Lessons for Living
|Jordan Bradford, Alissa Teske, Lauren Gledhill, Britany Helton, and Heather A. Haas, LaGrange College (GA)
Although many people immediately associate psychology with abnormal psychology, disorder, counseling, and therapy, the theoretical and statistical tools of psychology can also be applied to studying the positive side of life. As Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote, "…psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue” (2000, p. 7). Thus the proponents of positive psychology have encouraged researchers to pay as much attention to the study of positive emotions, positive character strengths and virtues, and the positive institutions that cultivate these positive outcomes as they have to negative emotions, character deficiencies, and the risk factors that are so often publicized as causes of these problems.
In the last decade or so, many institutions have begun offering courses on positive psychology (Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson, 2005), introducing students to what researchers have learned about happiness, life satisfaction, resilience, and strengths of character. In a positive psychology course we completed last year, we found that different students were struck by different aspects of the course material. In this article, four of us share our reflections on the findings we found to be the most meaningful for our own lives. We also asked several researchers in the field to share what they have learned from their work so far, and we’ve reprinted their responses here as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found that we agreed, in many ways, about the most important lessons to be learned from the study of positive psychology.
Years before the positive psychology movement began,
Dr. David Myers was already studying happiness. He is a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan, a member of Psi Chi, and the author of the book The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy. Dr. Myers says, "My engagement with research on happiness has helped lessen any lust for self-indulgent spending and reminded me of the importance of close relationships, exercise, and a communally engaged spirituality.”
Lauren Gledhill is a senior psychology major with a biology minor who last year coordinated a campus-wide fund-raiser for the organization Autism Speaks. She is interested in a career in marriage and family therapy. Lauren was also struck by the research that shows that money does not ensure happiness. She says, "There is much more to life than affluent living. Many people believe that if they could just get a certain job, salary, or house, they will find happiness. But people need to realize that their happiness will never come from just money. The material possessions that come along with the ‘American Dream’ can be gone in a blink of an eye. Many people learned this the hard way through the recent economic crash. Things are temporary, but strong relationships can endure no matter what a person’s economic status. Having things is not bad, but they should not be thought of as the gateway to happiness. Research in positive psychology teaches us that we should also put time and energy in meaningful relationships.”
Dr. Ed Diener is the Joseph R. Smiley Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois and a member of Psi Chi. In addition to authoring approximately 200 articles on well-being, he has also served as the editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and coauthored, with his son Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Dr. Diener also believes that investing effort into meaningful work and meaningful relationships are key elements to living well. Dr. Diener says: "I tend to be a pretty happy person, but I have learned a couple of interesting things: First, my happiness comes much more from doing my research, which I live, than from external rewards like awards. You can win acclaim or an award or praise, and it makes you happy briefly, and then wears off in a day or two. But the work itself, if you like it a lot, can continue to give pleasure for a lifetime. Second, not just thinking positive things, but saying positive things to others. It is very easy for me, and I think others too, to only mention something when it is a problem and overlook it when others do good things. Perhaps the good things seem "natural” or something you just expect. So when your kids are playing nicely, you don’t mention it. If they get loud or break something, you get down on them. But you forget to mention to them when they do all sorts of little things good. Same with spouses. People get mad when the other person forgets something but fail to say something nice when the other person does something good, even if small. This is all about the "Gottman ratio”—that you need a ratio of way more positives with people than negatives. Sometimes a gentle criticism is needed, but it should be counterbalanced by lots of positive remarks. Thanks and gratitude. Compliments. Praise. Friendly remarks. Humor. So I work on this with my family and friends. Not only does it make them happy, and hopefully make them like being around me more, but it also makes me happier because it means I focus more of my own attention on what people are doing right, not wrong.”
Alissa Teske is a senior psychology major with a minor in English, a member of Psi Chi, and is interested in a career in human resources. Alissa agrees that when it comes to happiness, a little effort goes a long way. She says, "Dr. Seligman claims that there is a difference between the "pleasant life,” which consists of striving for moment-to-moment pleasures, and the "meaningful life,” which involves more effortful engagement. He also notes that the pleasant life is not the life that will probably create the greatest long-term happiness. I noticed this same pattern in my reactions to a variety of activities we completed for class. Although sensual pleasure and passive leisure made me happy in the moment, the happiness quickly faded. But activities that involved more effortful kindness, like expressing gratitude, produced more lasting happiness. For example, one afternoon I called my grandfather and told him how grateful I am for everything he has done for me. After the conversation was over, I realized that my level of happiness had increased significantly, and given his reaction, I believe that his did as well. I believe that my happiness increased as much as it did partly because it made use of one of my signature strengths, but I think that it also worked because it strengthened the bond between my grandfather and myself. I believe that expressions of gratitude probably usually increase the happiness of both the giver and of the receiver, and so these actions will almost always have a positive effect on a person’s life. More generally, it seemed clear that the activities that required more effort were the ones that produced the highest levels of satisfaction. The saying, "you get out of it what you put in” seems to apply in the search for happiness.”
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, the author of the book The How of Happiness, is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and a member of Psi Chi. She received the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize for her research on what makes people happy and how to help people become even happier, and her research supports the idea that effort plays a key role in the pursuit of happiness. Dr. Lyubomirsky says, "There are really two lessons I have learned from my research. The first is that becoming happier requires a great deal of effort and commitment. Much like it takes dedication and effort to achieve any meaningful goal in our lives (e.g., advancing in our careers, raising children, building a home), it requires the same to improve our emotional lives as well. The second theme is that of ‘person-activity fit.’ That is, not every happiness-increasing strategy is going to match every person’s personality, goals, resources, values, preferences, or lifestyle. So it’s important to choose the activity that feels most natural, enjoyable, and the ‘best fit’ for you.”
Britany Helton, a psychology major and former Psi Chi president, has career interests in program evaluation within the realm of community psychology and public health. In the positive psychology class, Britany realized that psychological research actually suggests that life can be more fulfilling if you learn to value effort not only in the pursuit of happiness, but in any aspect of life. She says, "One thing that really hit home with me personally is that the world would be better if people understood the value of effort. People can even become ‘smarter’ if they just apply more effort and challenge themselves more often. I feel that more people would be able to live happier lives if they had what researcher Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset. Dweck says that children should be praised for the effort put into something instead of simply being told that they are smart. Teaching children at a young age that effort is important may help them excel, not only in school, but in life in general.”
Dr. Christopher Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a Psi Chi member. He and his colleagues have developed a number of signature strengths questionnaires. He also coauthored, with Dr. Martin Seligman, the book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. His research focuses on how our character strengths affect our lives. Dr. Peterson says, "I think that the most important lesson of positive psychology, in general, as well as for me personally, is the power of positive reframing—not denying what has gone wrong but trying to see what else might be going right in the situation.”
Jordan Bradford is a senior psychology major with a history minor and the current president of Psi Chi at LaGrange College. She is interested in pursuing a career in clinical psychology. Jordan has also learned that recognizing your own personal strengths really can help you live a happier life. She says, "In my class on positive psychology, I not only learned what my strengths were by taking the VIA Survey of Character Strengths and Virtues, but I also realized that something I have always considered a weakness is actually one of my best qualities. Caution is one of my top virtues, and although I viewed this quality negatively in the past, I now understand that caution is a good characteristic to possess. It’s a sign of a mature and responsible person. Learning about the various character strengths has led me to value things in myself that I previously saw as limitations.”
Clearly both researchers in the field and students just beginning to learn about positive psychology agree that studying not only how to fix what is wrong but also how to enhance what is right is not just an academic pursuit. Many of the lessons of positive psychology are lessons for living.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
Myers, D. G. (1992). The pursuit of happiness: Discovering the pathway to fulfillment, well-being, and enduring personal joy. New York: Avon Books, Inc.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press/Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5.
Seligman, M. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005) Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60,
Copyright 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the
International Honor Society in Psychology
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