Psychologists and therapists have traditionally focused on alleviating misery–-making anxious people less anxious, angry people less angry, and psychotic people less psychotic–-and assumed that happiness was a byproduct. Researchers in a relatively new subfield of psychology believe that reducing suffering is not enough and that increasing happiness should be a separate and equally important objective.
Positive psychology is the study of positive emotion and human strengths, with the goal of identifying and building strengths, nurturing talent, and improving quality of life in relatively untroubled people. Positive psychology researchers study the traits and habits of happy people and, based on their findings, design interventions to increase happiness.
So what makes us happy?
· Strong interpersonal relationships make us happy. The people in the highest percentiles of happiness are extremely social, have rich and meaningful friendships, are in a romantic relationship, and don’t spend a lot of time alone.
· Knowing and using our personal strengths makes us happy. Positive psychology therapy clients complete questionnaires that identify their strengths and are assigned to, for example, use their key strengths in new ways three times per week. If your two greatest strengths are patience and teaching, things like helping your niece learn to read and showing your dad how to use HTML increase happiness. Likewise, couples in therapy with a positive psychologist are assigned to go on a “strengths date,” i.e., a date during which both partners get to use their strengths.
· Meaning (using your strengths in the service of a greater good or to belong to a larger community) and engagement (the ability to get lost in what you’re doing, whether it’s stock trading, parenting, or making music) make us happy. Pleasure (the experience of positive emotion), on the other hand, is less relevant to happiness.
The implications of positive psychology findings are considerable. People seeking happiness through pleasure can consider pursuing engagement and meaning instead. The known relationship between happiness and outcomes like better health and longer life can have a significant positive impact on larger systems such as health care and the economy. Finally, positive psychology is an exciting and validating option for future mental health professionals (ahem) who are less interested in severe mental illness and very interested in helping well people improve their quality of life.