Positive psychology is a science that pursues the nature of happiness. It teaches us how to cultivate attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that help build a healthy, happy, robust character. As we learn to modify these core aspects of ourselves, we become more resilient; we become more able to recover and retain happiness.
Are you happy? If you are one of those who is less than content with your life, you’re definitely not alone. And while you might not be significantly unhappy or even depressed, you may still find yourself in search of a more fulfilling and satisfying existence. Because this is such a common concern, a new avenue of research has emerged in the mental health field: the science of happiness.
For a long time, psychological and psychiatric research has focused heavily on trying to better understand and alleviate depression. That’s because (according to the American Psychological Association) when all its social, occupational, emotional, and general health ramifications are factored in, depression is the most disabling disease in the world. And as a result of years of dedicated study, significant advances were made in the diagnosis and treatment of depression. But in recent years, concerns have emerged not only about the long-term efficacy of some of the more popular treatments, but also about the value of focusing so much on what happens when people have already become ill, as opposed to exploring ways to help people bring joy into their lives and sustain a healthy level of happiness.
The American Declaration of Independence asserts that the pursuit of happiness is a God-given and “inalienable right.” But just because we might be entitled to pursue it, doesn’t mean happiness is guaranteed to all those who seek it. Fortunately for the happiness-seekers among us, a new positive psychology has emerged, championed in large measure by researchers like Martin Seligman and Ed Diener. Happiness psychology seeks to answer through scientific inquiry questions as old as humankind: Just what is happiness? What makes people happy? What’s different about those who seem to be content and enjoy their lives from those who are unhappy? and, Can we learn how to become and stay happier? Happiness psychology is both a pro-active and positive psychology. It seeks to determine the ways that folks can equip themselves with the necessary skills, attitudes, and experiences that might not only make them happier but also provide them with a degree of inoculation against depression. And it also seeks to incorporate into a general theory of happiness much of the ‘ancient wisdom’ passed down through the ages by various cultures. Therapists would then be in a position to teach people how to be happy and stay happy as opposed to merely helping rescue them from the depths of despair.
As positive and forward-looking as the new science of happiness is, it’s not without its detractors. That’s largely because one of its major tenets is that various aspects of a person’s character (e.g., how a person typically interprets events, the attitudes a person holds about life and relationships, the habitual ways a person responds to stressful events, etc.) have a lot to do with how happy they ultimately are as well as how resilient they might be when it comes to resisting or bouncing back from a depression. Drawing attention to personality/character issues that might contribute to behavioral problems, emotional disturbances, and other psychological maladies has never been popular in the professional community. That’s because of the fear that a treatment provider might overly weight the role of personal responsibility and discount the role of biological and environmental factors in the problems and unhappiness of their client. But the new science of happiness is not about indicting people for the deficiencies in their character that might negatively impact their happiness. Rather, it seeks to help people cultivate the characteristics that foster happiness and develop the resources and strength of character necessary to better weather the storms of life. And in scientifically exploring the various factors that influence happiness, it also seeks to learn what skills folks need to acquire in order to attain and sustain happiness.
I’ve always been a big fan of Seligman and his colleagues and have included the now famous quote: “character matters after all” in the opening pages of my book Character Disturbance. I’m also a big fan of the single most distinguishing feature of being human: the incredible capacity to learn. Regardless of our biology, our upbringing, or the nature of circumstances, we can always learn new ways to better cope and prosper. And it’s primarily because of our powerful capacity to learn that we can approach the pursuit of happiness with hope and confidence. What Seligman and others are trying to do is to isolate the factors that we can incorporate into our continuous character development that will not only make us stronger, better persons, but also happier and more resilient persons. If there’s a more forward-looking and positive psychology out there than this one, I’d sure like to see it.
In Character Disturbance, I make the point that some personalities pursue happiness in such a self-centered, hedonistic, and callous way that they actually end up making not only themselves but others around them quite miserable. Other personalities are inherently so fearful of self-assertion and overly dependent upon unreliable sources of support that true happiness eludes them most of their lives. But all of us can learn to examine and modify our core beliefs, attitudes, and behavior patterns, and hone new skills. And now that science is uncovering the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that both foster happiness and provide some immunity to depression, we can all take hope in the notion that we can make of ourselves the kind of person who understands, appreciates, and knows how to secure happiness.
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