Positive Psychology – The Secret to Optimal Well-being

For many years, Psychology, following in the footsteps of Medicine, was preoccupied with the alleviation of suffering. A worthy objective, but the treatments were focused on how to reduce depression or anxiety, not how to increase happiness. Does not feeling bad equate to the same thing as feeling good? If someone is no longer feeling sad, will they suddenly feel happy? Perhaps, but not necessarily.

This is where Positive Psychology came in…

Martin Seligman sometimes referred to as the father of Positive Psychology has written three major self-help books titled ‘Learned Optimism’, ‘Authentic Happiness’ and ‘Flourish’.

Seligman was initially interested in studying depression and ran some experiments at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s to develop a theory of learned helplessness. Initially, the dogs were given electric shocks at random intervals and were not given an opportunity to stop the shocks or escape the situation. After a while, even when the dogs were provided with a chance to stop or escape the shocks, he found that they would not do anything about it. The relevance to people with depression is that an individual in an aversive environment who learns that they are unable to change their outcome will continue to hold this belief even in situations where this isn’t the case. They won’t improve their situation, because they don’t think it will make a difference anyway. But what if it does?

‘Learned Optimism’ was seen as the antidote to learned helplessness, and focused on changing people’s outlooks and teaching them resiliency, so that they could better distinguish between things that can be changed and things that can’t be. By putting their energy into what they can do instead of blaming themselves for things that are out of their control, people start to develop a more internal rather than external locus of control. They then become more motivated to develop the knowledge and learn the skills to make the changes that they desire in their life. Regardless of what has happened in the past, having a slightly optimistic outlook on life has been shown to lead to better emotional and physical health, and helps people to persevere through the bad times, look after their health and put their best long-term interests first. Research has even shown that it can lead to a better survival rate following a heart attack.

In ‘Authentic Happiness’ Martin Seligman extended on these ideas and said that happiness was not just a matter of genes or good luck but could be sought out and created. The way to do this is through discovering our natural character strengths and virtues and trying to put these into action as much as possible.


If you are interested in discovering what your natural character strengths are:

1. Please go to http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu and fill out the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.

2. Your Strengths will be ranked from first to last. Determine if your top 5 strengths are your key character strengths or virtues – you will know if the responses “feel right” to you. If a lower ranked item seems to be a better fit for you than any of your top 5, write down your new top 5.

3. Ask yourself, how much do you currently put these strengths into practice? In what ways do you apply them or live by them? If the love of learning or creativity are your highest ranked strengths, do any changes need to be made in your life so that you can experience these more (e.g. study a new course or take on another creative pursuit)?

4. If changes need to be made, set yourself some SMART (S – specific, M – measurable, A – attainable, R – realistic, T – timely) goals for how these virtues can be put into action. If these are your key character strengths and virtues, it is likely to lead to a higher overall sense of emotional well-being.


In ‘Flourish’, Seligman proposed that there are only five elements that are crucial for optimal psychological well-being, or for someone to flourish. He called this his PERMA model of well-being:

P – positive emotions – We all need love, joy, hope, compassion, gratitude, awe and excitement in our lives. What activities frequently bring about these emotions for you? Can they be sought out or can you engage in these activities on a more regular basis?

E – engagement – Sometimes referred to as ‘flow’, engagement is the state when we are no longer in our heads or consumed with worries but are completely immersed in whatever it is that we are doing. Through reading the book, ‘Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it became apparent to me that these engagement experiences can never be directly created but the conditions for them can. Typically, this can be achieved with activities that require some skill and are also challenging, but not overwhelming. For me, it is often when I am playing sport, in session with a client, or engaging in a creative pursuit. However, it is different for everyone and doesn’t always happen each time you do an activity. It is what athletes refer to when they are “in the zone” or what M. Scott Peck referred to when he spoke about how his best-selling book ‘The Road Less Traveled’ seemed to write itself. Mindfulness training, apart from all of its other benefits on stress, pain and prevention of depression relapse, can also lead to a higher likelihood of full engagement with a situation.

R – relationships that are positive – Whether we are extroverted or introverted, humans are still social creatures who seek to be understood and accepted for who we are, and have a sense of belonging with others. We also like to share experiences, as you will notice with any child who waits for their parents to look and see what they are doing before they engage in an action. It was the moral of the story in “Into the Wild”, the 2007 movie starring Emile Hirsch, where the main character wrote, “Happiness only real when shared”. But negative relationships also cause a lot of pain so the secret may be in how to seek out and foster the right connections (e.g. friends, partners), as well as how to improve the ones that we already have or may not be able to choose (e.g. family, bosses). If you are having problems with this area of your life, the book ‘The Relationship Cure’ by John Gottman is an excellent place to start, as is seeking out a trained relationship therapist.

M – meaning – It was Friedrich Nietzsche who first said: “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Viktor Frankl determined that this was also the case in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, where he found that purpose was required to withstand the daily atrocities that he faced each day as a Jewish prisoner of a German concentration camp during World War II. Frankl, a Psychiatrist, believed so much about the importance of meaning that he developed a treatment called Logotherapy, which focused on helping others to find meaning and dedicated the second half of his book towards this goal, as well as the psychotherapy that he engaged in for the rest of his career. There may or may not be a universal meaning of life, depending on your beliefs, but it is crucial for each individual to determine what is important to them. Where possible, it is then essential to try to live your life in that way, as long as it doesn’t break the laws of your society or cause harm to others. Values clarification exercises can assist with this.

A – achievement – People like to achieve things, to succeed, to win, for its own sake. It is why there are so many cheats for video games (and why they are built into them in the first place), as well as corruption in the corporate world and drug cheats in athletic competition. Many people will do what they can to win. Achievement can be winning something, but can also be gaining knowledge, building skills, or completing a task. By having three achievable goals each day, it would go along way towards improved well-being.


There are other ways to improve each of the above aspects of well-being, and I will introduce these in future articles. For now, please check out the TED talks by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi if you would like to learn more:

Psychology is about more than the alleviation of suffering. It is about helping people to understand, grow, develop mastery and self-efficacy, and live the best life that they can!


Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist