Have you seen that old movie, Pollyanna? It was about a young girl named Pollyanna who moved to a stodgy old town to live with her stodgy old aunt. Pollyanna was the most positive, cheerful, and energetic child, and her enthusiasm for life was so overwhelming and enchanting that she changes the entire town to become more happy. Pollyanna was so optimistic, that the name now describes any person who is so cheerful that they are blind to the gritty, dark parts of life.
For many of us, the concept of always looking at what’s right and not what’s wrong always can feel foreign and somehow irresponsible or in denial of the pain of “real” life. There is a lot going wrong in the world: famine, war, and seemingly endless human suffering. And, there may be a lot going wrong with your own life: strain in your relationships, work/school stress, financial worries, or health problems. You may look at people who profess to be happy or content as being lucky or somehow missing how the real world works. But what if people who report higher levels of happiness know something we don’t?
What is Positive Psychology
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living and it is a fundamental shift from looking at what is wrong to what is right about your life. Instead of looking for symptoms of dysfunction and trying to address them, it looks at strengths and how to enhance them. Right away you might be pulled to say that it sounds really nice, but it isn’t realistic for most people. Then again, is it?
Research clearly shows that people who are happier don’t usually have better lives than other people, meaning they aren’t wealthier than the average person, they don’t necessarily have better jobs, or a bigger, better house. And they don’t have fewer “issues” that they deal with on a daily basis! The difference is that they focus on what is working in their lives, rather than what isn’t working. It’s about perception!
A Perspective Shift
When you spend all your time looking at what is wrong with your life or environment, the world can be a pretty dark place. There is, in fact, so much pain and so much despair out there. When pain and despair and all things wrong with the world is your focus, the negatives of life are front and center and the positive moments tend to fade into the background.
If you shift your perspective, however, to begin looking at what is right in the world, you start to see things differently. Sure, there is still pain and suffering and you can honor and respect that reality. At the same time, you can notice all the people who are helping those who are in pain and your experience of the world can change. If you attend to the positives, you will likely notice more of the compassion, caring and connectedness in the people around you and in the world in general.
The Practice of Positive Psychology
Practicing positive psychology is easier than you think. While it can be a pretty big shift to change the way you’re engaging with the world overall, small shifts can help you along the way. Here is one activity you can try, which has been shown to have positive effects on people’s overall happiness. At the end of each day, spend a few minutes writing down or sharing with a friend or spouse three things that went well today and why. They don’t have to be big things, since no one has a nice big thing happen every day! But, you may find that just noticing something that was positive helps to shift your attention to what is going well in your life, rather than what is wrong.
If you want to feel more content as you try and navigate life, you might want to try an activity like this that can help shift your attention to what is going right. It might help you feel happier and more content in your life. In time, this shift can become your new normal!