happiness? So, if our choices and attitudes significantly impact our happiness, how do we cultivate and maintain a state of positivity and wellbeing in our personal and professional lives?

Black Dog Institute, Australia explains that in traditional psychology, the focus has been primarily on identifying and treating mental health problems such as depression to eliminate the negative symptoms. And while this step is critically important for those facing a mental illness, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of what achieving mental wellness entails. 

Instead, a holistic approach to improving your overall wellbeing takes all aspects of your health and lifestyle into account. In order to take care of your mental health, you also need to take care of your physical health through nutrition and lifestyle while also working to address mindset challenges so you can work on eliminating the root problem and promote more positivity. 

Positive psychology focuses on building a positive psychological state, harnessing motivation, and building resilience and optimism.  Applying the principles of positive psychology to your approach to personal wellbeing or workplace culture can be tremendously helpful for promoting positivity. 

This article will explore:

  • What positive psychology is, and how it fits in the bigger picture of managing our health and wellbeing 
  • The PERMA MODEL of positive psychology
  • Ways to improve happiness in life and at work

What is Positive Psychology? 

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008).

Positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to “great” instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to “normal” (Peterson, 2008).

In positive psychology, much of the focus falls on topics such as character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, wellbeing, gratitude, compassion (and self-compassion), self-esteem, self-confidence, hope, and elevation. Martin Seligman developed the concept of positive psychology in the 1970s after becoming frustrated with psychology’s overly narrow focus on the negative. He identified that so much attention was given to mental illness, abnormal psychology, trauma, suffering, and pain, but not nearly as much focus was dedicated to happiness, wellbeing, focusing on strengths, and ways to flourish.

Positive psychology promotes shifting your mindset and requires you to focus on developing aspects of yourself so that you have the best chance of experiencing happiness in your everyday life.   

Positive psychology complements traditional psychology 

Positive psychology isn’t about putting on a happy face all the time. The reality is that life can be hard, and disappointments and challenges are inevitable. However, positive psychology helps to build the resilience you need to better cope with difficult times. We like to say – greet the negatives and the challenges at the door, but don’t invite them in for tea. 

Positive psychology doesn’t replace traditional psychology, but rather, it functions as a complement to it. Think of it as a seesaw where the two balance each other out. 

Traditional psychology and psychiatry seek to diagnose and treat mental health issues through therapy or medication, while positive psychology encourages individuals to develop skills, habits, and mindset changes that promote wellbeing.  The two of these combined are better than one alone. 

As a holistic health and wellness coach, I tend to agree with this approach. Tackling your physical and mental health from a holistic angle to identify and treat the root cause is far more effective than simply diagnosing and managing symptoms. 

What is the PERMA model in positive psychology? 

The PERMA model is widely recognised and influential in positive psychology. Seligman proposed this model to help explain and define wellbeing in greater depth.  When working with clients, schools, or organisations, I also find this model useful for conceptualising their path.   

“PERMA” is the acronym for the five pillars of positive psychology – according to Seligman, “PERMA” stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. 

  • P – Positive Emotions: An essential component of wellbeing is experiencing positive emotions. The best way to do so is by living in the moment and appreciating when you’re in situations that make you feel good.
  • E – Engagement: This is the feeling of being completely tuned into and absorbed by something you enjoy doing and maybe even excel at. Being engaged in what you do helps promote a sense of wellbeing.
  • R – (Positive) Relationships: As humans, we are social creatures. Building connections with others and having a support system helps us flourish, and having meaningful and deep relationships with others is essential for our wellbeing.
  • M – Meaning: To feel profound satisfaction in life, we have to give it meaning. A sense of meaning can be found in many ways, but often it’s found when we step outside of ourselves and see how we can contribute to a greater good. 
  • A – Accomplishment / Achievement: A sense of accomplishment helps reinforce that we’re on the right track and keeps us moving forward. When we see we can meet our goals or excel at what we do, it promotes feelings of confidence and wellbeing within ourselves. 

These five pillars of the PERMA model are measurable and vital for achieving an overall sense of wellbeing.

How can you apply positive psychology to your personal life and in the workplace?

The PERMA model gives us a framework for understanding wellbeing as well as a road map to move through and focus on:

1. Experience more positive emotions

Spend more time doing the things that make you happy and bring joy to your daily life. 

  • Enhance your pleasure by savouring moments of your life, whether by yourself or with others
  • Sharing with others: seek out others to share the experience and tell others how much you value the moment. 
  • Memory building: take mental photographs, or even a physical souvenir of the event, and discuss it later with others.
  • Self-congratulation: don’t be afraid of pride; tell yourself how great you are and remember how long you have waited for this to happen. 
  • Absorption: allow yourself to become totally immersed in a task and try not to think, just sense and feel everything about it.
  • Seek out a variety of experiences and spread-out pleasurable events over time. 
  • Explore yourself with awareness-building activities like personality assessments.
  • Look into the concept of a growth mindset.
  • Cultivate gratitude: Outwardly appreciate someone in your life, express your thanks to others and reflect on things you are grateful for.
  • Use positive and optimistic language, even when discussing more challenging times.
  • Engage with talking therapies like psychology or wellness coaching 

2. Increase engagement in what you do

Spend time doing things that you feel genuinely interested in to feel more engaged with life. Pursue new hobbies, develop your skills, and find a job that aligns more with your passions, if necessary.

  • Focus on identifying your strengths using a VIA strengths assessment and reflect on your results
  • Develop your mindfulness and ability to focus on a task or experience deeply
  • Seek out, discover, and identify your interests
  • Seek out ‘flow’ experiences – the kinds of tasks where you completely zone out and tune in to what you do that you almost forget everything else!
  • At work, create a role that fits your job description but utilises your strengths and follows interests and passions

3. Nurture relationships with others

Build positive and supportive relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and partner(s) by:

  • Nurturing your relationships: Make sure that you invest time and energy in your friends and family. 
  • Perform small acts of kindness: Performing kind acts creates a measurable boost to levels of psychological wellbeing. Giving not only makes you feel good about yourself, but it also enhances your connection with others and can result in positive feedback from them.
  • Work out ways to effectively prevent or manage conflict.
  • Plan team/relationship-building experiences at work or with loved ones.
  • Join teams or organisations.
  • Discuss any concerns about interactions and relationships with loved ones to enhance them.

4. Seek out meaning

Meaning can be found through the work that you do, or how you choose to spend your free time, such as volunteering, hobbies, leisure activities, or acting as a mentor to others. 

  • Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Learn to forgive – Let go of anger and resentment by writing a forgiveness letter to a person who has wronged you. Inability to forgive is associated with a persistent rumination on suffering and pain.
  • Explore mindfulness.
  • Engage in personal development – explore books, podcasts, TED Talks, and blogs.
  • Contribute to charity or volunteer work.
  • Donate money or time to organisations that mean something to you personally or through loved ones.

5. Stay focused on setting and achieving your goals

But don’t focus too hard; try to keep your ambition in balance with all the other important things in life (Seligman, 2011).

  • Set yearly, monthly, and weekly goals to set intentions.
  • Celebrate your accomplishments.
  • Track the wins and the small stuff – use habit trackers and goal-setting tools.
  • Check-in with yourself: take time out occasionally to consider how you are going in the major facets of your life, such as family, work, finances, health, and play. Reflect on the progress you are making in working towards your major life goals. Then, make changes in your life to match your priorities. 

Want to access the main points of this blog later?

 Download my FREE Positive Psychology PDF here 

Conclusion

Positive psychology is an excellent complement to traditional psychology and provides a more holistic approach to mental wellness. The PERMA model is beneficial for mapping out the steps you should take toward improving your own wellbeing or your organisation’s overall culture. I like to use this model in my own coaching sessions with clients, organisations, and schools because I find that by prioritising wellness and promoting positivity, a lot of the other issues naturally resolve on their own. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can apply the principles of positive psychology to improve your wellbeing or your workplace culture, schedule a free consultation and we can discuss how I can help.  

Additional reading on Positive Psychology 

  • Centre for Confidence and Well-being, Scotland www.centreforconfidence.co.uk  
  • Positive Psychology Institute, Sydney www. Positivepsychologyinstitute.com.au  
  • The Positivity Institute Australia www.Thepositivityinstitute.com.au   
  • The University of Pennsylvania, Positive Psychology Centre www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu  
  • Time Magazine: The New Science of Happiness. www.time.com/time/2005/happiness  
  • Six Part BBC Series: The Science of Happiness. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/happiness_formula    Lyubomirsky, S (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Penguin Putnam 
  • Seligman, M E P (2011). Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. Nicholas Brealey Publishing 
  • Bryant F B, Veroff J (2006). Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 
  • Gable S L, Haidt J (2005). What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology. Review of General Psychology, Vol. 9: 103-110 
  • Kahneman D, Diener E, Schwarz (eds) (2003). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. Russell Sage Foundation Publications 
  • Keyes C L M, Haidt J (eds) (2003). Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. American Psychological Association 
  • Petersen C (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford University Press 
  • Petersen C (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press 
  • Snyder C R (2005) Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press 
  • The Journal of Positive Psychology. Published by Routledge 

Sources

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