The science of psychology:
Psychology is a young science, and discoveries in the field are being made every day. As a neuropsychologist and a clinical psychologist I find this to be a most interesting time to be a clinician. We learn more all the time about the impact of a good psychotherapy on the human brain. It is safe to say that changing how your mind works in the setting of a warm and collaborative psychotherapy with someone you trust actually alters the structure and function of your brain. And this isn’t only true for young brains, it is true for us all!
Fixing what ails us:
Psychology has always been pretty good at figuring out what is happening when things go wrong. And over the decades we’ve become very good at fixing many of the things that ail our psyches. Talk therapies for depression, for attachment and anxiety disorders, for marital difficulties, just to name a few, are highly effective and life altering.
A broader focus:
But very recently psychology has begun to broaden its focus to include discussions about optimizing and improving lives that are already going well. For that we can thank Martin Seligman, Ph.D. and his many colleagues who have done groundbreaking research in the field of positive psychology. Seligman reportedly began to think about this when he considered the observation that everyone gets depressed, but some people bounce back quickly. He wondered what might be different about those who bounce back and if that difference could be taught. The last ten years of research makes it clear—the tenets of positive psychology can both strengthen lives that are going well and be very helpful in improving lives that are experiencing a variety of challenges. That is why I incorporate principles of positive psychology into my clinical practice.
What is positive psychology?
It may seem counterintuitive, but positive psychology is not necessarily about feeling happy. For most people, happiness is an emotional state that comes and goes. People can chase it, or despair when they don’t feel it. But rather than expecting the big smile and constant fun we associate with happy feelings, Seligman and his colleagues suggest we instead focus on the principles of well-being.
The PERMA model:
It is easiest to understand well-being by taking a look at the five pillars of positive psychology. When these pillars are working in concert, well-being is the result. PERMA is made up of
· Positive Emotion
· Positive Relationships
The goal of positive psychology is to find ways to help people live lives of greater well-being, lives that are characterized by the eudemonic experiences of joy, contentment, peace and gratitude. How any one person gets there depends to a great extent on which of his or her own pillars need attention and development.
Here is an example: as a college professor I am surrounded on a daily basis by young men and women who are, to some extent or another, on a quest to sort out the meaning of their lives. For some, meaning amounts to what matters right now—what will bring happiness in this minute. As you can imagine, that can cause some problems with meeting demanding goals and expectations—college requires care and hard work. It is often stressful and generally expects students to be willing to put off fun (at least some of the time) in the service of accomplishment. But putting off fun in order to study for, say, a Calculus test can be a recipe for temporary discomfort. And if your barometer is set for the here and now, that creates a conflict.
Seligman would likely suggest that instead of trying to achieve momentary happiness we all work to sort out our bigger picture meaning. He would counsel that doing so will set us on a path that resonates through all aspects of our lives: relationships deepen and grow with a foundation of common purpose; we find it easier to engage and lose time in the things we care about; rather than relying on momentary happiness to make us feel good, we dive in to life in a manner that helps us gain deeper contentment, joy and appreciation.
It isn’t magic:
If this all sounds a bit idealized and magical, I assure you it isn’t. All of Seligman’s principles are evidence based and grounded in solid research. They are easy enough to learn—in fact there is simple homework for most everything he teaches.
Useful across the lifespan:
Positive psychology is a useful tool in all stages of life. Tenets of this theory help us raise resilient children, children who become adults with grit and self-awareness. I have seen the impact of these principles on countless people. Positive psychology tools and exercises designed to deepen appreciation for the people we love, to help us deepen our understanding of our purpose in life, and help us engage more fully in the world we share can be a very powerful adjunct to clinical care.
Positive psychology can be integrated into treatment:
If you are interested in learning more about how the tools of positive psychology can be integrated into psychotherapy, please call me at 503-490-5793.