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Positive Psychology

By Nicholas Chan, M.D., Rady Children’s Hospital Outpatient Psychiatry, LJCDS wellness team partner
Rady Children’s Hospital doctor explains how to pursue well-being rather than trying to eradicate negative emotional states.
Many patients ask me what parenting, therapy or self-help books they should read. What I believe often separates the good from the fluff is the data behind them. Within the world of psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman is a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania who supports his recommendations with data. Originally renowned for his theory of learned helplessness as a model of depression, Dr. Seligman has shifted his efforts towards a new approach to mental health, positive psychology.

Positive psychology is built on the reality that our current treatments for depression are inadequate. Rates of depression continue to rise in this country despite increasing awareness and treatment options. Worse is that the highest prevalences are among adolescents and young adults.

When we are asked by others what we want most for our children, the majority of us will respond that we want them to be happy. We picture big smiles on their faces, laughing and high-fives. Unfortunately, eternal happiness is impossible because our brains eventually habituate to joyful events. That new car, house or job brings a lot more joy initially than six months later. Many may wish for life satisfaction instead, but studies have shown that one’s assessment of their life satisfaction is 70% determined by their emotional state at the time of asking and, therefore, very variable. Finally, many of us may possess a more reserved or introverted temperament and, therefore, not as geared toward overt positive emotion. 

Dr. Seligman believes patients can benefit from pursuing well-being or “flourishing” rather than trying to eradicate negative emotional states or chase happiness.         

Dr. Seligman defines well-being as a composite of 5 main parts: positive emotion (including happiness, pleasure, comfort and warmth), engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. He has found that each of these can be individually measured by both subjective and objective assessments, allowing researchers to assess the effectiveness of different techniques to help in these areas. Some examples include:

  • Identifying and scheduling activities you enjoy into your daily routines to build positive emotion.
  • Pursuing hobbies that interest you or developing your skills to increase engagement. Mindfulness exercises can also help with this.
  • Strengthening relationships by performing a gratitude visit, where you write a letter of gratitude to a person you never properly thanked, visit them and read them the letter.  
  • Acting as a mentor for others or dedicating time to meaningful activities, such as volunteering.
  • Practicing and mastering skills to build achievement.

I am hopeful that in our busy lives, we can all find time to identify the areas we are doing well and those in which we can improve. I am even more hopeful that we can help our children do the same and begin to reverse these trends in our country.

Explore further information on positive psychology.


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