What if psychology stopped focusing on what goes wrong in life, and researched what goes right? What if it put happiness, flourishing, resilience, and character to the test of science? And what if the outcomes were applied through counselling and coaching? Well in the late 1990s some leading psychologists asked such questions, and positive psychology was born.
I discovered this field at the perfect time. Having studied and taught philosophy, I was doing a masters in social science for my counselling work. I recognised that here was the perfect marriage between philosophy and psychology, between deep reflection and empirical testing. Philosophy articulates a vision of life, expressing what makes it meaningful and good, and positive psychology researches how in the practical world to make that vision happen.
The first book I read that led me into this field was Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis. Next I moved on to Flourish by Martin Seligman, who was really the founder of this movement, which he initiated during his time as president of the American Psychological Association. I recommend both these books.
One major draw-back I've found with the field is that it aims to give practical advice based on its research - that's the primary value of positive psychology - and sometimes that advice is zealous, and yet the field suffers constant replication problems. That is, the research is meant to guide our practice, and yet too often when a study has been repeated by somebody else, that have gotten different or even contradictory results. Outside the strict tradition but quite inside its area of concern, one of the most important and famous examples of this replication scandal is the work of Roy Baumeister on willpower. This means that you have to approach positive psychology tentatively - its subjects make it one of the most important areas of research, and yet it suffers the flaws of all the social sciences.
But there is an area where positive psychology research and its application and practicality is exemplary: in the study of strengths and their uses.
Your strengths enable you to find your place in the world and to make it work for you. They are the means by which you can flourish. Where your strengths meet the world's need, then you have found your calling. And your cluster of dominant strengths are unique to some degree: there are 24 major strengths, and five of them will be your top ones. It seems that people make a mistake when they focus on improving their deficits, which is what most of us try to do, or at least obsess about doing. Rather, if you understand your top strengths, you can apply them to your problems rather than trying to use strengths you lack. You lack self-regulation, but possess high doses of honesty and love of learning? You can shape your tasks or your relationship to them in ways that engage your strengths, for example by focusing on the learning aspect rather than the discipline and accomplishment aspect, and by keeping an honest journal of your practice.
The VIA Institute on Character has a free test to assess what your dominant strengths are. It's worth doing and then asking some questions, for example: