Next year I am going to be studying at the University of Pennsylvania in an episode of “Missionary Kid Meets Ivy League.” I am very excited about it for many reasons, not least of which is the topic itself: positive psychology.
You probably have never heard of it. That’s fine. Positive psychology is a very new field which was started by Dr. Martin Seligman when he was President of the American Psychological Association in the early 90s. He is widely seen as the father of the movement, but there are a number of other significant figures. The Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP program) that I am in is the brainchild of Seligman. Throughout the curriculum he brings in other leading positive psychologists from around the country. Students come from everywhere, from all disciplines, and so there is great cross-discplinary discussion of application and theory. Also, most of the students are already well into their professional careers. At 27, I expect to be on the younger side (and possibly the poorer side too). Finally, the books I am reading in preparation for my studies are already changing my life and making me happier. This is because positive psychology is fun to learn about—and it’s powerful shit.
I have heard it explained in many ways, but I think this is best: positive psychology is the neglected half of psychology. Since psychology’s inception with Freud, psychology has been mostly about psychosis—how to get mentally sick people tolerably functional and how to identify disease and understand how and why it arises. In truth, I suppose you could call conventional psychology “negative psychology,” because it focuses on the negative aspects of mental health. In contrast, positive psychology is the study of how to make mentally sick people, as well as normal, even high-functioning people, thrive and acheive optimal well-being, contentment, and meaning. Additionally, it aims to identify the symptoms of strengths and look at how and why they arise, and how they can be built on and expanded. Strengths might include resilience (the art of bouncing back), patience (why some people are more patient than others), positivity, gratefulness, etc.
You might say positive psychology is trying to put some science in the world of self-help books, or more accurately the vast world of self-help books is a response to a felt need that academia has, until recently, been neglecting. Not anymore. Positive psychologists are making progress and getting loads of funding for lots of studies. More and more, there are emerging simple strategies and exercises one can use to bolster and maintain high-levels of well-being. These strategies have been tested scientifically, with double-blinds, placebo-controlled groups, and all the rest.
Science is finally looking at joy and it is about damn time. I think it is quickly going to become a very very big deal globally.
Today, if I came up to you and said, “Holy nut buckets, I hate this toothache! I seem to have cavities all the time now,” you might ask me if I brushed my teeth regularly. If I said “no,” you would rightfully ostracize me a bit.
Brushing your teeth is an intervention that we have all come to accept as part of our routines and completely necessary for staving off important problems. Similarly, I predict that some interventions that positive psychology is identifying will someday become as normal for society as brushing our teeth. If someone is depressed, but is not “brushing their teeth” as positive psychologists would have us do, then rightly or wrongly it just won’t be culturally acceptable.
Over the next year, I will be describing some of those strategies and interventions. Perhaps even more interesting to me, I will be struggling with enormous ethical, political, economic, philosophical, and even theological implications of positive psychology. What is happiness? What is the role of the church when science has a more reliable record of pointing people towards well-being? What happens when rich people, who previously have not been much happier despite their wealth, now have access to education which can make them happier? How do we apply positive psychology to my work in economic development and strategic planning? What does positive psychology mean for inner-city streets and community organizing?
As I ask these questions, I hope to post about them, and maybe you can help me sort them out and benefit from what I am learning too. I think you will find that my life is good for you. I know it will be good for me.
This is going to be a great year!