A Drop of Positive Psychology for the New Year


Feeling reflective this New Year? Some tips from a psychotherapist on how to put it to work.

Traditional psychotherapy, often referred to as ‘talking therapy’, often focusses on a forensic examination of psychological problems. This means time spent in the therapist’s chair uncovering the past. As a psychotherapist, I know that there is merit in this.

Sometimes you just need to unpack all the things that have been stored up, take them out, look at them (and be witnessed in doing so), before re-packing them. But for some, the act of navel-gazing does not help the person move to a better place.

Enter the movement of positive psychology, which takes a different view, with a focus on what makes life worth living. Put simply, ‘human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, that life entails more than the undoing of problems.' [1]

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology works on the belief that people want to lead more meaningful lives, enhancing their experience of love, work, and play.

Dr Martin Seligman is often quoted as the founding father of positive psychology, but in truth, the philosophy of the “good life” was being examined by the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Seligman created a modern movement through a huge amount of research, however, helping to update the concepts and draw them into the mainstream.

It is helpful to think about what positive psychology is and isn’t. It isn’t pop-culture. It isn’t only about doing the things that make you happy. It isn’t the same as positive thinking.

It is asking questions of us at a ‘deeper meaning’ level, asking us to consider doing more of what makes our souls sing. If you are wondering how you might work out what those things are, worry not. There are some excellent tools available online (for free) to help us navigate our individual positive psychology.

There are several questionnaires that you can take in the following broad categories: Emotion, Engagement, Flourishing, Life Satisfaction, and Meaning.

You can play with them, but if you are reading this and wondering what it might mean in your life right now, go easy on them, pick one or two, and take time to reflect on what they hint at.

If I could direct you to one specifically, it would be the one at the root of Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness. This is the VIA Signature Strengths questionnaire [2]. There are 240 questions designed to help you begin to unlock what it is that might give you more meaning, and therefore perhaps make choices, or changes, in your life. I have taken the test three times, in 2003, 2010, and 2017. In 2003 my key strength was Capacity to Love and be Loved. In 2010, it was Curiosity and Interest in the World; that didn’t change in 2017.

How will this work for me?

Well, that is up to you to work out, but the book helps you interpret the results. For me, the surveys paralleled key changes in my life; in 2004, I started my psychotherapy training, in 2010 my husband and I went on the first in a series of gap years, and in 2017, I started here at Falmouth in the MA in Professional Writing. In short, understanding myself better in this context helped me make changes I wanted, or needed, to make.

So dabble, read, take a test or two as you launch into the adventure of a new year--but be warned, a little positive psychology could change your life.

by Julia Webb-Harvey

[1] Positive Psychology Center, University of Penn State

[2] https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter