What is positive psychology?

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In recent years, the focus of scientists and researchers in the field of psychology has shifted from clinical psychology and psychopathology (the curing of mental illness) to positive psychology (the enhancement of mental wellbeing). With mindfulness becoming a popular research topic over the last decade, positive psychology has received a boost. But what is positive psychology and how is it related to mindfulness?

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Positive psychology developed as a field of study in 1998, with Martin Seligman (building on the work of Abraham Maslow) at the lead of it. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to give a detailed description of the history and development of this fascinating field, but it is worth noting two important differences between positive psychology and the fields that have previously dominated psychological research.

Firstly, positive psychology focuses on the enhancement of mental wellbeing, as opposed to the curing of mental illness. They might seem like the same thing, but they are in fact two sides of one coin (the coin being mental health). Positive psychology focuses on the positive aspects of human life, such as family, social bonds and individual strengths and virtues, as opposed to clinical conditions, such as stress, depression and anxiety. That is not to say that positive psychology ignores existing conditions and problems. Rather, it approaches these problems in a, well, in a more “positive” way.

The second difference is strongly related to the first – positive psychology focuses on the prevention of mental health problems before they occur, rather than a solution to them after the fact. Again, positive psychology is not a field devoid of cures or solutions, but it promotes prevention as a more effective approach of mental health enhancement.

Thus, positive psychology, at its core, is the study of the now, stemming from the knowledge that enhancing the human experience in the now is key to sustained mental health and wellbeing in the future. I believe it is these two points that so strongly resonate with mindfulness. A focus on the positive, and, even more so, a focus on the now.

At a recent public health conference, this message of prevention was loud and clear regarding physical activity, as well as mental health. Prevent problems before they occur. From an economic standpoint, this means reduced costs of medicine and welfare. From an individual point of view, this means an improved quality of life. The best part? Physical activity, yoga, meditation, walking, running and practicing mindfulness… are all free (or very low-cost) activities, and they are accessible to all of us!

So why start practicing yoga only when an injury happens or when your muscles get too stiff? Why start meditating only when you get too stressed or anxious? Why start exercising only when you get a health scare or lose your physical fitness? Why take care of your mental health only after it has declined? Let us start today.

As the saying goes…

 

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