Notes on Positive Psychology

These notes are derived partly from the Authentic Happiness Coaching course and the book Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Any errors are mine. See for a variety of tests and more information.

Positive Psychology

Historically, psychology has used a disease model and has focused on emotional disorders, such as depression. It has put most of its effort into getting patients from a negative emotional state (-10, for example, on a -10 to +10 scale) up to a neutral state (0) and very little effort into getting people to a positive state (+5 or +10).

Positive psychology aims to understand concepts like "happiness" and to explore whether it's possible to develop interventions that maximize positive emotions.

Three Types of Happiness

  1. The Pleasant life — Defined by how you feel
    • Contentment about the past (Gratitude, forgiveness)
    • Pleasure, positive emotions in the present ("Savoring a Beautiful Day" exercise)
    • Hope, optimism for the future

  2. The Engaged life — Being in a state of "flow," fully in the present moment. Knowing and deploying your highest strengths.

  3. The Meaningful life — Feeling that your life serves a larger purpose. "Not just fidgeting until you die."

Exercise: Every morning, plan three things you'll do that day — one that will give you pleasure, one that will help put you in a state of flow, and one that will give your life meaning (or one activity that encompasses all three components).

Benefits of Positive Emotions

Optimists live 8 to 9 years longer than pessimists.

Those who are happy at age 18 make $25-30,000 more income at age 35.

Researchers examined photos in a 1971 Mills College yearbook. 25 years later, the ones who had genuine ("Duchenne") smiles (with crow's feet crinkles) had fewer divorces and more marital satisfaction.

Positive emotions have unique adaptive values of their own. Negative emotions narrow one's response to "fight or flight." Positive emotions broaden the range of responses, leading to behavioral flexibility and emotional growth. Playfulness inspired by joy builds friendships — squirrels that played together will risk their lives to save each other from predators.

Positive emotions build resilience, allowing people to bounce back faster from negative experiences. Resilience buffers against depression. There are ways to train people to be more resilient...

Over time, positive emotions build personal resources and increase well-being. Thus, positive emotions are not just a marker of well-being, but they also produce it for the future. Positive affect is the single most important active ingredient within human flourishing.

Negativity is important as well, to keep us grounded and to avoid a Pollyanna syndrome, but people tend to flourish when their positivity to negativity ratio is 3:1 or higher. When there is a low level of positive emotion, people tend to get stuck.

"Signature Strengths"

Researchers have identified 24 personality strengths ("Classification of Virtues") and have developed the "VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire,", to allow people to identify their "signature strengths." While it can be useful to work on our weaknesses as well, people are often happiest when they find work that allows them to use their strengths.

The strengths most associated with happiness are Curiosity, Zest, Gratitude, Hope and Love. Most of these are not taught in schools.

Compare the VIA signature strengths test to a mirroring exercise that involves asking people to identify what qualities you bring to a room.

"Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit." — Aristotle

Aristotle also said that all virtues reside between the extremes of deficiency and excess. For example, too much wit makes a person a buffoon. Too much bravery makes a person foolhardy. Some of the 24 VIA character strengths are opposites of each other.

Signature Strengths exercise: Take the VIA test, then spend the next week finding novel ways to use your signature strengths. A study of this exercise showed very little effect on happiness during the first week, but a large effect from one month to six months later.

"Strengths Date" exercise: Plan an activity with a friend such that each of you can use your signature strengths.

Gratitude (Past)

We tend to spend more time thinking about what has gone wrong than we do basking in what has gone right. Ruminating on what goes wrong may lead to increased sadness. Focusing on your happiness may increase it. It takes voluntary effort not to just focus on the negative.

The literature on affirmations and visualization is somewhat weak. You have to believe the affirmations; otherwise, saying good things to yourself may not be that helpful. This is why the following exercise asks you to examine good things that happened to you and understand why they happened:

"Three Blessings" exercise:

  1. Every night for the next week, right before you go to bed, write down three things (large or small) that went really well that day.
  2. Explain why they happened.

This exercise is particularly useful in times of trouble.

Gratitude Visit:

  1. Think of someone who has been especially kind to you, but who has never heard you express your gratitude.
  2. Write and rewrite a Gratitude Letter, describing in concrete terms what they did for you and how it affected your life. Make it soar.
  3. Visit them in person, if possible, and read it aloud.

Learn "inner gratitude," gratitude that you have the ability to give and receive love.

Learn to say "thank you" to compliments, then learn to internally receive the compliment — don't just brush it off.

Forgiveness (Past)

"Letting Go of Grudges" exercise:

  1. Choose someone you have a grudge against.
  2. On a blank piece of paper, draw a circle in the center and write a few words capturing the essence of the grudge.
  3. Fill the rest of the page with at least 15 blank circles.
  4. Fill each circle with a word or phrase describing something about the person for which you are grateful.
  5. Hold the page at arm's length and reflect on how the grudge gets lost in a sea of gratitude.

The goal is not to minimize the grudge, but to broaden the perspective.

Every religion has a strong forgiveness theme. Forgiveness is for you, not for the transgressor (who is likely to say, "How dare you forgive me — what about what you did?").

People who are forgiving have less anger, less depression, less hostility, and are less neurotic and less vengeful. Forgiveness increases your own happiness.

When asked if he has forgiven China, the Dalai Lama said (paraphrased): "They've stolen my land and country. I'm not going to let them steal my mind."

See also "Forgive for Good — Nine Steps to Forgiveness,"

Pleasure and Savoring (Present)

Positive things don't seem to hunt us down the way adversity does. We need to be proactive and hunt them down.

Savoring is the process of mindfully engaging in thoughts or activities that encourage positive events to lead to positive feelings. The three temporal flavors of savoring are:

  1. Reminiscing about the past
  2. Savoring the present moment
  3. Anticipating the future

Optimism (Future)

Positive emotions about the future include optimism, hope, faith and trust.

It was once believed that depression was anger turned inward. They tried to teach depressed people to turn their anger outward, but patients would unravel.

Depression results from learned helplessness. It occurs when people or animals learn that nothing they do affects what they want. Antidepressants break up learned helplessness in animals.

People who are tested as pessimistic are 2 to 8 times as likely to become depressed when bad things happen. Early experiences with optimism help prevent depression.

Pessimistic people have more bad things happen to them. They tend to believe nothing they can do matters, so they don't try to avoid bad events. They smoke more and are more accident-prone, etc.

Of a group of men who survive their first heart attack, 15 of the 16 most pessimistic died within 8 years, but only 5 of the 16 least pessimistic died within that period. Optimism was a better predictor of survival than cholesterol, blood pressure and weight.

Researchers performed content analysis of essays written by Harvard men in 1946 to determine optimism and depression. Up to age 40, this was a poor predictor of health; all that mattered was their health at 25. But from 40 to 65, optimism was an important predictor. In old age, genetics takes over.

Optimists get better after defeat; pessimists get worse. Optimism leads to trying hard; this pays off in professions where trying hard is important.

In sports, if a game is close, optimists do better than their usual performance; pessimists do worse.

Pessimism is useful for certain professions, such as law. Pessimistic lawyers do better, because they're paid to envision every possible disaster. Lawyers also tend toward depression.

The mechanism of optimism or pessimism is your explanatory style, the way you think about your setbacks. Optimists and pessimists have different views on the permanence and pervasiveness of bad events.

Pessimists tend to see bad events as permanent — "I failed the test because I'm stupid." Optimists find a temporary, changeable cause — "I failed because I didn't prepare enough."

Pessimists tend to see bad events as pervasive — "I got fired because I'm worthless and I can't get along with people." Optimists can fail in one domain and not generalize it to all other domains.

Optimism appears to be learnable. Students who learned optimism had fewer visits to the student health service.

Cognitive therapy is helpful for depression. The cognitive approach to learning optimism involves disputing pessimistic thoughts.

"ABCDE" disputation exercise:

When adversity happens, avoid the tendency to "catastrophize." View catastrophic thoughts as if said by someone who hates you, and dispute them.

  1. Adversity
    Identify a recent adverse event.

  2. Beliefs (what you say to yourself)
    Identify your interpretation of the event.

  3. Consequences (emotions and behavior that result from beliefs about adversity)
    What happened afterwards?

  4. Disputation
    Dispute your beliefs, especially any catastrophic thoughts or over-generalizations; view the event more realistically.

  5. Energization
    Focus that energy on making things better instead of reinforcing your pessimistic beliefs.

If you tend to see things as unchangeable, train yourself to find one tiny thing you're able to change.

Disputation can also help with other negative emotions, such as anger.

Buddhism offers alternate techniques for quickly and easily releasing negative emotions.

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." — Winston Churchill

Optimism is not just a matter of seeing the glass as half-full. It can be hard work. The goal is flexibility and accuracy, not "happy thoughts."

"One Door Closes, Another Door Opens" exercise: Think of three times when you lost out at something important, whether because of a bad luck, missed opportunity, etc. Write down your experience — what was the door that closed on you, and what was the door that opened?

Then, the next time you face a difficult situation, look at the problem in terms of the opportunities it presents.

See Seligman, Learned Optimism.

Resilience and Explanatory Style

Your explanatory style is your habitual method for explaining adversity. For example, you may tend to blame others for what happens to you. Your brain does this by focusing on anything that suggests that other people are stupid, while filtering out anything that suggests you may have been at fault. Some people are very aware of what they're thinking most of the time, while others aren't. The goal is to get off of auto-pilot, turn up the volume so we're aware of our habitual thoughts.

The goal is not just about positive thinking. The goal is to let more information in, to view a situation more fully instead of getting stuck on our initial interpretation. The goal is bridled optimism, not blind optimism or denial.

If you over-experience one emotion or get stuck in it, what is the lens through which you're seeing the world that might cause you to get stuck in that emotion? People who experience depression might view the world through a lens of loss. If you're constantly viewing the world to see if someone has screwed you, you'll have a lot of anger. The following table, from Karen Reivich, summarizes the connection between our habitual beliefs and emotions and offers suggestions on getting unstuck.

Habitual Belief
Emotional Consequence
Task to Get Unstuck
I've lost something I value / love
Sadness, Depression
What have I gained or learned? "Three Blessings" exercise
Danger is near
Where am I in control? Practice courage.
I've been violated
When have I been helped? Notice kindness. Practice forgiveness.

I've harmed others

How have I helped? Mentor others, offer the gift of your time.

For anxiety attacks, in particular, I've found meditation to be useful; focusing on the present and letting go of unrealistic, catastrophic fears about the future.

"Stopping Catastrophic Thoughts" exercise:

When you find yourself catastrophizing about a negative event ("What if this happens," "What if that happens"), write down the Absolute Worst Case (your catastrophic thoughts), the Perfect World Best Case (exaggerated, extremely unlikely positive outcomes), and the Real World Most Likely Case (realistic analysis of what's likely).

This may be difficult to do in the heat of the moment. It may be helpful to start with relaxation techniques such as focusing on your breath.

See Karen Reivich, The Resilience Factor.

Building Optimism in Children

There is a growing epidemic of depression in children and adolescents, and the problem is starting at younger and younger ages. A high percentage of depressed adolescents never receive treatment.

The increase in depression is the biggest epidemiological change in our lifetime. There appears to be ten times as much depression now as in 1950. Why?

  • Excess Individualism — Depression is a disorder of the "I". If you think it's all about me, me, me, you're setting yourself up for depression.

  • Self-esteem movement backfires? — What is important is the skills you have, warranted self-esteem. If you're told you're great and the world says you're not, that sets you up for depression.

  • Shortcuts to pleasure — TV, shopping, drugs, cheap entertainment.

  • Less parental attention — Mothers started going into the workforce around 1950. There are now about ten times as many mothers leaving their kids to go to work. This is a real dilemma, both for mothers and for society.

  • Schools as depression factories?

The Penn Resiliency Program is an effective school-based intervention for late elementary and middle-school students, 5th - 8th grade. It's based on Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy: learning the link between thoughts, feelings and actions; identifying their explanatory style, and examining alternative explanations.

The Penn Family Resiliency Project teaches parents how to use these skills themselves, to increase their own resilience. Then they model these skills and teach their children.

See Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox and Gillham, The Optimistic Child.

The Progress Paradox (based on the book by Gregg Easterbrook)

The long-term economic trends for most people are getting better, but most people aren't getting happier.

"We can never have enough of that which we really do not want." — Eric Hoffer

"...the victor belongs to the spoils..." — David G. Myers

"Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

"I should've bought more crap." — tombstone

With an increase in college education, people tend to believe that life has no purpose or meaning. Affluence can cause superficiality. Wealth can drive us to shortcuts to positive emotion. Buying stuff is easier than finding meaning.

Women have more freedom and depression now.

Stress has been rising steadily. The biggest cause is lack of sleep; the number of hours of sleep has been in steady decline from ten to seven hours a night. More sleep increases well-being. Go to bed one hour earlier each night.

It's never too late to change the world.

Good Consumerism exercise: As an alternative to "bad consumerism," for the holidays, give gifts that will add flow or meaning to the lives of people you care about. Examples: a coupon for a seminary retreat; photo albums for your spouse (one for the past 20 years, one for the next 20 years); goats for the third world; Seva Foundation; a bridge line to connect the family (such as; a coupon for a massage; etc.

The Paradox of Choice

Cartoon — "Do you have a phone that doesn't do too much?"

Americans have more choice than ever before, are richer than ever before, and are sadder than ever before.Too much choice paralyzes people and makes it difficult for them to make any choice.

More people were attracted to a display with 24 different types of jeans than to one with only 6, but only a tenth as many made a purchase. Apple Computer once had way too many models, which confused consumers and reduced sales. In "speed-dating," the more dates are provided in an evening, the less chance there is of making a match. The more 401K funds a company offers, the lower the chance that employees will choose any.

Now, people tend to channel-surf instead of watching TV. We switch between call-waited conversations instead of talking on the phone. We collect thousands of songs and play them in the background on our iPods instead of getting intently absorbed in an album of music.

If there are too many choices, people may not choose at all, and even if they do choose, they may feel worse because they're not sure they made the best choice.

More options may be desirable if you're an expert in that particular domain, but no one has time to find the perfect choice in every domain.

While choice is essential to well-being, too much choice can undermine it. Two strategies in life can be identified as Maximizing and "Satisficing."

Maximizers feel the need to do an exhaustive search for all the possibilities, to make sure they make the one best choice.

"Satisficers" are content to find an option that is "good enough," terminating the search once they find an acceptable choice.

Maximizers are more perfectionistic, less happy, less optimistic and less satisfied with life. They have lower self-esteem and are more subject to regret. They tend to be borderline clinically depressed. They do more comparison of products, before and after a purchase, and are more apt to compare themselves with other people.

Worrying about whether you're the best may make you worse at the things that matter.

Satisficing exercise:

  1. Learn to recognize when you're stuck because you're maximizing instead of satisficing.

  2. Learn to love the constraints. Find ways to impose them on yourself. This is very freeing, especially if you tend to always want to keep your options open.

  3. Learn that good enough is good enough, all the time.

  4. Learn to regret less. Focus more on the positive aspects of your decisions and less on the negative aspects. Practice being grateful for what's good in our daily lives rather than being disappointed in what's bad. Make gratitude exercises a daily habit.

  5. Choose when to choose. Delegate decisions to review magazines, friends with expertise in that area, advisors, etc. Save the effort and energy for domains you know or need to know.

  6. Think about what it is we really want, rather than just going out and being swamped by features.

  7. "Satisficing" does not come naturally to many of us. You really have to work hard to internalize it and make it part of your life.

See Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice.


The psychological state of flow happens when your highest strengths just meet your highest challenges. This is a state in which you are fully present in the now. It is a deep, effortless yet concentrated state in which you have clear goals and you get immediate feedback. Your mental resources are fully absorbed in the experience. This is often referred to as being "in the zone."

The state of flow builds "psychological capital" and life skills.

To learn to achieve the state of flow, know your highest strengths and find every excuse to use them.

Relationships — Sharing Positive Events

"Good, the more communicated, more abundant grows." — John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book V.

"Will you be there for me when things go right?"

There are two dimensions of how we respond to our partner's good fortune, Active/Passive and Constructive/Destructive:




Reacted enthusiastically
Pointed out the down sides of the good event
Happy for me, but tried not to make a big deal out of it
Sounded disinterested

(From Seligman and Shelly Gable)

The Active Constructive response is the only one that builds positive affect in a relationship. Active Constructive responses build satisfaction, intimacy and trust. This behavior leads to more daily happiness and fewer conflicts.

People who are good at expressing their emotions are better at Active Constructive responses. The rest of us may have to work at it.

Active Constructive Response exercise:

  1. Listen carefully when people you care about report good events.
  2. Go out of your way to respond actively and constructively.
  3. Record the events each night.

Nurture your romantic illusions. Appreciate your partner's strengths instead of pointing out what he or she does wrong.

Practice loving kindness meditation.


"Only kindness matters" — Jewel

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford, tested whether asking people to commit five random acts of kindness each week, preferably in one day, would reliably increase their level of positive emotion. The result: yes.

Here are Sonja's instructions: 

In our daily lives, we all perform acts of kindness for others. These acts may be large or small and the person for whom the act is performed may or may not be aware of the act. Examples include feeding a stranger's parking meter, donating blood, helping a friend with homework, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter.

One day each week, you are to perform five acts of kindness. The acts do not need to be for the same person, the person may or may not be aware of the act, and the act may or may not be similar to the acts listed above. Do not perform any acts that may place yourself or others in danger.


Go back to the Help for the Attitudinally Challenged page.