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Sunday, 27 May 2012

How can you learn greater well-being? What is Positive psychology? -- Some insightful concepts


I was pleased to be able to attend another showing of the movie ‘Happy’ – hosted by Dr Deborah Jima-Otero at the Newcastle Centre for Positive Living, part of Northumbria University.

I was grateful to do this, as I had become aware of what I believe is some really insightful wording relating to positive psychology, in the context of a course run from October 2011 to help attendees improve their quality of life, and well-being.

Deborah kindly assented to me reproducing the wording – with the appropriate attribution.

Descriptive text from NCPL’s “Eight week programme in positive living”

This is verbatim from the course outline:
Dr Deborah Jima-Otero and Dr Matthew Lewis from The Newcastle Centre for Positive Living (NCPL) at Northumbria University are pleased to announce their eight week programme in positive living, starting on 20th October 2011 every Thursday 6.30-8.30pm, for members of the general public.
Leading people to positive lives
Using scientifically validated exercises from the field of positive psychology, the programme aims to introduce participants to techniques which will enable them to experience more positive emotions and flourish in life.   It will seek to help the group of participants to assess their personal well-being and satisfaction with life; plan a meaningful and satisfying life for themselves and try out various exercises which are aimed at increasing positive emotions and decreasing negative emotions.  These guided exercises will be completed during the weekly sessions and in the participants' own time between these sessions.

What are the benefits of positive emotions beyond ‘feeling good’?

Research has shown that positive emotions have a number of beneficial effects, beyond simply ‘feeling good’. 
Happier people:
  • Are more creative and better at problem solving – Positive emotions broaden people’s outlook, bringing more possibilities into view.  Greater openness makes them more creative as they are more likely to let go of preconceived ideas and think outside the box.
  • Are more productive and successful – They are more engaged both at work and play and tend to take less time off work due to sickness.
  • Are more resilient – They tend to bounce back from life’s setbacks more quickly.
  • Experience more fulfilling relationships with others - They are also more likely to help other people and benefit from social support themselves.
  • Are healthier – They tend to lead healthier lifestyles and research has shown that they even live longer!

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is at the heart of much of our work at the Newcastle Centre for Positive Living (NCPL).  In a nutshell, positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning and is concerned with positive aspects of human life such as happiness, well-being, flourishing, engagement, meaning, accomplishment, and positive relationships.  The aim of the field is to redress the imbalance that has emerged in the field of psychology from emphasising ‘misery and suffering’ (i.e., shortcomings such as depression, anxiety, drug addiction, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder) to understanding factors that make life worth living (i.e., potentials and human strengths).

Building ‘psychological immunity’

Positive psychology is keen to promote the idea that the full range of emotions have their place in human existence and that we need to give ourselves the permission to be human and accept that we all experience life’s ups and downs. So positive psychology is not about being ‘happy clappy’ but about being real.  However, it espouses the view that through hard work and practicing scientifically validated interventions (and experiencing setbacks along the way!)  individuals can learn resilience and build up their ‘psychological immune system’.  The idea is that, like physical immunity, individuals with a strong psychological immune system may still ‘get sick’ but this happens less frequently and when setbacks occur they get over them more quickly.

Prevention through cultivating the positive

Positive psychology is not targeted at fixing problems (i.e. remedial) but works on getting people to their upper range of well-being.  If you imagine a scale of well-being ranging from -10 to 0 to +10, psychology has traditionally focused on getting people who may be a -8 on the scale up to 0 or 1.  Positive psychology, by contrast, also focuses on those who may be at 0 or +1 or +2 and teaches them how to get to +8 or +10.  It helps individuals who may be ‘getting by’ in life to truly flourish, find meaning, and build resilience. In this respect it is much more preventative in its approach.  For example, Martin Seligman the founder of the field of positive psychology, has found in his research that learning optimism prevents depression and anxiety in ‘at risk’ children and adults, roughly halving their incidence over the next two years.
Finally, we would like to point out that you may find this course personally challenging at times as it may involved changing deeply entrenched habits. We do not advocate the view that there are a few ‘easy steps’ to happiness. Instead, we believe it takes commitment, motivation and hard work. We aim to support and encourage you on this journey but ultimately the main drive and effort needs to come from you. That said, you also need to accept that you will experience challenges and setbacks along the way – these are all part of being human!

Take away

Key points for me:
  • Well-being and meaning is something that can be developed and grown – chiming with my recent reading of ‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck, and ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed
  • Well-being and happiness is about being authentic, and raising one’s “mean” state of experience
  • Going through the exercises is personally challenging
  • I really like the idea of a “psychological immune system”
Arguably these are incredibly important life skills that many more people would benefit from, and deserve to be part of a wider set of life skills courses that form part of everyone’s basic education. What do you think?
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