Since its establishment as a distinct sub-field of psychology in 1998, research and interventions based off positive psychology have gained increasing attention among scholars, as well as traction among mental health professionals. The positive psychology movement was born out of the realization that psychology has tended to focus on maladaptive and problematic experiences in our lives – an echo of disease-focused models that typically govern the medical sciences. Treatment of psychological disorders and dysfunctions (such as anxiety and depression) are of course, important, but the call made by then American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, was for psychologists to also consider the factors that made life worth living and meaningful. Seligman argued that psychologists had a lot to say and recommend for treatment of psychological disorders, but were mostly silent on what makes for a flourishing life.
As with any developing field of study, there have been debates and challenges made towards positive psychology’s claims about the effectiveness of its interventions. The same concerns and challenges are also levelled against mindfulness (“McMindfulness”) and emotional intelligence (as a corporate ‘fad du jour’) as well. For instance, researchers once claimed that we need to have a ratio of at least three positive events to one negative event in order to lead a flourishing life. This does sound appealing (and maybe even intuitive), but was later shown to be incorrect. Yes, individuals who thrive and flourish usually experience more positive experiences relative to negative ones in their lives, but it isn’t reduced to a simplistic 3:1 ratio . Luckily, as with any field of science, we now have a considerable body of evidence suggesting which positive psychology interventions do work. Researchers have conducted meta-analyses – studies of studies, and found that the effectiveness of positive psychology interventions are quantifiable, and effective simply beyond chance levels. One such meta-analysis of more than 50 studies, with a sample of more than 4000 participants showed that positive psychology interventions do elevate levels of well-being, and counter the effects of depressive symptoms .
Most, if not all positive psychology research seem to suggest a few key guiding principles for making these interventions work for you. For one, variety is key – engaging in, and varying between multiple interventions is often better than selecting and sticking to just one intervention alone. In a paper aptly titled, “Variety is the spice of happiness,” researchers Ken Sheldon and colleagues propose that engaging in a variety of positive psychology interventions helps us overcome our natural tendencies of adapting to the positivity we experience in our lives . That is, we have a tendency to ‘get used to’ our good fortune – something researchers refer to as hedonic adaptation. Our baseline levels of happiness increase with each positive event in our lives, requiring us to seek out even more positivity later on to meet a new minimal level required to be happy. By varying the positive interventions we engage in, and committing to them, we can overcome this natural tendency, sustaining happiness for longer. Another suggestion is to choose the intervention that works for you. Like mental health interventions, certain treatments are going to be more readily accepted and effective for certain individuals and not others. The same holds true for positive psychology interventions – you will find some that you will be more effective and beneficial for you than others.
Here are some interventions that have been the subject of meta-analyses. This is a partial list from Linda Bolier and colleagues who reviewed 39 studies, and found positive psychology interventions as a whole to be effective for raising subjective and psychological well-being. Why not select a few and try incorporating them into your daily routine?
Counting Your Blessings: Reflecting on the positive aspects of your lives and who/what you are grateful for is one of the most elegant, yet effective positive psychology interventions. Try counting three good things that went well with your day for a week and see if it gives you a shot of happiness for that week.
Savouring: Savouring involves being mindful of positivity in your life and attending to them when they arise. Focus your attention on the positive experience and corresponding emotions during the moment you experience them. You can try this the next time you are enjoying a good meal.
Cultivating Sacred Moments: Set aside time and space in your busy weekly routine for yourself – consider this physical and temporal space ‘sacred,’ and use it to engage in activities such as personal reflection, prayer, meditation, or to connect with something larger than yourself.
Focusing on Your Character Strengths: Rather than emphasize on your limitations and weaknesses (which is what a lot of us do!), consider what unique characteristics and strengths you embody. Think about how you can leverage your signature strengths to develop your skills, enhance your relationships with others or re-connect with your life’s purpose.
Visualizing – or Writing about, Your Best Possible Selves: Envision your best possible self, and write about what he/she is like. Similar approaches have been used to assist in professional coaching contexts, and stands in contrast with training that tends to focus on weaknesses and areas for improvement. What is your ideal self like in 5 years? 10 years?