First off, by ‘Positive Psychologist’, I don’t just mean an optimistic psychologist.  Positive psychology is not a new discipline, but it is something that is increasingly popular and accepted in Psychology circles.  Where conventional psychology can often be accused of being overly diagnostic, and proscribing every minor niggle to being symptomatic of a larger ‘disorder’, positive psychology seeks to use science and scientific processes to offer an insight to what makes life worth living, and hence how we can feel better about the torpid trudgery we call everyday life.

Here, Andy Roberts, a qualified Positive Psychologist from Breathe-London talks us through the basics:



So, what’s it all about?

Positive Psychology is about going back to the roots of psychology, it’s about how you can increase your level of wellbeing.  We ask, “What is it about the individual that works well?  How happy is the individual?”  We’re not ignoring all the other stuff – which is obviously very important.  It’s just a rebalancing to get people focused on positive things.

Is it all based on happiness then?

Very much not, actually. One persons’ definition of happiness is another person’s hell.  For the 6.5 billion of us on earth, we need a bit of balance, to feel fulfilled and give back to society, but to also have a bit of fun. It’s a very personal definition.

Is positive psychology saying the route to happiness is different for each person, or is there a template we can all follow?

What positive psychology does is say, “what are the things we do that increase our satisfaction with life?”  It might be a whole range of interventions - physical things like doing yoga, or getting people to think about others, doing a random act of kindness.  Enacting these would be a ‘happiness intervention’.

How happy are people?

People on average are about 7/10 satisfied with their life.  And, on average, they expect to be 7 or 8/10 happy in the future, so people have an optimistic predisposition towards thinking they’ll be happier in the future.

Studies over the past 10-15 years have shown that using ‘happiness interventions’ will increase your well-being.  In a longitudinal study looking at whether old people are happier than young people, you’ll find that on average they are.  Maybe they feel they’ve achieved what they want to achieve in life.  These studies give our advice a lot more credence that just saying ‘do this and you’ll be happier’.

What is the role of community to the individual?

That’s a large part of positive psychology.  It’s balancing personal wellbeing and satisfaction with life with the wellbeing of society as a whole.  For example, your satisfaction in life may be increased by eating tuna - you can see where that argument would lead… So with increased wisdom you get to balance your own personal wellbeing with that of the environment.  
It’s a really complicated subject and is very different when compared to conventional life coaching stuff, the Anthony Robbins school of ‘Go Get your Dream’, which is all about the individual without weighing up the global consequences.  Positive psychology is more nuanced than positive thinking.

Why do we feel good when we’re generous to other people?

It does seem strange because it flies in the face of Darwin’s survival of the fittest theories.  The Buddhist perspective would be that it’s because we’re all part of the same thing.  Positive psychology might say we have these random acts of kindness and we don’t know why it makes the individual happier - maybe because the individual realizes that at a deep level, I’m just being kind to the world, and that brings me into balance with the world and harmony.  Those are issues that are quite complicated and no one’s really got a firm handle on it.