“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” – John Milton

Are you happy? Do you remain optimistic when faced with adversity? When you hear about pollution in industrialized nations being at an all time high, terrorism lurking around the corner, or war in the Middle East, where does your mind go? In order to create a shift towards a more peaceful planet, we need to take a look at our own minds, our psychology, or as Webster defines it “the science of mind and behavior.” It is the state of our minds that is contributing to the state of the planet. We can view the world around us and what is happening at any given moment in two ways. We can make “a hell of heaven”. From this point of view we see the world as a dangerous place, and one that we do not want to raise children in. We may think, “What’s the use anyway?” as we continue to ignore the blue recycling bin that sits next to our garbage can. Or we can make “heaven of hell” and see adversity as temporary and surmountable. It is from this place that we can see the opportunities to do our part in making the world better for future generations. We become aware of how the state of our minds and the actions we take affect others (and in this state, we lovingly separate the recyclables from the waste products). It is the perspective we choose that determines the quality of our life experience and the quality of life on this planet. Sometimes we may need a little help with that perspective and we may decide to seek out a professional. There are a lot of choices out there: life coaches, psychiatrists, psychologists, shamans and spiritual advisors. If and when we reach our Dark Night of the Soul we may consider consulting with an expert educated in Positive Psychology, a new branch of psychology that addresses the science of happiness.

Psychology for the New Millennium

When psychology was first introduced in the West, to had three fundamental missions: to cure mental illness, to make the lives of all people productive and to fulfill, nurture and identify strengths and talents of the individual. After World War II, the focus of psychology shifted. In 1946, the United States Veteran’s Administration was founded. Many psychologists discovered that they could treat mental illness and make a living. In 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health was created and grants were given to researchers of pathology. The trend of modern psychology has been to focus on its first mission of curing mental illness. The other two were unfortunately put on hold—until now.

Positive Psychology was introduced in 1998 by Dr. Martin Seligman. It focuses on the factual and observational study of positive emotions, positive characteristics and positive institutions that lead to thriving individuals and communities. Currently, there are both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Positive Psychology being offered at universities in the United States and Europe. Positive Psychology Centers in the U.S. are located at the University of Pennsylvania (home of Dr. Seligman), the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and the Claremont Graduate University (home of Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).

Dr. Seligman’s basic premise is tied to the adopted attitudes of optimism and pessimism. He believes that “pessimism is escapable.” A person can learn to be optimistic, and optimism has great benefits.

Another pioneer in the field is Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He is best known for the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic. Flow is a state of deep focus that occurs when people engage in challenging tasks that demand intense concentration and commitment. It is about being in the moment, or “losing track of time.”

“A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,” says Csikszentmihalyi. “Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.” Dr. Csíkszentmihályi is considered by Seligman to be the top researcher in the field of Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology is a reminder that the field of psychology is also a study of strength and virtue. It is a field of study that researches and believes in optimism, happiness and being in the flow—and is a far cry from the traditional picture of a person lying on the therapist’s couch belaying their woes. Are you ready for this new image of psychology? I know I am.

Psychology with A Positive Purpose

For scientific understanding of the human experience to be complete and balanced, it needs to contain the highs, the lows and everything in between. We’ve become experts at discovering the “lows,” but what about the rest? The purpose of Positive Psychology is to research and unite the scattered and varied theories about what makes life worth living. In 2004, Peterson & Seligman published Character Strength and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV). The intent was to do for psychological well-being what the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) did for psychological disorders. It became the first professional handbook to identify and classify positive psychological traits.

“We have discovered that there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethics, hope, honesty, perseverance and the capacity for flow and insight,”says Seligman. “Much of the task of prevention in this new century will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to understand and learn how to foster these virtues.”

The Character Strengths and Virtues handbook identifies six classes of core virtues. Each virtue contains three-five measurable character strengths. In a 2005 study published in the professional journal American Psychologist, research showed that these six virtues were endorsed by a majority of the world’s cultures. There was a similar endorsement of the twenty-four character strengths. These correlations defy cultural, ethnic and religious difference.

In over forty different countries, the most commonly favored strengths were: kindness, fairness, authenticity, gratitude, and open-mindedness. Is there something universal in what we require for viable, thriving societies? Can we all achieve happiness by focusing on our strengths? Elaine Litton, Ph.D., LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in Del Mar, California, believes that we can.
“It’s very important to me to help parents shift from looking at their kids’ problems to seeing what is unique and strong in them. Sometimes strong features of character in a child are labeled bad because it is difficult for a parent to control,” says Litton. “In that case the child begins thinking of herself as a bad kid instead of determined or independent or some other character type. Learning early in life how to see yourself, your character, in the best possible light gives you a great advantage.”

While we need to continue fostering this in today’s youth, it is important that we also explore our own avenues to happiness. Although some may say that the three roads to happiness are a great car, a big beautiful home and a pile of money, studies have proven this otherwise. Sorry all of you aspiring lottery winners—statistics have proven that happiness is not dependent on the things we have on the outside. Positive Psychology has identified the three routes to happiness as: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life and the Meaningful Life.

Research into the Pleasant Life, a.k.a. “the life of enjoyment,” looks at the way we optimally experience, savor and amplify our pleasures. Sometimes shortcuts like food, sex and drugs can be used to artificially induce a state of well-being. This is not the type of pleasure being discussed here, however. The Pleasant Life is about positive emotions and naturally-induced happiness. The Good Life, a.k.a. “the life of engagement,” is about one’s positive traits. It is the study of the beneficial affects of being in the moment when one is optimally engaged in their primary activities. When there is a positive match between the action of the individual and their strengths, these states are experienced. “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful,” says Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist Albert Schweitzer. Finally, the study of the Meaningful Life, a.k.a. “the life of affiliation,” is about positive institutions. It questions how one derives well-being and a sense of belonging and purpose from being part of and serving something larger then themselves. “Positive institutions support the virtues, which in turn support positive emotions,” says Seligman.

How Happy Are You?

How can we get to one or more of these ways of living? In the past few years, it has been proven that happiness brings more to the receiver then just feeling good. Research shows that happy people are healthier, more creative, more successful and more socially engaged. In turn, individuals who express these traits are happier. Happiness is causal. One of the focuses of Positive Psychology has been in the area of interventions that build happiness. Interventions and self-improvement techniques claiming to increase happiness have been around since the time of Buddha. From a batch of at least one-hundred collected techniques, approximately forty were put to the test to see which ones worked and which ones were placebos at best. Three techniques rose to the top of the list by increasing happiness and decreasing depressive symptoms. The intervention techniques were labeled as: “Three Good Things in Life,” “Using Signature Strengths in a New Way,” and “Gratitude Visit,” respectively (see Top Three Actions Proven to Increase Happiness). The first two were shown to increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for six months. The third caused positive and large change for one month. Other modalities used in the study caused positive but brief effects on happiness and depressive symptoms.

Are you interested in being happier? Imagine a complete practice of Psychology that understands suffering and happiness and their interaction and provides interventions that both relieves suffering and increases happiness. Imagine what would happen if this approach was taken out into a broader level within the psychological arena. Positive Psychologists says you can take action to lead a more happy and satisfying life. And the first step is to become aware of your own perspective. Then, focus on your strengths and virtues and practice one or more of the proven interventions on your own wayward mind. Above all, teach the younger generations to embrace, focus on and build their core virtues and character strengths. The true power to shift towards a peaceful planet depends on the happiness you choose to create. How happy are you?

Author's Bio: 

Lorri Gifford has been reading Tarot Cards since 1986. While living in California, she worked at The Chopra Center for Well-being as their Spa Director and a Lead Educator. In 2009 her intuition guided her to move to Asheville. Lorri enjoys writing, giving readings, coaching and helping others develop and deepen their intuition. She can be reached at www.readingswithlorri.com or 828.505.4485.