One of our main goals is to clear up the confusion surrounding our psychology, and the “self-help” field as a whole. Perhaps the concept in most need of some explaining is positivity/positive psychology.

The positive psychology movement is often misrepresented by pop-psychology books, listicles, and speakers alike. Because of this, they’re probably about as misunderstood as quantum mechanics these days.

Picture of the classic "schrodinger's cat" in a box scenario, except rather than poison, the cat may be dosed with serotonin

Schrodinger’s Cat’s Well-being

So let’s talk about what positive psychology is, what it isn’t, and what it implies for you and your life.

Traditional Psychology – A History

First, let’s preface this section by saying we’re going to massively oversimplify things here for the sake of brevity. That being said, let’s talk about psychology.

Traditionally, psychology is the study of mental disorders and what to do about them. A long time ago, some scientists noticed strange behaviors in humans and started observing them more closely.

picture of a scientist looking at a person's brain under a giant microscope

Eventually, they began to categorize these abnormal1behaviors, as a way of understanding them better. And in some cases, they even figured out ways to remove some of these dysfunctional mental processes, effectively “curing” certain mental illnesses. Or more accurately, removing the negative symptoms of certain mental illnesses.

Doctor-patient talk about anti-depressants not actually making you happy

To illustrate what early psychology studied, here’s some data:

Some generic trend line data

The straight line there represents average function. You may notice, as traditional psychology noticed, that there’s a point that falls way below that average function line. Traditional psychology has been about figuring out how to get return that person to the average group:

Generic data with a point below the trend line circled and an arrow showing the goal of returning that point up to to average

This is a very important goal for a functioning society, and obviously for the individual as well. While there is still much to learn, we’ve become relatively good at managing dysfunction, in the grand scheme of things. But decades of research have repeatedly shown that the absence of a negative does not create a positive. That is, removing dysfunction does not necessarily make someone happy — it just makes them not sad. So we have to ask ourselves: Where do we go from here?

Enter Positive Psychology

Just as early psychologists originally noticed these lower outliers and thought to study them, more and more are beginning to think about the opposite scenario: the upper outliers. Looking at the data again, maybe you notice that positive outlier as well:

Generic data with the point far above the trend line highlighted

Who’s that? Why are they so high-functioning? What can we learn from them? Can we use that knowledge to improve the overall psychological and emotional health of everyone else?

And thus, positive psychology was born.

Positive psychology is the study of the constructive skills and practices that allow for increased psychological and emotional well-being. In a way, positive psychology is the complementary effort to traditional psychology. It sort of picks up where therapy leaves off, and allows us to strive for an even higher goal. It seeks to move the whole average up.

Generic data showing all the points and trend line shifted up by several notches

Positive psychology is not about “being happy all the time”, or never feeling sad or anxious or anything like that. And it’s certainly not about “sending positive vibes” to people through the power of quantum consciousness.

It’s studying what allows for “the good life”, and designing exercises that take us beyond the average, and build towards “optimum function”.

What Does Positive Psychology Study?

We’ve established that positive psychology is concerned with “the good life”, but what does that mean?

Years of research and surveys have allowed positive psychologists to boil down people’s hopes, dreams, pleasures, values, and desires into a pretty small list of common factors:

  • Positive Emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

This PERMA theory is the prevailing theory used in positive psychology, as developed by Martin Seligman. These are the 5 factors that are best correlated with well-being/life satisfaction. Which is to say, these are the factors that separate the average from the flourishing.

We’ll definitely come back and discuss each of these factors individually in the future. But for anyone interested in reading about these topics on their own, check out Martin Seligman’s book on the subject: Flourish.

picture of cover of "Flourish" by Martin Seligman

One really important caveat: people who experience these five factors in high numbers are not immune to sadness or pain! It’s not necessarily about eliminating negatives altogether. Rather, it’s about finding ways to increase the presence of these five factors. This is where the term “positive” comes from — it’s about constructive or additive effects. Rather than removing a negative, it’s about adding a positive.2

What Do I Do with This Information?

Train!!!

Our goal with this website, and the Realize Renaissance program as a whole, is to facilitate more flourishing individuals and communities. We’ve done what researchers have yet to do, and further distilled PERMA into a core set of psychological/emotional skills and abilities. From there, we’ve packaged that information into a varied daily exercise program that supports the development of those skills, and thus flourishing.

We’ve taken this idea from theory to practice, which is what the daily exercises are all about.

So what are you waiting for? Get on your horse!!!