Positive psychology can help us live authentically happy lives

Stop and appreciate the positive feelings in your life, and savour any good news in the lives of your loved ones to enrich the quality of relationships. — 123rf.com

One of the great pleasures in life is seeing good friends achieving their dreams and sharing in the excitement of what’s to come.

Recently, one of my dearest friends, Dr Eugene Tee, received the news that he’d been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania in the United States to study its prestigious Master of Applied Positive Psychology programme.

Developed by American psychologist and author Dr Martin Seligman, positive psychology was born in the early 1990s and addressed the question “How can we help people who have a feeling of ‘plodding through life’ without much sense of meaning, gratitude, or joy?”

For a long time, psychology was focused on reducing people’s suffering. Seligman realised there are many people who aren’t struggling with their mental health but aren’t thriving, either. The absence of mental ill-health doesn’t necessarily mean the presence of good mental health.

As Eugene explains, “Positive psychology acknowledges the work that goes into helping people who are struggling. It also asks, ‘How can we help someone who is not suffering to lead a flourishing life?’”

Like most people when they first hear the term “positive psychology”, I wondered if the goal was to help people rid themselves of unpleasant emotions altogether. Eugene – an author of three books on emotions – offers some insights on this question: “You’ll almost certainly be less miserable in the short term, but would you want a life completely devoid of all unpleasant emotions? Unpleasant emotions have vital functions.

“Anger signals injustice, motivating us to act to resolve unfairness; fear and anxiety warn of us immediate or impending dangers; and sadness tells others we need help. It also reduces our likelihood of engaging in risky behaviour.”

Positive psychology also recognises the downside of excessive positive emotions. For example, we might fail to spot dangers or take too many risks if we’re blindly optimistic; too much pride can affect our ability to relate well to others; and if we care excessively to the point of neglecting ourselves, this can lead to burnout (or compassion fatigue).

That said, Eugene adds that “an authentically happy life, at least from the evidence we have so far, does include more frequent experiences of positive emotions than negative ones – that’s what helps us flourish.”

A question we ask at some point in our lives is, “What does it mean to be happy?” According to Eugene, who has researched emotions for 10 years, the answer lies in looking beyond positive emotions.

“Positive emotions are important – but when we chase these fleeting states and try to hold onto them, we actually suffer more by trying to make the emotion of happiness a lasting state. No emotion is permanent.

“Instead, we can enjoy more moments of genuine happiness by intentionally engaging more with who and what already bring us happiness.

“Being more present in our relationships, cultivating a sense of meaning and accomplishment, all of these come together to provide what we call authentic happiness – the really meaningful joy none of us can buy.”

I was curious to know what we could do to begin building authentic happiness. Eugene’s excellent advice reminds me that happiness isn’t about grand gestures or experiences – often, it’s born from the simpler things in life.

“The next time you hear good news or have a good experience – even something as minor as managing to find a parking spot in rush hour at the mall – pause for a second to appreciate the good fortune you’ve just experienced.

“Think about how you’re the lucky one – out of everyone who’s scrambling to get the spot, you’re the one who managed to get it at that moment. Enjoy it.

“You can also help others savour their experience. The next time your loved one shares good news with you, ask them to recall and describe in full detail the events leading up to their positive experience. Cele-brate and amplify the positive emotions with them.

“This simple act has also been shown to enrich the quality of relationships.

“When we take so much for granted, positive psychology encourages us to be intentional in savouring the joys, pleasures and good times when they visit us. They become much richer and more vibrant when we take the time to really enjoy our experiences.”

I’ve certainly been savouring the good news of my friend attending one of America’s oldest and most esteemed institutions.

As anyone who knows Eugene will be able to attest, he has a tendency to thank everybody else for their contributions to his incredible achievements. But it’s with good reason that the University of Pennsylvania describes him as a “trailblazer” for the work he has been doing here in Malaysia. Congratulations on your success, Eugene – it’s an honour and privilege to continue to work and learn alongside you. Here’s to the next chapter and exciting opportunities to come for you.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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