About Applied Positive Psychology
Positive Psychology (PP) is a relatively new branch of Psychology that seeks to understand and promote optimal human functioning – all the things that make life worth living, enjoyable and meaningful. We can imagine all of human experience along a spectrum – where the absence of suffering is 0, suffering and mental illness is everything below 0, and well-being and flourishing is above 0. PP is interested mainly in how people can get above 0.
The field of PP emerged in the beginning of the 21st century as a result of the realisation that Psychology had become overly focused on mental disorders and distress (the below 0 part of the spectrum), where the aim was, at best, to get people up to 0.
However, life without suffering (being at a ‘neutral’ 0) does not equate to a happy or fulfilling life. There was a big gap in scientific evidence on the positive side of the spectrum and how to achieve it. Applied Positive Psychology (APP) aims to fill this gap. Its focus is on building on existing strengths, harnessing natural resilience, and encouraging hope, rather than simply treating disorder and dysfunction. Therefore, from a PP perspective, the role of the coach and the therapist is not only to alleviate distress but to go further – to facilitate the optimal functioning and well-being of their client.
The word ‘well-being’ has a twofold meaning: one type of well-being (hedonia), or ‘happiness’, is about what brings us pleasure in life – e.g. the joys of watching a sunset, our favourite food, laughing with a friend. The other form (eudaimonia) is about growth (achieving one’s potential), excellence (striving for higher standards of behaviour) and authenticity (being connected and acting according to one’s own values). In this eudaimonic state of well-being, the individual is not only ‘happy’, but flourishes and thrives, because he is also adding value to the world, being driven by a sense of purpose, and leading a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Humans are not static, they are a process, constantly changing. And in their lives, there are periods when they will be either on a positive or a negative trajectory. The good news is that people have more control over their own trajectory than they might think. Positivity can be cultivated, and it is a renewable resource that is always available. APP provides evidence-based tools for how to generate and maintain states of positivity, happiness and well-being, despite (and even sometimes because of) the inevitable difficulties of life. As the Positive Psychologist Barbara Frederickson puts it, ‘’to pursue happiness is to pursue positivity each day, wherever we are’’.
Positivity and well-being should be seen as a journey, a means, rather than an end destination. By cultivating positivity and the tools of well-being, lives can be enriched. For instance, cultivating positive emotions has been shown to:
Have a preventative function against the development of mental disorders
Be an antidote to depression and to lessen other mental sufferings. As Elizabeth McCracken puts it, “the cure for unhappiness is happiness.”
Help build resources such as resilience, optimism, social ties, creativity, and curiosity. These resources serve us in times of need and help us to cope with life’s challenges and to make the best of the circumstances we face.
With all of the above in mind, APP is not only about living a happy and fulfilling life. It is also about living a whole life. Far from naively glorifying the positive and silencing the negative, APP aims to help people to live life well in all its richness of emotions and experiences – the full spectrum. Negative emotions are equally important to our well-being and learning, and a normal part of life, as long as they are tempered and controlled so that they don’t get out of hand. APP aims to maximise feeling good but also to normalise experiencing the full spectrum of emotions, to avoid inappropriate medicalisation and pathologizing of every-day life experiences we all share at one point or another.
APP offers scientifically-evidenced and accessible interventions that can be used both for alleviating distress and promoting optimal functioning. It is person-centred psychology, adopting the ‘actualizing tendency’, first introduced in the 1950s by the prominent Humanistic Psychologist Carl Rogers, who advocated that human beings strive to become all that they can be and are motivated towards the development of their full potential. All people already have the inner resources and know what is right for them for the self-actualization of their potential. In this sense, the role of the coach and the therapist is to facilitate the individual to discover and reveal those resources and to help remove any obstacles that block the process of self-actualization. This ‘unconditional positive regard’ which starts from an assumption of competence and strength in the client is at the core of the actualizing tendency and hence at the core of APP.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. Crown Books.
Joseph, S. (2015). Positive therapy: Building bridges between positive psychology and person-centred psychotherapy (2nd ed.). Routledge.