Positive Psychology is all about appreciating what “goes right” (as opposed to what goes wrong) in life. I review two simple exercises to help you appreciate and nurture the positive, and look at how you can apply this attitude to your approach to health and fitness.
What is Positive Psychology?
For most of its (relatively short) life as a scientific discipline, psychology has largely been about the negative. About pathology, illness, disease. About suffering. Sure, the idea behind studying the murkier parts of the human condition has been that we can use our understanding to help and to heal, but there has certainly been something of a preoccupation with the abnormal and the negative.
Then along came Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology was born out of a desire to understand more about human strengths, about normal, healthy development, and about what makes us happy. It's not about denial and rose-tinted glasses, though. It's a serious discipline whose main focus has been trying to understand how people live their lives well and happily. To do this, it has focused on three main areas:
These three areas are interconnected: positive institutions make it possible for individuals to develop and display positive traits, which in turn leads to the experience of positive subjective experiences.
Practical Exercises to Increase Happiness
The founder of the discipline of Positive Psychology in its current form, Martin Seligman, has come up with a collection of exercises based on research findings in these three areas. These exercises are designed to help you to nurture the positive parts of yourself, and to generate positive experiences in everyday life. Below, I will describe the two exercises that have been found to have the most lasting positive effects on happiness levels - “Three Good Things” and “Signature Strengths.” These descriptions are taken from the book “A Primer in Positive Psychology” by Christopher Peterson.
Three Good Things
This exercise involves stopping to reflect on the positive things that have happened to you. Numerous studies have found that practising this exercise on a regular basis makes you happier and more content with life. The instructions go as follows:
“At the end of each day, after dinner and before going to sleep, write down three things that went well during the day. Do this every night for a week. The three things you list can be relatively small in importance or relatively large in importance. After each positive event on your list, answer in your own words the question “Why did this good thing happen?
Seligman and his colleagues have developed a classification system for strengths of character, and they have found that knowing your strengths and working with them increases levels of happiness.
There are online tools that you can use to measure your character strengths in detail, but it may be useful to just stop and think about them in a broad way. Below is a reproduction of Seligman's classification of character strengths. Which ones resonate most with you?
Strengths of wisdom and knowledge (acquisition and use of information)
Strengths of courage (the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition)
Strengths of humanity (caring relationships with others)
Strengths of justice (optimal interaction between the individual and the group)
Strengths of temperance (protection from excess)
Strengths of transcendence (making meaning and forging a connection to a larger universe)
Having thought about which of these strengths apply particularly to you (i.e. which are your “signature” strengths), think about capitalising on what you're already good at. Surprisingly, to the mindset of traditional psychology, this is more effective than working hard to improve areas of weakness. So don't look at this list and think that you're not very good at xyz and really should make an effort in those areas. Rejoice that you've got abc nailed!
Now for the next step: Think about how you could use your existing strengths in new ways. Pick a particular area of strength and try to use it in a new way every day for a week. So if authenticity is a particular strength, you could make a point of not telling white lies and making insincere compliments. If gratitude is something you're good at, write and send a letter of appreciation to someone for no paricular reason. This is where you get creative!
Applying Positive Psychology to health and fitness
You should have got a bit of the general tone and flavour of Positive Psychology through these exercises. What about applying them to your fitness regime? Is there a place for Positive Psychology in the gym?
I think there can be. Regular exercise has been identified as one of the habits of healthy people by researchers who study such things – it is something that helps us to live life well. That should be a motivating factor in itself: Your workout is not just improving your cardiovascular capacity or your muscle strength, it's also contributing to your overall happiness levels.
Having a regular fitness routine is also a way of practising signature strengths. Look again at the classification of character strengths. Going to the gym can be a way of practising such character strengths as persistence and self-regulation. So when you go to that exercise class or spend half an hour on the treadmill, you are actually practising strengths of courage and temperance!
Finally, when you're thinking about the three good things that have happened to you today, doing some exercise has got to be a good candidate for your list.
So work to your strengths, appreciate the positive – and use your exercise regime as an opportunity to tune into what is good about your life.