Achieving happiness and well-being through positive psychology

by Edward Hoffman

Positive psychology is a hot topic these days. Books with “happiness” in the title are pouring out of publishers’ lists, and studies on resilience, well-being and gratitude have made their way from academic journals to mainstream magazines. More than 200 colleges and universities in the United States, including my own, offer courses in this burgeoning field.

This upswell of interest represents a dramatic shift. For nearly a century, the emphasis in theory and practice has been on dysfunction, mental illness and repairing emotional damage. Then in 1998, Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania used his position as president of the American Psychological Association to promote the scientific study of what he calls “human strengths and virtues” — encompassing such traits as curiosity, originality, courage, honesty, kindness, generosity, zestfulness and leadership.

Though Seligman is credited with coining the term “positive psychology,” the idea of focusing not on what’s wrong with us, but what’s right, originated with another noted American psychologist more than 50 years ago — Abraham Maslow.

He was known for his seminal studies on personality and motivation, and his concepts like self-actualization, peak experience and synergy have become part of the everyday English language.

Due to space limitations, it’s possible to focus on only two vital aspects of positive psychology today: peak experiences and the presence of a confidant in our life.

Peaking at work

Maslow coined the term “peak experience” to describe those moments in life when we feel most joyful, fulfilled and even inspired.

For greater career satisfaction, notice your own peaks at work and then start planning how you can make these happen more often. Here are some questions to guide you:

1. Can you recall a recent work situation when you felt a great sense of pride, accomplishment or happiness?

2. What made this situation so worthwhile for you? Be as specific as possible. Perhaps it reinforced your own values, built closer relations with coworkers, or represented the culmination of a long-held goal.

3. Looking ahead at your career for the next six months, how might you create more peak experiences? How about the next 12 or 24 months?

4. If your answer to question 1 was no, can you recall a more distant job experience of peak quality? If so, how can you change your current work situation to increase your personal satisfaction and accomplishment?

Do you have a confidant?

For more than two decades, behavioral scientists have been affirming a measurable link between friendship and well-being. Yet, the concept is hardly new. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three types of friendship — comprising utility (such as business benefit), pleasure (shared fun interest) and virtuousness (emotional concern and care). In his view, friendship based on virtue has the greatest impact on human well-being in everyday life.

Later, in the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s perspective was extended by Moses Maimonides, a celebrated rabbi-physician who lived in Spain and Egypt. He contended that friendship is vital for individual wellness and declared: “It is well known that one needs friends all his lifetime. When one is in good health and prosperous, he enjoys the company of friends. In time of trouble, he is in need of them. In old age, when his body is weak, he is aided by them.”

Though historic thinkers like Aristotle and Maimonides saw a clear link between friendship and wellness, scientific evidence to verify this link is emerging. The range of studies has been wide: from drug abuse and depression among North American teens to condom use among Mexican men.

Repeatedly research shows that having a trusted friend lowers nearly all forms of risky and self-destructive behavior. Studies also reveal that people who have a confidant have better overall health — and are less likely to suffer from chronic medical problems like cardiovascular impairment, hypertension and asthma. Those with a confidant also have greater resiliency and less vulnerability to depression.

In a recent study of heart disease conducted in Britain, Dr. Chris Dickens and his colleagues at Manchester University estimated that the presence of a confidant added four years to women’s life expectancy and five years to men’s!

So, how can you sustain a confidant relationship? Here are four tips from my clinical experience:

1) Be authentic and communicate clearly. No matter how likable you are, nobody can be empathic and helpful if you’re vague. “I’m depressed about my job” is much clearer than “something is bothering me lately.”

2) Avoid narcissism: Be sure to reciprocate an exchange of feelings. That is, be a good listener and not just a good talker. Show real interest in your confidant’s own life events.

3) Express gratitude, for nobody likes to feel used or exploited by others. By definition, a confidant is not your hired doctor or therapist.

4) Every relationship needs balance, so be sure to share your life’s joys as well as sorrows. Schedule some fun activities together: You and your confidant will be revitalized.