Positive psychology for a stressful world
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May 30, 2008 - 7:00 AM

In a world filled with a constant barrage of negativity, as we watch disturbing scenes in Iraq and feel the pain of our struggling economy on a daily basis, it is easy to become jaded and cynical. Perhaps more than ever before our society is in need of tools to help achieve happiness, fulfillment and success. In fact, people are actively pursuing many avenues to help them find reasons to be optimistic in mass numbers.

This ranges from motivational speakers who provide lectures and seminars, workshops designed to promote a more holistic existence, individual coaching for facilitating development of skills, self-help books and online support. These programs have typically not been based on scientific principles, and have therefore been viewed with skepticism by experts who are concerned that the self-help industry is unregulated, making it easy for charlatans to enter the field. The most researched approach to self-growth is psychology, however, traditionally the field has focused on alleviation of symptoms and returning people to a neutral functioning state, rather than building on strengths.

In recognition of the need for psychology to address human flourishing, the Positive Psychology movement was founded by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. (former President of the American Psychological Association) in 1998. In this extremely brief period of time it has grown into one of the most promising branches of psychology and has transformed the field from focusing primarily on pathology to a field that explores human potential.

The field now includes thousands of psychologists, dozens of books, and courses in prominent schools and institutions across the world. Some of the most respected psychologists in the field are involved in this movement and it is regularly featured in the most prestigious psychology journals. Positive Psychology has caught the attention of the popular media, demonstrating its mass appeal. Time magazine dedicated almost an entire issue to this topic in its January 17, 2005 issue. The movement has been featured in Newsweek, The Today Show, USA Today, Oprah, and various other major publications and programs.

Skeptics may wonder whether positive psychology is merely the mindless pursuit of cheerfulness that makes achieving happiness sound too simplistic. But experts in the field are quick to make it clear that they are not suggesting that fulfillment and tranquility come in a few easy steps. They argue that it takes hard work and a serious commitment to making changes in both perspective and lifestyle. As a result of the research we now have a better understanding of some of the key techniques that almost anyone can implement on a daily basis to make significant strides in achieving and maintaining a more positive existence.
In fact, Dr. Seligman had reported on his website that 94% of people who participated in the most proven Positive Psychology techniques, had a decrease in depression (on average greater than a 50% reduction) and 92% increased their positive emotions in just 15 days. These results are comparable to the beneficial effects of antidepressant medications and cognitive therapy.

Positive psychologists emphasize that to achieve a more optimistic outlook, a decision needs to be made to embrace the belief that happiness is to a large degree within one’s control and that we all have the power to create internal joy. Here are some practical suggestions that can be used to take initial steps towards a more positive existence:

1) Use Past Experiences Constructively
Utilize earlier life experiences to grow in some aspect of your present life and potentially for the future. Avoid the trap of holding on to negative feelings from the past which cannot be altered.

2) Focus Energy on the Present
Make a conscious effort to anticipate in advance any potential positive occurrences that may be present in your daily routine and be alert to unanticipated positive events. Then pay close attention to momentary pleasures and wonders and take “mental photographs” to help capture these experiences. Finally, designate time each day to reflect on the positive that exists in your life and be sure not to take anything for granted.

3) Work Towards the Future
Dare to dream, shoot for the stars and build hope and optimism for what lies ahead. Develop a plan for the future that allows you to work towards your own personal vision of fulfillment. When you limit your fantasies you close off possibilities for growth and success.

4) Engage in Physical Activity on a Regular Basis
Taking care of your body impacts you both physically and mentally. Shift from a “can’t do” to a “can do” attitude and focus on what you are capable of doing physically. Find ways to associate activity with something that you enjoy so you can experience immediate benefits.

5) Explore Ways of Finding Meaning
Dedicate yourself to something you truly believe in and involves something that you think is larger than you (spirituality, charity, kindness to others). It will provide you with a sense of purpose and make life meaningful. Treat today as if it’s your last and don’t let the precious moments of life slip through your fingers.

6) Assume a “Big Picture” Perspective
When you encounter a situation that is stressful (but not tragic) step back and ask yourself if in the larger scheme of your life this is truly important. Consider whether or not it is worth your emotional investment and with the passage of time if the situation will pass or be less critical. Keep your eye on your priorities and consider ways to use the trying circumstances as an opportunity for growth.

7) Invest in Relationships
Positive Psychology research has demonstrated that developing close relationships is the most crucial component for achieving happiness. Invest time in developing meaningful connections with friends and family. Avoid focusing on having your needs met and focus your energy on meeting the needs of the people about whom you care most. The more you put into your relationships the more love you will receive in return.

Perhaps most importantly, increased joy and positive growth produces benefits beyond simply feeling good. It’s been proven to broaden intellectual, physical and social resources. Happy people have better health habits, lower blood pressure and stronger immune systems, which ultimately lead to living longer. They also experience more satisfying relationships, higher levels of self-esteem, more effectively manage stress, a greater sense of purpose, and more clarity and optimism that they can achieve goals. Ultimately, it has the potential to create greater productivity and success and meaningfully impact almost all major domains of life.

Dr. Marc J. Shulman is a Clinical Psychologist/Associate Research Scientist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System and Yale University, and is in private practice in Stamford, CT. He is the founder of Positive Living, a program which offers a series of group and individual workshops rooted in the concepts of Positive Psychology. Learn more about the workshops by visiting

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