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The Perspective and Power of Positive Psychology: Exploring Realistic Optimism

When I was at Rosemead School of Psychology in the late 80’s to early 90’s, Positive Psychology was not that well known. But every time I read authors that talked about optimism and healthy functioning, I came alive. I knew that, as a psychologist, I needed to study more than mental illness. I also needed to learn all I could about healthiness, optimal functioning, and the best of what people could be. The study of strengths and “flourishing,” I thought, would not only transform our counseling approach but also greatly benefit our own mental well-being and close relationships.

It became clear to me that even being able to picture what is best, and believing it is possible, is half-the-journey to being able to become what is best. It also became apparent that, as we come to know our gifts and strengths and then nurture or practice those abilities, this brings a great motivational wind into our sails. All of the good that is getting better and better begins to crowd out that which is dysfunctional and destructive.

In the last several years, positive- and strength-psychology has grown rapidly, and it is proving to be very helpful in not only building personal strengths but improving personal weaknesses.

For example, we now have research evidence that:

Learning and practicing positive psychology improves your quality of life while decreasing your negative psychological symptoms (Seligman, 2005).

It is also true that, when you build upon your strengths, it clarifies your identity and purpose, while making your life’s work and life mission more enjoyable and fulfilling.

I was amazed to learn that, the best predictor of great military leadership was found to be “the ability to give and receive love.” (What! Really?) Yes, when a leader conveys optimism, warmth, respect, consideration, and hope, and this is understood by the troops, the troops are inspired to be their very best and to follow into battle with the utmost of commitment and courage.

Moreover, when soldiers are taught positive psychology principles and they practice them, they prove to be more resilient in battle and are better in their recovery from the trauma and rigors of war.

People who are more optimistic than the general population—and by the way, realistic optimism can be learned—they are also more creative, have more stable relationships, have more income, are more generous, are healthier overall, and live longer.

Positive Psychology has identified at least 14 interventions that raise levels of optimism and happiness, while simultaneously relieving negative symptoms from a variety of disorders—at a rate that is as good as or better than conventional counseling and medications, with proven long-term results! (What a mouthful. But what great effects!) See Seligman, Martin E.P. et. al., (2005) Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist 60, 410-421.

These effective interventions (just 7 of the 14 here mentioned) include:

Increasing gratitude, building on strengths, learning healthy lifestyle skills, practicing kindness, increasing mindfulness and meditation, developing compassion and forgiveness, and learning/practicing optimism.

Let’s look at a few of these interventions that you could try (and also share with a friend or client):

Increasing Gratefulness:

  1. Name 4-5 people you are grateful for (they’ve been kind or good), and say why. Think about that for a time. Express an inner appreciation for them.

  2. Jot down 3 things in the past 24 hours that you feel good about and would want to see continue.

  3. Record 2-3 things you did that you feel were good, right, brave, kind, or noble.

Practice this gratefulness at the end of each day, for two weeks. Research has shown that this can have a significant effect on our sense of well being.

A Gratitude Visit:

Pick one person who has been especially helpful or meaningful to you. Write a 1-2 page letter of sincere appreciation. Laminate or frame it. Take it to that person, read the letter to them, and leave the letter with them.

Building On Strengths:

You can get better at knowing your strengths in at least 2 different ways: One method is to peruse the 24 strengths (listed below) that have been found to be universal traits across cultures, and select what you believe to be your top 4 or 5. The other way is to take the VIA Strengths assessment, which is free and can be found at:

Either way (select your strengths or take the assessment online), you can then proceed to the following steps:

  1. First, consciously increase the time and energy you give to your top strengths. Do at least one activity each day that taps into one of those strengths. Try this for at least one week, and you will likely sense that you are happier “becoming who you are meant to be,” and others around you may well sense the accompanying strength and confidence.

  2. Next, use one of your areas of strength to help you address and develop one of your “challenges” (areas of growth). For example, one of my strengths is “A love for learning.” I can intentionally use that strength to learn about and explore creativity as well as humor—both traits that I need to develop further.

The small examples of effective interventions detailed above (Increasing/Expressing Gratefulness and Building On Strengths) have been shown to have an impressive impact on increasing a sense of well-being as well as decreasing unwanted negative symptoms of depression and distress. But feel free to search out all 14 interventions (and more, as new interventions continue to be discovered).

Character Strengths Identified

The VIA Signature Strength Survey is a 240 question survey that has been taken by hundreds of thousands of people. The VIA Signature Strengths Survey measures 24 character strengths that are taken from Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Oxford University Press, 2004. The 24 character strengths are listed below. The results page will show you your top 5 greatest character strengths.

  • Creativity (originality, ingenuity): Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things.

  • Curiosity (interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience): Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; exploring and discovering

  • Open-mindedness (judgment, critical thinking): Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; weighing all evidence fairly.

  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally.

  • Perspective (wisdom): Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people

  • Bravery (valor): Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; acting on convictions even if unpopular.

  • Persistence (perseverance, industriousness): Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles.

  • Integrity (authenticity, honesty): Presenting oneself in a genuine way; taking responsibility for one’s feeling and actions

  • Vitality (zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy): Approaching life with excitement and energy; feeling alive and activated

  • Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated.

  • Kindness (generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, “niceness”): Doing favors and good deeds for others.

  • Social intelligence (emotional intelligence, personal intelligence): Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself.

  • Citizenship (social responsibility, loyalty, teamwork): Working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group.

  • Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting personal feelings bias decisions about others.

  • Leadership: Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done and at the same maintain time good relations within the group.

  • Forgiveness and mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting the shortcomings of others; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful

  • Humility / Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves; not regarding oneself as more special than one is.

  • Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted.

  • Self-regulation (self-control): Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one’s appetites and emotions.

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence (awe, wonder, elevation): Appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life.

  • Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful of the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.

  • Hope (optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation): Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it.

  • Humor (playfulness): Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side.

  • Spirituality (religiousness, faith, purpose): Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose, the meaning of life, and the meaning of the universe.

The information above is based on the book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, written by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman; Published by Oxford University Press and the American Psychological Association (Copyright 2004 by Values in Action Institute).

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