Mind, Body & Spirit

In troubling world, positive psychology offers tools to cultivate happiness

Bari Ross
Bari Ross

Continuing strife in the Middle East, the worldwide growth of terrorism, economic struggles from a complex global marketplace … there is no shortage of stress inducers in today’s world. We can dwell on the dark side, or focus our thoughts and actions on what’s good in the world and in our daily lives. This is the foundation of positive psychology: the attitudes and perspectives that can make people happy. If people learn to manage their stress more effectively, the cycle of heaviness can be shifted.

I was fortunate growing up. I learned from a young age that there are two ways to look at life’s circumstances. One shows a positive slant (the glass is half-full), the other a negative one (the glass is half-empty). I faced a life challenge when my firstborn was diagnosed with congenital cataracts. Although they were removed when he was still an infant, the condition left him legally blind. Before his surgery he could barely see. Afterward his vision improved, he was healthy, he was learning and he was adorable. I focused on who he was rather than on what he was unable to do, which helped me better meet my son’s needs and feel gratitude for being his mom.

I am a local therapist, and helping my clients find the positives in their lives is part of the work. Focusing on the positive helps to lift our moods. If one intentionally thinks about the sunshine and even feels grateful for it — rather than thinking about the one cloud in the sky and worrying if it will get bigger — one’s mood is more likely to improve. Being in that upbeat mood then permeates the day.

Life is hard enough without making it harder by being negative or critical. It takes a lot of energy to hold negativity inside. Research shows that having a more positive attitude, being kind to others and to ourselves, reduces the stress response and leads to greater satisfaction in life. Learning forgiveness, practicing acts of kindness and cultivating an attitude of optimism are all examples of finding the positive.

Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center and a pioneer in the field, refers to the good life as “using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.”

“Positive psychology,” he says, “takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfillment: meaning and purpose.” Seligman speaks about three measures for happy lives. The first is through positive emotions and the skills we use to seek things in life that bring us pleasure. The second is based on engagement or “flow,” which is often experienced through our parenting and/or work. The third comes through fostering meaning, using our strengths in service to something greater, such as volunteer work or helping others.

Satisfied, upbeat people tend to have at least some of these qualities in their lives. Positive psychology encourages us to consciously plan activities that may bring more happiness, such as writing a testimonial to someone you appreciate, then sharing your gratitude with that person.

Another exercise that helps to cultivate happiness is to push yourself for 21 days to write at least three things each day that help make you feel life is good, such as enjoying the pleasures of Tucson’s sunshine and mountains, or gratitude for your health or a certain strength you possess. Twenty-one days is often the length of time it takes to establish a habit. Why not try this exercise as a first step in the use of positive psychology to enjoy a richer, happier life?

Bari Ross, LPC, is a therapist in private practice in Tucson. Contact her at 954-3300 or bariross@me.com.