Can positive psychology overshadow the pandemic blues? Maybe.
Not surprisingly, depression is on the rise in the US. It has soared from 8.5% prepandemic to a whopping 27.8% in late 2021, according to a recent study published by Boston University School of Public Health. No industry, including veterinary medicine, is immune to it. But positive psychology, a scientific approach to happiness, may help balance the blues with its direct opposite.
What is Positive Psychology?
Traditionally, psychology has studied what is wrong with people. Indeed, every therapist is aware of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This bible of mental health defines and classifies our neuroses to improve diagnoses, treatments, and more.
In 1998, two psychologists decided to study not what limits us as humans, such as depression, but what causes us to flourish, such as achieving a state of flow.
- Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, began his career studying learned helplessness in animals and depression in human beings, he noted in an interview in Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH). The work left him unhappy, so he decided to focus on, “accomplishment instead of failure, strength instead of sickness.”
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, came from a different perspective. An authority on creativity and author of the bestseller, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, his focus was optimum experiences, notes James McConchie in a December 8, 2021 Greater Good Magazine article, published by the University of California at Berkeley.
The field of positive psychology was born.
Positive Psychology Can Be Learned
Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi believed that positive psychology could be defined, measured, and taught. They codified their research and today, the Penn Resilience Program (PRP) and Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA™) Workshops, taught through the University of Pennsylvania, share this work.
Lest you think that positive psychology is about saying affirmations or becoming a “smiley face person,” think again. Those outliers of positive psychology are not what its pioneers intended. “That’s exactly who we don’t want to be,” Csikszentmihalyi noted in a 2011 American Psychological Association (APA) article.
Rather, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi created a scientifically researched set of competencies, that is, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that can be learned and implemented to create greater wellbeing.
Today, their program is finding its way into the American military, businesses, schools, and therapeutic settings, notes the APA article.
How to Apply Positive Psychology to Your Life or Practice
Positive psychology has some basic tenets, noted James McConchie in Greater Good Magazine. Tenets especially helpful for practice staff are paraphrased below, with ideas for how to apply them.
- Happiness is a lot about other people. Strengthen your ties with family, friends, your practice community, and the larger community.
- Try to achieve “flow,” that is, the intersection of skill and challenge. Identify the hobbies and parts of your job where you feel flow, and maximize those.
- To a degree, money can help with feeling happy. Beyond paying the rent, money only contributes so much to being positive. Instead, look for other nonfinancial ways that make you happy.
- Wellbeing has many doorways. Identify what you do that makes you feel good, and do more of them, be it social connections, walking in the woods, or playing with your dog.
- Happiness has positive health benefits. Remember this the next time you want to rationalize snuggling in with a loved one versus doing your taxes.
- Watching TV or surfing the internet isn’t a happiness generator. Try doing something you enjoy instead, such as reading a good book or cooking.
- Wellbeing is a collective responsibility. Have personal and practice conversations to identify how you, as a group or a family, can boost wellbeing.
- Wellbeing can be learned. You are not doomed to feel sad and down, despite the pandemic. Do what brings you joy and then do more of that. You’ll be happily surprised.
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