Positive psychology is the science of understanding what makes people flourish, with the goal of creating concrete, evidence-based ways to increase people’s well-beings. Martin Seligman, the founder of the field, says that the absence of a negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive, using a garden as an example: pulling weeds is not the same thing as planting flowers.
Here are some ways you can increase the positivity in your life using actual science!
Happiness is multi-faceted, so know what you value
Positive psychologists use a metric to look at human well-being, called PERMA. Each letter represents a facet of happiness that every person values differently. Cultivating those that we value highly will therefore increase our overall sense of well-being.
The different facets that make up PERMA are Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Achievement and accomplishment. Recognizing positive emotions in the moment, engaging in something that absorbs and inspires us, cultivating our relationships, believing in a higher (not necessarily religious) purpose, and setting tangible, realistic goals will all lead to increased happiness.
You can learn to be an optimist
Research has shown that your psychological state can have an impact on your physical health. For example, traits like pessimism have been linked to higher instances of cardiovascular disease. Positive psychologists argue that optimism does not have to be an innate trait; it can be learned.
To do so, you have to constantly challenge your most catastrophic thoughts. Seligman uses the example of a kid going to lunch and having no one sit at their table. A catastrophic or pessimistic interpretation would be, “No one is sitting with me at lunch, so I must be a loser,” whereas an optimistic interpretation would be, “Maybe they’re having a bad day and want to be alone.”
Know and cultivate your strengths
Research shows that playing to your strengths increases your happiness and decreases depression. But it might be difficult to know your own strengths, so Seligman and his team developed the VIA Survey.
One exercise involves turning something you don’t like into a positive. Think of something you don’t like that you have to do frequently. After you take the VIA test, look at your strengths and think of a way to use them to tackle this thing. This shifts the task from something you dread to something you eventually enjoy.
Do something altruistic
Positive psychologists argue that humans are intrinsically meant to help others. Studies comparing the feelings of happiness after someone does something fun versus someone who does something altruistic or philanthropic show that the latter will increase your happiness over time. The positive emotions associated with the fun thing are over when the activity is over, but the altruistic thing stays with you and impacts your other moods.
Change the way you communicate in your relationships
Seligman says that there are different ways to respond to a person’s good news. Most of us respond in a positive, passive way: “Oh, that’s great, honey. What’s for dinner?” However, Seligman says Active Constructive Responding (ACR) is more helpful in bringing us closer to the other person. When a person has gone through something good, you both get more enjoyment when they relive their experience. If your best friend got a promotion, rather than only saying, “That’s so cool, congrats!” you can say, “You’re super talented at writing reports. What did your boss say when they gave you the good news? Then what did you do?” Walking through the good news in this way will prolong the positive emotions associated with it.
Count your blessings
This seems like an obvious one, but there’s a specific exercise with it. Try this for seven days: at the end of every day, think of or write down three things they went well and why they went well. They don’t have to be big—maybe you had a killer breakfast. Research shows that people who do this regularly have more life satisfaction and less depression. Seligman himself has been doing this every day for 15 years.
If you’re looking for more concrete, evidence-based exercises, check out the website Authentic Happiness. The point of them isn’t to prevent trauma or bad events—those will always happen in life—but to build your resilience to them so that you’re not helpless when they happen. Furthermore, these aren’t one-size-fits-all interventions. I can definitely say that even as someone who has been diagnosed with clinical mental illness, reframing my narratives and teaching myself to be more optimistic over the last few years has significantly lowered my depression and anxiety. It’s worth checking out to see what works for you!