A Primer in Positive Psychology

A book by Christopher Peterson

Photo by Kristine Weilert

What is positive psychology? What does it mean to be happy? Is it possible to pursue happiness directly or is happiness a byproduct of other pursuits? What is it that makes life worth living?

These are some of the questions that this book tries to answer.

What is positive psychology?

Underlying assumptions of psychology shifted to embrace a disease model of human nature where people are seen as flawed and fragile, casualties of cruel environments or bad genetics , and if not in denial then at best in recovery.

Positive psychology seeks to counter this disease/victim-based model and calls for a more balanced approach, putting as much focus on strength as it does on weakness. It tries to complement approaches in psychology by focusing on building the best things in life, in addition to repairing the worst.

What does it mean to be happy?

Quality of Life versus Subjective Well-Being

Survey research suggests that people in the US are no happier than their counterparts 40 or 50 years ago despite all the objective progress that has been made. A progress paradox? Perhaps not.

In general people offer a relative comparison based judgment when rating their happiness.

Positive subjective experiences

Eating, mating and raising offspring. It’s not by coincidence that these activities provide pleasure, making our ancestors in the short term more likely to do what they needed to do to to survive and thrive as a species.

But pleasure is not just biology. It’s heavily culture dependent and multidimensional. We can — and more often than not do — experience pleasure with respect to the past (memories) and the future (hopes).

Here are some points that stood out to me :

  • People make systematic errors in predicting how they will feel at a later date.

These errors sometimes reflect unconscious psychological influences on pleasure. One example is the mere exposure effect — our tendency to like objects to which we are frequently exposed.

Another example is the endowment effect — our tendency to like objects given to us.

In general, people tend to be pleased with what they’ve been given and with what is familiar.

  • People systematically overestimate how long reactions will last. Bad feelings, as well as the good, do not last as long as they expect.
  • We adapt to pleasure in a similar way as we do to ambient noise and illumination levels. From an evolutionary perspective, that keeps us sensitive to change.
The term living on a hedonistic treadmill refers to the tendency to continually adapt to improving circumstances to the point that we always return to a point of relative neutrality.
  • Positive seems to be the default in guiding cognitive processes in non depressed individuals. For instance, when asked most people tend to perceive themselves as being above average. This is related to the Pollyanna principle, a human tendency to place greater importance and assume better accuracy of positive descriptive statements about oneself.
  • Depressive realism

One experiment gathered two groups of college students: one was mildly depressed, the other was not. In front of each participant was a button to be pressed and a green light that flashed on and off. Participants were asked to determine the relationship between pressing the button and the flashing of the light. In one iteration of the study, the light flashed regardless of button pressing, unbeknown to the participants. The depressed individuals more accurately apprehended the lack of relationship. In other words they were more apt to say that nothing they did mattered.

The results are intriguing because they are at odds with the theories holding that depressed people are irrational and out of touch with reality.

  • The happiest people all have close relationships with others. Big determinants of happiness are good relationships, marriage, extroversion and gratitude.

Other indicators are leisure activities, employment and religiousness, which perhaps not coincidentally, have the effect of putting people into contact with others.

Psychology research documents very few necessary conditions for anything — but studies consistently show that good social relationships may be a necessary condition for extreme happiness.

Is it possible to pursue happiness directly or is happiness a byproduct of other pursuits?

The author suggests both can be true. Happiness, or the good life, can be pursued though engagement, pleasure (or positive emotions) and meaning.


The pinnacle of intrinsic engagement

The study of this phenomenon began with interviews of people who cited enjoyment as their primary reason for pursuing an activity.

Flow is characterized by time passing quickly , sense of self as social actor is lost, the aftermath is invigorating. Flow is different from sensual pleasure. In the moment it is non emotional and non conscious. Joy is not immediately present during the activity itself. Achieving a state of flow requires a few things :

  • That the challenge meets the skill level. Usually the challenge has to change as one’s skills improve. Think of activities that are initially engaging but loose their magic unless the bar is raised to meet expertise.
  • Intrinsic purpose
  • A clear set of goals and structure
  • Explicit and immediate feedback
  • Usually the activity has to be perceived as voluntary. This may explain why flow is rarely experienced by youth in any school activity.


Don’t worry, be happy

The ultimate goal here is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Hedonism was first articulated by Aristippus (435–366 BCE), championing immediate sensory gratification.

In the XVIII century philosophers like Jeremy Bentham used the hedonist doctrine to lay the foundation for utilitarianism.


Be all that you can be
Make a difference

Literally means being true to ones inner spirit .

Aristotle postulated that true happiness entails identifying one’s character strengths, cultivating them and living in accordance with them.

The concept of self-actualization was derived from this doctrine.

Research suggests that in general those who pursue eudaimonic goals are more satisfied than those who pursue pleasure. People who are neither hedonistic or eudaimonic in their pursuits tend to be severely dissatisfied with their lives.

But what are character strengths anyway?

A quick classification

Wisdom and knowledge: Creativity, Curiosity, Love of learning, Open mindedness, Perspective
Courage : Authenticity , Bravery, Persistence, Zest
Humanity : Kindness, Love, Social Intelligence
Justice: Fairness, Leadership, Teamwork
Temperance: Forgiveness/Mercy, Modesty/Humility, Prudence, Self-regulation
Transcendence: Appreciation of beauty and excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Religiousness/Spirituality

But character strengths can be apparent without moral goodness.

A despot can be an effective leader and a bitingly sarcastic person can be humorous.

Which brings us to values.

An overview of universal human values

Achievement : Personal success though demonstration of competence
Benevolence : Preservation or enhancement of the welfare of others
Conformity : Restraint from actions that violate social norms
Hedonism : Personal gratification and pleasure
Power : Social status, prestige, dominance, control over others
Security : Safety, harmony, stability
Self-direction : Freedom, independent thought and action
Stimulation : Excitement, novelty, challenge
Tradition : Respect for and acceptance of one’s cultural and religious customs
Universalism : Understanding, appreciating and protecting all people
  • The approach used to distill this set of values was started by asking individuals across cultures to think of people they admired and state what was it about them that they admired. Loaded terms like right or wrong were not introduced the initial appraisals.
  • Values are different from needs, even though both influence how we behave . Needs have a biological connotation (hunger, thirst, sex) and function as motives. Values provide socially acceptable ways of satisfying needs.

So what are the functions of values?

Theoretically individuals should be able to function perfectly well without values, but this does not seem to ever be the case.

Values are expressive. We plaster value-relevant bumper stickers on our cars […] We have favorite mottos that embody our values which we repeat to others and to ourselves.

Whether we adhere to our values is not the point. The motto we keep repeating has a lot less to do with concrete actions and a lot more to do with how we want to be perceived by others. We feel righteous when we live up to it, and shame or guilt when we don’t even try.

  • Shared values justify sanctions against deviants. They help muster indignation of the group against the offender.
  • Values allow group members to judge other groups — for better or for worse — and to decide how to treat them.
  • They’re a means of social control and a way to protect the status quo.
  • They’re also a means for change. One of the core tools of social activism is making a plan into a cause by phrasing it in the language of values.
Values are ubiquitous.

And last but not least, these are the aggregate findings from numerous studies revolving around factors that have positive correlations with happiness and life satisfaction :

Zero to Small Positive Correlation
social class
having children
ethnicity (majority versus minority)
physical attractiveness
Moderate Positive Correlation
number of friends
being married
level of leisure activity
physical health
internal locus of control
Large Positive Correlation
being employed
frequency of sexual intercourse
percent of time experiencing positive effect

Thanks for reading ❤️

Like what you read? Give Diana Meca a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.