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What is Positive Psychology?

•     psychology is focused on what's wrong with people & how to fix it - a disease or deficit model; &
•     positive psychology is focused on what's right with people (building strengths) & how they can thrive - a well-ness model.

Positive Psychology has an evidence base in neuro-science and is structured around the well-being theory developed by                                               Dr Martin Seligman.   

According to Dr. Seligman, well-being has five measurable elements (P.E.R.M.A.) that count toward it:


Positive emotions - how to feel good
Engagement - how to be fully absorbed in activities (flow state)
Relationships - how to be authentically connected to others
Meaning - how to lead a purposeful existence
Accomplishment - how to achieve
No element defines well-being, but each contributes to it.

Did you know that…

positive psychology is grounded in careful science: statistical tests, validated questionnaires, thoroughly researched exercises and large, representative samples?
Positive psychology is not happyology. It is not merely measuring life satisfaction but, more importantly, measuring well-being.  It is about well-being theory - to increase the amount of flourishing in your life and on the planet.
Positive psychology supports that optimal performance (achievement) is tied to good well-being; the higher the positive morale, the better the performance. – Martin Seligman


Martin Seligman: Flourishing - A New Understanding of Well-being at Happiness & Its Causes 2012

1. Positive Emotions

What makes you happy?

1.     Feeling good - Seeking pleasurable emotions and sensations, from the headonistic model of happiness put forth by Epicurus
2.     Engaging fully - Pursuing goals and activities that engage you fully, from the influential research on flow experiences by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
3.     Doing good - Searching for meaning outside yourself, tracing back to Aristotle’s notion of the eudemonia
4.     Living in the present
- Harvard psychologists David Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth set up an experiment designed to record how frequently people's minds wander, what they wander to and how it affects their moods. They designed a smartphone application that contacted 2,250 adult volunteers at random intervals to ask how they were feeling, what they were doing and whether they were thinking about what they were doing or thinking about something else.
The researchers found that people spend about 50% of the time thinking about what is not going on around them. This ‘mind wandering’ often takes the form of thinking about events that happened in the past, may happen in the future or will never happen at all. And it doesn’t make us happy. Rather, people in the study were happiest when their minds were focused on the activity of the moment. This research reinforces the advice of various religions, philosophies and therapies that have suggested since ancient times, that happiness and fulfillment maybe found more easily by living in the moment, being ‘here and now.’


Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish positive experiences, enjoy better health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.
Gratitude is a way to step off the hedonic treadmill, appreciating what you have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make you happier or thinking you can't feel satisfied until your every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps you refocus on what you have instead of what you like. As an old saying goes, if a fellow isn’t thankful for what he’s got, he is unlikely to be thankful for what you get.

Grateful people are more likely to seek less and appreciate and care for what they have. Implications of this way of thinking are far-reaching, to the benefit of other people and the entire planet.

2. Engagement

FLOW: Becoming more engaged

People report the greatest satisfaction when they are totally immersed in and concentrating on what they are doing. People who more frequently experience flow are generally happier.

Flow = state of intense absorption.

How do you know if you’re in flow?



How to get in the flow?

High Skill + High Challenge = Flow



3. Relationships

Positive Relationships and well-being
The knowledge that there are other people who care about us is an intrinsic need and significant pathway to flourishing. Meaningful and positive relationships impact both aspects of well-being in that they can reduce the impact of negative experiences, build resilience and help to create positive and meaningful life experiences.

Did you know that…

There is strong evidence that positive relationships have a broad and varied impact on well-being? This includes:

  • the reduction of anxiety and depression (Fleming, Baum, Gisriel & Gatchel, 1982)
  • subjective well-being (Myers, 2000; Diener & Seligman, 2002)
  • meaning in life (Hicks & King, 2009)
  • cardiovascular and immune functioning (Uchino, Cacioppo & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996)
  • positive health behaviours, such as good diet and exercise habits (Cohen, 2004)
  • motivation and school engagement (Wentzel, 1998; Furrer & Skinner, 2003)

Negative relationships impact the immune system, cardiovascular function and are the greatest cause of life unhappiness. (Diener & Seligman, 2002).

We are hard-wired for relationships. It is the paradox of human nature. (Frans De Waal, The Age of Empathy)


Theory of the Dipper and the Bucket


Building Positive Relationships

Research has shown people tend to respond in one of four ways:


The way that people respond to each other’s good news is of specific significance and predicts the long-term health of the relationship and impacts the well-being of the individuals.
Only an Active Constructive response has been shown to have a positive benefit to both individual and relationship well-being. All of the other three response styles are negatively related to well-being for the individual sharing good news and the relationship (Gable et al., 2004).

4. Meaning

“This is our purpose: to make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us; to live in such a way that we may be proud of ourselves; to act in such a way that some part of us lives on.” – Oswald Spengler
Positive purpose and well-being
Purpose provides people with a central mission or vision for life and a sense of directedness (Ryff & Keyes, 2005). It is an ‘ultimate concern’ that provides a deeper reason for the immediate goals and motives that drive most of our daily behaviour. In comparison to day to day goals, purposes generally have longer-term significance, require a greater level of commitment and involve something ‘larger than yourself’.
“Meaning and purpose in life refers to an individually constructed, culturally based cognitive system that influences an individual’s choice of activities and goals, and endows life with a sense of purpose, personal worth and fulfillment.” (Wong, 1998)

Did you know that…

Having purpose has been linked with positive physical and psychological health outcomes?  This includes:

  • greater life satisfaction (Huta et al., 2003)
  • higher self-esteem, optimism and positive emotion (Steger et al., 2006)
  • resilience, coping and grit (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009)


VIA Character Strengths

Defining virtues & strengths
Professors Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman lead a large team of scientists and philosophers to identify Virtues and Character Strengths that have been valued throughout history, across cultures and across religions. They identified 6 Virtues and 24 Character Strengths that appear to be universal.
They named this identification of strengths as the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. The VIA stands for Values in Action.
1.     Wisdom and Knowledge

  • Curiosity, interest
  • Love of learning
  • Open-mindedness, judgment
  • Creativity, originality, ingenuity
  • Perspective

2.     Courage

  • Bravery, valour
  • Persistence, industry, perserverance
  • Honesty, integrity, authenticity
  • Zest, enthusiasm

3.     Love

  • Capacity to love and be loved
  • Kindness, generosity
  • Social intelligence, friendship

4.     Justice

  • Teamwork, citizenship, loyalty
  • Fairness equity
  • Leadership

5.     Temperance

  • Forgiveness, mercy
  • Modesty, humility
  • Self-control, self-regulation
  • Prudence, caution, discretion

6.     Transcendence

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  • Gratitude
  • Hope, optimism
  • Humour, playfulness
  • Spirituality, faith, sense of purpose


“In authentic happiness theory, the strengths and virtues—kindness, social intelligence, humor, courage, integrity, and the like (there are twenty-four of them) — are the supports for engagement. You go into flow when your highest strengths are deployed to meet the highest challenges that come your way. In well-being theory, these twenty-four strengths underpin all five elements, not just engagement: deploying your highest strengths leads to more positive emotion, to more meaning, to more accomplishment, and to better relationships.” (Seligman, 2011)
When you play from your strengths, you are likely to feel more energetic and perform better than when you are trying to use a capacity that comes less naturally.  For example, one person trying to influence a local school board to ban soft drink sales might have the strength to speak up forcefully and clearly at a general meeting (despite the almost universal fear of public speaking). Likewise, when you set out to do something in alignment with the values you hold dear, you are likely to work harder and have more energy and persistence for the task at hand.
You can think of using your strengths and the smallest thing that you can do to make the biggest difference.
Knowing your strengths is helpful only if you use them. Just identifying strengths has no impact on happiness. Actually using signature strengths, however, significantly increased happiness and reduced depression for six months. (Based on a 2005 study published in American Psychologist).

Here is the website to go to if you would like to complete the VIA Character strengths: www.viame.org.  It’s FREE!


5. Achievement 

Did you know that…

“Self discipline out predicts IQ for academic success by a factor of 2.” – Martin Seligman.
Here's how Seligman puts it: “If we want to maximise the achievement of children, we need to promote self-discipline. Social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, believes it is the queen of all the virtues, the strength that enables the rest of the strengths.  There is, however, an extreme trait of self-discipline: GRIT. Indeed, Angela (Lee Duckworth) went on to explore grittiness, the combination of very high persistence and high passion for an objective (long term goal).”
Grit is the key.  In fact, talent is unrelated or inversely related to grit.  Many talented people don't follow through on their goals. Grit has nothing to do with socio-economic factors.


Growth Mindset is the best way to develop grit.  When students understand that the brain is like a muscle; it changes / grows when it’s worked / challenged, they are far less likely to give up & persist even when they fail. That failure is not a permanent condition.  More effort, the better your results.


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