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Positive, not pop, psychology

August 10, 2012


BY  ,QMI AGENCY, Toronto Sun

Happiness is good health and a bad memory, said actress Ingrid Bergman. Maybe so, but the fact is that we don’t know exactly what it is. That’s why Jamie Gruman intends to find out.

The University of Guelph professor, a social psychologist and also co-founder of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association (CPPA), wants to help improve our psychological health. A few weeks ago, the CPPA held its first conference in Toronto. Its goal: To share knowledge and collaborative studies of how humans flourish and what makes us happy.

You have to admit that it’s a refreshing change from the gloom of traditional psychology that focuses on deficits and disorders. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The term “positive psychology” is attributed to U.S. psychologist Martin Seligman who, in 1998, told an audience of peers that they had too long focused on the negative.

“He said that instead of things that make life nasty, let’s focus on what makes life good,” Gruman explains. After all, mental health is more than the absence of mental illness.

“As psychologists, we could tell you all about anger, fear and anxiety,” says Alberta psychologist Louise Lambert. “But when it got to positive emotions we knew very little about them. In the large DSM book (the manual for psychiatric diagnosis) they appear only a few times. If you were happy, you were in denial – that’s the way we used to think.”

Positive psychology can help people to deal with the tough times and get more out of the good times.

“But we are not here to sing Kumbaya,” says Lambert, who uses positive psychology in her Happiness 101 classes at the Red Deer Primary Care Network. “We are seeking to ‘complexify’ happiness as much as we have ‘complexified’, say, depression.”

This study of happiness is planets away from the superficial, cutesy feel-good slogans that fill greeting cards and self-help books.

“Positive psychology is grounded in science,” says Gruman. “The CPPA will cultivate the linkage between research and practice related to understanding and promoting happiness.” Positive psychology is the scientific study of behaviours and relationships that enable people and communities to thrive.

And there’s already plenty of science about what makes life good, says Gruman.

“One thing we know is that it isn’t money. So many people are focused on money, but scientifically speaking that’s an ineffective way to promote happiness.”

Neither, it seems, does education or youth make people happy. Happiness is complex: Caring for kids does not make people happy but having had children does.

“Happiness is not just one thing,” says Lambert. “To pleasure, engagement with life, meaningful relationships and achievement, I would add health because health is really the foundation of the five pathways to happiness.”

In life, the glass is both half empty and half full. “On a happiness scale of 10, most people are a seven or eight,” says psychologist Jamie Gruman. “To focus exclusively on happiness would mean you are blinded to real life.”

Positive, not pop, psychology

“Positive psychology recognizes that you have to see the light and the dark,” says social psychologist Jamie Gruman, “whereas pop psychology (in the how-to-be happy guides) focuses on the glass being half full. That is not the valid scientific way.”

Too happy?

People who are optimistic bode better than those who are pessimistic, says Gruman. But you can be too optimistic. You don’t want a pilot flying into a tornado because he thinks he’ll be fine. You don’t want to wake up with a mole on your arm that has changed in size and ignore it. You want to go to a doctor to make sure it isn’t skin cancer.

Happiness is?

“Happiness is a myth. It was invented to make us buy nice things.” — Author Gregory David Roberts

“Rules for happiness: Something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.” — Philosopher Immanuel Kant

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” — Spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi

Here and now

Happiness is also about living in the moment, adds Alberta psychologist Louise Lambert. “We create a lot of our distress when we are living in the past or projecting ourselves too far ahead to the future. Wherever your feet are is where your brain needs to be today.”

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