Positive psychology is a domain within the psychological sciences that focuses on understanding how, and why some people thrive and flourish. Thriving and flourishing individuals live their lives capitalizing on their strengths and virtues, ultimately experiencing a greater degree of significance in their lives. Importantly, positive psychology shifts the emphasis from psychological maladies and dysfunctions to helping individuals cultivate habits and practices for a flourishing, well-lived life. We know more about problematic emotions and emotion-related states such as depression, chronic anger, and morbid jealousy, but perhaps it is time to consider the neglected flipside of this equation – what is it that makes life worth living? . The psychologist Martin Seligman is most often credited as the founder of the positive psychology movement, and, for the past two decades, the science has offered us new insights into helping us thrive and flourish. The absence of mental illnesses and psychological dysfunctions is not the same as thriving and flourishing, nor does it mean that one is living to their fullest potentials. Seligman suggests that there are five important elements that serve as key ingredients for a good life:
Positive emotions – A happy life consists, on average, of greater experiences associated with positive emotion and mood relative to unpleasant, distressing or negative ones. Positive emotions don’t have to be (just) happiness. How often do you experience positive, pleasant emotions such as love, compassion, gratitude, inspiration, authentic pride, awe, elevation or passion? What activities do you, or can you engage in to increase the frequency of these positive emotional experiences? Regular, frequent experiences of positive emotions have been shown to be a stronger predictor of overall happiness than the intensity of positive emotions .
Engagement – If you are fortunate enough to have a job that engages you, occupies your senses and attention over the course of a daily work day, then you might have a job that elevates your level of engagement. It does not need to be a formal job of course; individuals find hobbies and interests engaging as well. Both work, and non-work activities that full engage tend to be activities that lead to flow – the experience of being fully immersed in a task to a point where you lose track of time. Are your work tasks and hobbies as engaging as they should be?
Relationships – A happy, meaningful life is also one in which we feel connected to individuals around us. Positive, resonant and trustworthy relationships with family and friends help buffer against stressors, and has been shown to benefit psychological and physical health. Are there ways to improve on your personal social networks? Is there someone you can (and should) ring up soon?
Meaning – Closely related to the concept of Eudaimonia, having a higher purpose, or sense that one’s life serves a meaning greater to oneself, is another key contributor to a happy life. Eudaimonia is contrasted with hedonia – sensory pleasures and general life satisfaction. Both concepts, however, overlap, and it is indeed possible to feel good about doing things that are meaningful . Acts of altruism and simple acts of kindness are don’t just increase pleasure, but also a sense of purpose and meaning. Think of the things you do that can adequately be considered ‘pleasurable purposes’ in your life.
Achievement – Achievements bring a sense of self-efficacy, confidence and affirmations to one’s self-worth and abilities. Have you taken stock of your list of past successes recently? Thinking about how far you’ve come, and what you have accomplished so far can serve to remind you of your strengths, innate capabilities, and unique talents. Perhaps you can use your list of achievements to spur further opportunities to grow your talents.