For most of my career as a dietitian and health counselor, I have paid much attention to the deficiencies in my clients' diet and lifestyle choices and how these could be changed for the better. Over the years, however, I began focusing more on what went right in their lives and how their strengths could be utilized in order to overcome their weaknesses. You may say I applied — unknowingly — what is now known as "positive psychology."
When I say, "what went right in their lives," I do not necessarily mean whether they were successful at their work, were financially secure, or had stable marriages and relationships – although these may be important aspects. Rather, on a more intimate level, I mean whether they had a sense of high self-esteem, fulfillment, gratitude and purpose, and looked optimistically to the future.
This is, in fact, what practitioners of positive psychology are most interested in. Their goal is to overcome existing negative thinking styles, mainly by fostering positive ones. They try to achieve this by having their clients recall pleasant past experiences, build on advantageous traits and characteristics, and cultivate supportive relationships. The desired end result is what proponents call "living the good life," which, again, is not simply to be equated with material wealth.
The "good life" is happy, engaged and meaningful. To realize it, one must mobilize inherent strengths, thereby increasing positive emotions while decreasing negative ones, according to Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several bestselling self-help books. Seligman is widely credited as one of the founders and early developers of positive psychology as its own academic branch.
Traditional psychology has almost always been concerned with mental and emotional disorders and malfunctions and ways to treat them, he explains. By contrast, positive psychology adds an important emphasis on the human potential for building and maintaining highly functional and constructive lives.
A number of distinct theories have entered this relatively new field lately. Some focus on basic emotions such as joy and happiness, others on the human capacity to create purpose and meaning. The ability to blissfully immerse oneself in one's work, to flourish while encountering challenges or to stay resilient in the face of adversity are all elements that can contribute to a person's well-being and are worthy of further exploration.
And, the positive effects are not limited to the mind, but benefit the body as well. Research has already shown that a positive attitude can be enormously advantageous for good health and even longevity. One study from the Netherlands found that patients with heart disease who maintained a generally optimistic outlook were able to slow the progress of their illness and extend their life expectancy by several years.
Of course, the reason why some people continue to thrive while others quickly succumb in similar situations is still a mystery. However, clearly distinguishable ways of thinking seem to make at least some difference that can determine outcomes.
In my own work as a health counselor I have personally reaped the benefits from seeing the glass more often as half-full. And, because optimism tends to be contagious, that positive outlook can do wonders.