Positive Psychology

Can Optimism Be Learned?

This begins a series of posts based on ideas and theories grounded by Positive Psychology.

You might be asking, what is Positive Psychology? How is it different from other psychology studies? Recently, I chanced upon an introductory course on Coursea led by the Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, and it resonated with me so deeply that I feel the need to share all these powerful knowledge and ideas to the world – hence the birth of Livin’ Sunshines. ☀️

Positive psychology:

“The scientific study of human flourishing, and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities, and organisations to thrive.”

Positive Psychology Institute

To make it simpler, it focuses on:

  • One’s character strengths instead of weaknesses
  • Building optimism instead of ‘fixing the bad’
  • Positive traits and states (gratitude, resilience, compassion)
  • Life-satisfaction and fulfillment (flourishing and optimal living)

What I love about this approach is that it is forward-driven, focusing on skills and simple practices that you can apply to your daily life to not just to merely cope with your issues and challenges, but to thrive and live your best life.

Traditional psychology focuses on removing the weeds, tackling the negative thoughts and ‘repairing the bad’. Often looking at your childhood and past experiences to understand and uncover the roots of your problematic thoughts. However, that is not comprehensive to a person’s healing and growth, looking forward and building blocks of resilience and positive behaviour is much more sustainable and empowering.

Just think of your mind as a garden and your thoughts and mindset as plants and crops within it. As Seligman profoundly said,

It is like gardening, you can pull out all the weeds but if you don’t plant any flowers in it, it will still be an empty garden and not flourish.

And that is exactly where positive psychology interventions come in, to help us build a flourishing garden and minds filled with positivity, inspiration and uplifting thoughts. It removes us from the narrow focus on negativity, abnormality, pain and suffering that mental illness are so intrinsically linked to, and direct the attention to happiness, well-being, strengths and the true joys of living optimally, going beyond ‘fixing.’

Positive psychology research shows us that optimism can be learned and simple practices can be put in place to provide ground-shifting changes in our lives. Skills of well-being can be taught and have a lasting positive impact in all aspects of our daily lives, from work, home, relationships, educating children…

The fundamental idea is that we should be planting these seeds of positive education and thinking right from the beginning in children’s education, giving them the skills and tools to cope with situations constructively as they arise, which can prevent the onset of depression and other mental illnesses in later years.

One of the most robust studies of the effectiveness of positive education is The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), where they teach students to deal with everyday problems through resilience building and encouraging positive emotions.

An assessment and study of more than 3000 children and youths between the ages of 8 – 22 have proven that PRP:

  • Prevents clinical levels of depression and anxiety.
  • Reduces conduct problems.
  • Works equally well for children of different racial/ethnic backgrounds.
  • Improves health and physical conditions-having fewer symptoms of physical illness, fewer illness doctor visits, better diet and more exercise.

Source: Resilience Training for Educators

So what did the they teach in the programme?

  1. Helping students to identify their character strengths and increase their use of these strengths in their daily lives.
  2. Positive emotions and coping skills that promote resilience and positive social relationships.
  3. Finding meaning and purpose in learning, developing a sense of well-being.

In a nutshell, it focuses on the holistic growth of children, not just the academic achievements but their development as a whole person by equipping them with everyday life skills. Imagine if every school dedicated part of their curriculum to teach students these essential skills, with well-being at the forefront, and proven benefits in all areas of their learning, wouldn’t we be creating better teachers, schools, communities and future leaders?


Positive Psychology

The 2 Simple Exercises to Positify Your Life Today

Positify means to make positive; to me, it is simplifying concepts of positive psychology for you to implement in your daily lives.  

Practising optimism and adopting changes in your life doesn’t have to be complicated or a huge investment. Coming back to the analogy of your mind as a garden, start by planting the first seed and continue to water it daily. Be patient and consistent, that is the key to flowers blossoming, and how you can thrive in all aspects of your life.

Here I will introduce to you 2 simple exercises that were taught as part of the positive education programme as mentioned in ‘Can Optimism Be Learned?

  1. The ‘3 Good Things’ Exercise
  2. Using Your Signature Strengths

Like any muscle, for it to grow, it requires exercise and dedicated work. In order to build the positive thinking muscle in our mind, we need to retrain new pathways by repeating positive thoughts. We can do this by asking ourselves a simple question each day: 

What are 3 good things that happened today?

It’s a simple yet powerful question that immediately puts you in an empowering mindset that ‘looks for the good’. Our human brains tend to discount the positives and focus on the negative, even if it was just one bad thing that happened during the day. It is an evolved trait to help us dodge danger when our survival in human history was dependant on that (Psychology Today 2003).

That is why we need to put in the extra work and effort to train our minds to grow the positive pathways, instead of letting the habitual negatives dominate. It could be the simplest thing such as having a good lunch or a good walk, as I write about it in my personal reflections here.

Exercise 2: Discovering your character strengths

Next, we look at the inherent character strengths you have as a unique individual and focus on using them as much as possible in your daily lives. A key new idea here is to use them in new ways to overcome challenges; in ways to approach tasks that you normally don’t find as much enjoyment or struggle with.

Much of the work of Positive Psychology involves identifying and cultivating personal strengths, virtues and talents. When we identify our own greatest strengths, we can consciously engage in work and activities that make us feel most confident, productive and valuable.

What are Character Strengths?

Your character strengths are the qualities that come most naturally to you. Every individual possesses all of these 24 character strengths in different degrees, giving each person a unique character strength profile. Research reveals that people who use their strengths a lot are 18x more likely to be flourishing than those who do not use their strengths (VIA Character).

It is also by developing this deep self-awareness that you can find the right work and environment that aligns with your strengths and talents, which in turn allows you to thrive and be fulfilled.

As part of the Positive Psychology research, there has been a derived character strength test which you can take to understand yourself better and identify your greatest strengths. This is provided by the  Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania whereby Martin Seligman, father of Positive Psychology is directing the programme. (More resources are available for your interest and further reading)  

Once your have identified your top 5 greatest strengths, what’s more important is how we fully utilise them in our daily lives. This will help you move beyond just taking a test and getting the results, but to start taking concrete actions to implement the knowledge.

Using them in New Ways

So for example, my greatest strengths are identified as:

  1. Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  2. Gratitude

You will start to find connections in your identified strengths and passions and hobbies. I realise writing and blogging allows me to practice gratitude, and the work of arranging words and visual in an aesthetically pleasing way comes from my natural love and appreciation for beauty and excellence.

And how do I apply them to my daily life? It could be something as simple as tidying up and decluttering my room. I’m not particularly excited about this task but if I focus on the gained orderliness and pleasant looking room, I feel appreciative of my own efforts and more motivated to do it.

It really is as simple as that.

So what are your top strengths and how will you use them today?