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Is Positive Psychology the same as (insert)...

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

Three common questions from Singaporean readers.

Since it's a relatively new field, there seems to be a bit of confusion about what Positive Psychology really entails.

Even though it's only two decades old, there are over 300 million google search results on "Positive Psychology" at this moment in time. On Google Trends, it seems that it's even caught the eye of Singaporeans, with interest in this subject rising day by day.

In this blog alone, there have been quite a number of people emailing with questions about Positive Psychology, wanting to understand how they can use some of the learnings to make their lives better.

A common question I've been receiving is whether "Positive Psychology is the same as..." These are all great questions, so in this article, I address some of the most common comparisons to Positive Psychology and hope share more about what it is, and what it isn't.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is the science of wellbeing, examining the habits, skills, activities and attitudes of people who are flourishing and thriving in their lives.

It arose out of a call for psychological science and practice to become as equally concerned with human strengths as it has been with weakness. For the past century, the core focus of Psychology has been on psychopathy - i.e. what makes life go wrong.

Martin Seligman is often accredited as the Father of Positive Psychology. It was during his tenure as the President of the American Psychological Association (APA) that he made the push for Positive Psychology.

This science isn't born out of one man though. Along with him stand many other great Positive Psychologists, including:

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: who studied states of Flow, which he saw as the optimal experience of human functioning.

  • Christopher Peterson: who discovered that every person has a core set of signature strengths.

  • Sonja Lyubomirsky: who studied subjects like gratitude.

  • Barbara Fredrickson: who observed how positive emotions can be a powerful tool for human beings.

Martin Seligman's own focus was actually in Optimism and Happiness. One of his great works of knowledge, is the PERMA model, which is the central tenet behind what I write about on this blog.

So in essence, Positive Psychology really is an umbrella of scientific research that comes together to examine what can make your life worth living. And as you can see in the above, it isn't made out of a single paradigm, method, or work of knowledge, but a culmination of many.

Is Positive Psychology the same as Positive Thinking?

The Power of Positive Thinking was a book written in 1952 by Norman Vincent Peale. It was what drove the idea of Positive Thinking to prominence and become something that we see and hear about everyday.

When I've talked to people about Positive Psychology, people often mention that they are fans and have already been using positive thinking in their lives.

It's not the same.

Positive thinking does have some similarities with Positive Psychology in that it focuses on Optimism - an important attitude that drives people to achieve the things they want in life.

Both Optimism and Positive thinking is based largely on cognitive or thought-based ways to reach a more positive state of mind. Yet, know this, it is just one component in the branch of Positive Psychology.

Moreover, Positive Thinking also urges people to positive in all situations and in all places. In that sense, it is also toxic positive. In fact, one of my pet peeves is hearing about the term "Positive Vibes only".

What such urging really does is to lead people to suppress their negative thoughts, seeing them as harmful or unhelpful.

Yet are they really? Or are they just a part of human experience that we should experience realistically as well?

Positive Psychology recognises that in spite of the advantage of Optimism, there are times when negative or realistic thinking is appropriate.

As an example, if your boss said you did a crappy job at work, then you should recognise that you did a crappy job and try harder the next time. It would be silly to just think positive and believe "Aiya, next time my boss will like it lah". Do it, and you'll find out of a job soon.

Is Positive Psychology the same as the Law of Attraction?

This law of attraction, or manifesting, is all over Instagram nowadays. The popularity of this concept actually arose with the book, The Secret.

What the practice comes down to is that people who believe in the law of the attraction will reframe their mind and focus on believing, for example - if I want a private house in Sixth Avenue with a red Ferrari and a swimming pool - I just need to think and focus on it, and eventually it will be mine.

Supporters of this theory assert that there is a universal, perfect law of attraction that "like always attracts like". That the simple act of making yourself believe in it will make it come true. Simple enough of a theory right?

Yet, does it work? No, it's self-delusional.

Apparently the success rate for those using the law of attraction is incredibly small - at around 0.1% according to a leading expert.

"Maybe you're doing it wrong", devout believers of this law might say.

"Maybe it just doesn't exist", is what I will say in return.

If I was hard pushed to find some similarity between Positive Psychology and the Law of Attraction, it might be in Visualisation techniques.

For example, there is a Positive Psychology intervention called the Best Possible Self - it's an activity where you visualise yourself in the future after having achieved all your goals and where you are truly happy.

Yet the idea of this activity is not for you to lie in bed and just visualise while drools of pleasure run down your mouth. It's to help you identify your values, identify what your goals are, and what are the small steps you can start making in your life to start getting there from today.

So yes, not the same at all! In fact someone should study whether people who believe in the law of attraction also believe in the flat earth theory!

Is Positive Psychology the same as Daily or Positive Affirmations?

This last one is a really popular one amongst motivational gurus on Instagram nowadays. They preach the use of statements such as:

  • "I am a beautiful person".

  • "I am smart and capable".

  • "I have all the things I want in life".

  • "I'm a good person".

These are nice enough thoughts to think about yourself. Fair enough. These affirmations are intended to boost your self-esteem, and change your beliefs and inner-talk into more positive ones.

Moreover, they are really feel-good statements, which unfortunately is the extent of what most people seek out in when they read up about self-help. Does putting a band-aid on a broken arm help?

Here's the research. Psychological literature does say that it can help - but with many, many caveats. For example, research has found that Affirmations do work when they are used to affirm values that are already present.

In such cases, it actually helps to boost self-esteem.

For example, if you already believed that you are smart and capable, then these affirmations will help to feel smarter and more capable.

However, Positive Affirmations work great so long as we don't really need them. When we do need them, such as when we start feeling bad about themselves, they only make us feel worse!

For example, if don't truly see yourself as a smart and capable person, such affirmations will only feel like a cruel joke. They will not work in handling negative thoughts and feelings. They will not work to improve your mood.

In fact they will only make you worse.

"If I'm such a good and capable person, then why is everything going wrong! Maybe I should try to law of attraction...".

I hope you enjoyed this article, and it helped you to see that Positive Psychology is quite different to the popular but ineffective tropes that you see and hear about. Stay tuned for more!


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