Using positive psychology to improve your personal and professional well-being

“I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness and that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction…I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, and that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.”

Martin E.P. Seligman
University of Pennsylvania
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Everybody wants to be happy. We buy lottery tickets dreaming of a lifetime of financial happiness, and we post on social media to show others how “happy” we are, how great our vacations are, and how happy we are with our very-nearly-perfect children, partner, pets. Humans search for happiness in a myriad of ways, although many of their strategies, such as material goods, drugs, alcohol, or pleasure-seeking, may be fleeting, or even misguided in nature.

Are there credible ways people can seek enduring happiness? For the last 20 years or so, science—specifically the field of positive psychology—has been doing its best to find some answers to one of life’s great questions: How do we achieve happiness? The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology, launched in January 2019, aims to bring the perspectives and tools of science to help online college students identify and implement the strategies and interventions that can have a direct and enduring impact on well-being and happiness.

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what creates flourishing, what enables us to thrive as humans, and how can we do that at an individual level as well as a collective level,” says Leona Brandwene, Associate Director of Education at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Associate Director of the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology at Penn LPS Online. “Humans have asked these questions for centuries. If I were to quote one of the founders of the field, Chris Peterson: ‘positive psychology is a field with a short history and a long past.’”

The flourishing human

Researchers differentiate between the feeling of “happiness” and the condition of “well-being,” a more encompassing term that incorporates not only feeling good but functioning well in life. Questions around what is well-being and how humans can be happy have been entertained for centuries and across nearly all cultures. Positive psychology is relevant anywhere you find human beings for the simple reason that human beings everywhere want to be well. “We're all striving to find out how we can thrive, how we can contribute to the world, how we can feel happy, and how we can ensure our lives matter,” says Brandwene. “In positive psychology, researchers study what’s common between us as humans. They study positive experiences, like our emotional states; positive traits, such as strengths of character that help us to succeed in life; and positive institutions, which create the conditions that enable humans to flourish.” 

“Flourishing” is a word you’ll hear frequently within the context of positive psychology. And if that term carries botanical connotations, it’s no coincidence.

“We often use that word,” says Brandwene. “The cultivation of a garden is an apt metaphor for understanding the flourishing of human beings. If you want to have a flourishing garden, it's critical that you pull weeds because they can overtake a garden and keep it from being at its best and from enabling the plants to grow.

But weeding can only take a garden—and a human—so far.

“The elimination of weeds (or for humans, bad experiences and conditions) is necessary, but not sufficient to a flourishing garden. There are other elements—seeds, water, sunshine, etc.— that are necessary in order to help that garden grow. Even the application of fertilizer, which can be compared to the human experience of challenge and adversity, is essential to the growth and cultivation of an optimal garden or life.”

One of the goals of positive psychology is to move beyond the absence of the negative and focus on a more positive and proactive emphasis on moving forward and growing. The garden metaphor fits that concept nicely. “We move past the mere removal of weeds. For the garden to flourish, we also need to think about the diversity of plants in our garden, the conditions we need to create, how strong those plants need to be in order to grow and withstand hardship or harsh conditions,” says Brandwene.

It applies in the workplace as well

That approach is not only key to personal well-being, but it is important in the workplace as well. Brandwene notes, “Workplaces are pretty diverse, not only in terms of the people that comprise them but the types of environments, too. For instance, people who are clinicians working in a hospital environment are seeking to flourish themselves, even as they're helping their patients to be well. People who are in a corporate workplace are seeking to flourish as well as trying to advance business goals. Teachers and administrators in educational settings are also in a workplace, and seeking ways to flourish as they support their students in the same.”

In other words, human flourishing is an interconnected endeavor, a concept that is at the heart of the Penn LPS Online certificate courses. “We start with how we as individuals flourish, and then grow outward to ask how we can support the collective flourishing of the people around us in our families, workplaces, and communities,” says Brandwene.

The University of Pennsylvania has a significant history in the field of positive psychology. Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, the man credited as the “father” of positive psychology, is the Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center. In a landmark speech in 1998 when he was inaugurated as president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Seligman made a bold assertion that what psychologists needed to study is what makes happy people happy. “Martin Seligman stuck the proverbial flag in the ground with his presidential address, and challenged the field of psychology to augment the study and treatment of pathology with the study of how people can flourish,” says Brandwene.

Seligman’s call to action signaled a new perspective for the field of psychology, one that focused less on just fixing problems and more about cultivating well-being. “Since about World War II and through the late 1990s, the field of psychology was largely oriented on what can we do to solve, cure, or treat psychopathology. The identification and treatment of those things that prevent flourishing was, and continues to be, an important endeavor,” says Brandwene. “But the funny thing about humans is that if we are only problem-focused, the list of problems is actually quite endless. We may even start to misperceive things as problems that might not be significant problems at all. So simply eliminating things that are going poorly is not enough. We also need to think about cultivating the positives, and how to build upon our strengths and the strengths of those around us to help us face challenges.”

Happiness amidst the challenges of modern life

That shift of perspective toward positive psychology means not only thinking about mitigating weaknesses but also thinking about our strengths. That may seem fairly obvious, but in practice, it’s not so easy to maintain a holistic approach that considers not just what makes us feel good, but the growth that comes from learning to tackle and overcome challenges. And it speaks to the crux of why so many people find happiness so difficult to achieve. It’s a subject that remains the focus of intense study and debate.

“For much of North America, our circumstances have improved dramatically over where they were 50 or 60 years ago in terms of average income, home ownership, reduced crime rates, etc. Even worldwide, extreme poverty is at an all-time low. From an objective standpoint, there are many things that are better about the human condition,” says Brandwene. “However, we're continuing to see rates of mental illness, and specifically depression and anxiety, sustain an upward trajectory.”

That begs the question, why are we experiencing more depression and anxiety when objective circumstances are getting better? Why is our perspective incongruent with the facts? There are other prevailing theories about the increase in anxiety and depression, and it’s likely that many variables are contributing to the trend. “One of the variables might be the declining rates of physical activity. The labor-saving devices that are pervasive in our lives have replaced many of the activities of daily living that kept us physically active and interacting with others much more substantially 50 or 60 years ago,” says Brandwene.  “Some of those labor-saving devices, like washing machines, have been a boon to societies in opening up time for education that was previously otherwise directed.  Others, like the television remote control, may have had less salutogenic outcomes.”

Technology has had other unintended consequences on human flourishing and well-being. We have the world at our fingertips in our devices now, at any time of the day or night. Work responsibilities and expectations follow us, and we are constantly task shifting, minute to minute, between work, family, and friends. While there are many benefits to being better informed, that accessibility can also lead to skewed perceptions. As Brandwene points out, we used to get our news in a morning newspaper or on television in the evenings between five and six p.m. and had only a couple of channels upon which to watch the news. If you didn’t catch it then, there was no digital device to fill you in on every last detail later. “Now news is available not only 24/7 on your television set but also 24/7 on the device that you carry with you 24/7. That news cycle, too, often focuses overwhelmingly on the awful. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says Brandwene. “There was some research that came out about 15 years ago that compared crime rates with the volume of news coverage, and while our communities were experiencing less crime, the news coverage had amplified in a manner that was inconsistent with that objective experience.” Much of the news is focused heavily on negative activities and events, although those things only comprise a subset of overall reality. You experience the world differently if you perceive it as a dangerous place, rather than a largely good place where dangerous occurrences sometimes happen.

Brandwene does not dismiss or diminish the awful things that do occur in life every day, the challenges and dangers that confront us all. Life is very hard sometimes. “But we are far more attuned to the negatives than we are attuned to what's going well in the world, leading to distortions in our understanding.”

The proliferation of social media also complicates the happiness challenge from a different angle: the prevalence of “curated” lives on social channels can lead us to think that we, in comparison, are not as happy as everyone else.

“On social media, what we're exposed to may not be an accurate depiction of reality,” says Brandwene. “When we compare our reality of life’s natural ups and downs and challenges against a curated reality, of course we will feel our lives are somehow deficient in comparison.” Unfortunately, the regular immersion in curated happiness, seemingly charmed lives, and celebrity-perfect experiences in our social media newsfeeds can lead us to compare and ask, “How come my life isn’t like that?” and “How come I’m not happy?”

For Brandwene, there’s a “sweet spot” for comparison, a fine line between inspiration and the artificial. “We would not wish to never compare ourselves to others because we can aspire to greater things by looking at what other people are achieving. But we can also do too much comparison, and use everybody else's measuring stick to assess our lives, as opposed to what we're passionate about.”

Is it harder to be happy, to flourish today than it was 40 or 50 years ago? “I don't think we have an objective or a scientifically-based response to that. Anecdotally or personally, I can say I think so,” says Brandwene. “And a part of it is the confluence of all these variables together that have fundamentally changed how we engage with the world and how we engage with each other, in ways that our bodies and minds may not be designed to handle.  Technology brings wonderful opportunities, providing us with resources we might not otherwise be able to access but utilizing technology to the exclusion of all other activities that raise our well-being tips the balance.” As students in an online learning platform developed to make a high-quality online education accessible to working adults, students in the Penn LPS Online Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology courses are uniquely positioned to apply positive psychology concepts to both the benefits and limitations of technology.

The impact of positive psychology

How can positive psychology help, and more specifically, what does the new Penn LPS Online Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology bring to the table? One clue is in a significant word: applied.

“Positive psychology is an applied science; once we learn about important concepts like grit, which is both passion and perseverance for long-term goals, what do we do with that information? How can we create conditions that help students build character and experience better well-being, not only in an academic context, but also in their extracurriculars? How can we ensure they have opportunities to attune to their interests, strengths, and passions? What can we learn from people who experience and persevere through challenging conditions? How do we apply these concepts to help people manage and be at their best as they respond to life’s challenges?” asks Brandwene.

Some of those answers lie in developing effective research-based strategies and learning how, where, and when to best apply them. “There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to the interventions that increase well-being. In our courses, we talk about the different ways that information can be applied, to bring together a toolkit of ways that support our learners in living their best lives. That toolkit should be diverse in its composition and application. If all you have is a hammer in that toolkit, then everything is going to begin to look like a nail.”

The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology courses take a deep dive into different strategies that we can apply in a variety of contexts in our personal lives and in the workplace. As an example, helping students to focus on their strengths at work might be a wonderful way to teach them how to engage more productively in their workplace, think about their own well-being, and where they can contribute in a significant way that helps to advance organizational goals.

That, says Brandwene, is the genesis of creating a workplace culture that invites each person to flourish in their own unique ways and as part of a collective. “What happens if you create a culture within a workplace where people focus not only on using their own strengths but also seeing and valuing their coworkers’ strengths? People become more appreciative and feel as though they matter. A rising tide can help to raise all ships.”

Positive psychology also incorporates learning the mechanisms to navigate the less-than-positive moments in our lives and at work. “In these courses, we want students to understand the breadth of what contributes to well-being—and that well-being is not only feeling good but functioning well. Recognizing that unpleasant emotions have a very adaptive role in our well-being can be a very constructive intervention in itself,” says Brandwene. “If we only look at the definition of happy as just feeling good all the time, we might construe that anytime we're not feeling good is a time that we're not flourishing. That’s not true at all.”

In the field of positive psychology, being able to experience and understand unpleasant emotions is a contributing factor to our ability to flourish and grow. “Growth implies discomfort,” she says, “and if we are always avoiding the experience of discomfort, then we've stopped growing.”

You can create a framework for flourishing

The goal of the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology is to provide students with an understanding of the concepts of flourishing and an opportunity to discover how these concepts apply in their own lives and with their groups. By opening up a dialogue around the framework for what it means to flourish, students begin to identify the aspects of well-being that are most important to them.

Numerous researchers have proposed frameworks that inform our understanding of flourishing and well-being. At Penn, Martin Seligman has proposed his PERMA model for well-being: positive emotion; a sense of engagement with the world around us; positive relationships; a sense of meaning and that we're connected to something that's bigger than ourselves; and accomplishment, or a sense of mastery.

For different people, says Brandwene, these elements are going to be expressed and experienced in different ways, and some may hold more importance at certain times in the life cycle versus others. “In this certificate, we want to open up the conversation for people to understand what well-being is.” She adds that opening the conversation is only the beginning of a lifetime journey. “Once they complete the certificate, we hope that students will not only have language and framework, but also have learned some tools and strategies they can use to support well-being on an individual level, on an organizational level, and perhaps even on a community level. They will see and hopefully be inspired to create constructive change in their immediate circle.”

Registration for the Penn LPS Online Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology is now open. For more information, please visit the certificate page on our website.

Students also have the option of enrolling in any of the individual courses in the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology without committing to the entire certificate program. For more information about these and other courses, certificates, and our Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences progam, see everything that Penn LPS Online has to offer.

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