The Science-Backed Way to Make Good Things Happen in Your LifeBy Dan Tomasulo
For its first 120 years, the science of psychology focused on what’s wrong with people. Depression, anxiety, infidelity, anger, stress, betrayal, trauma, loneliness, and violence were topics readily taught and studied in universities. Because of this focus we know a lot about what makes people upset and can offer ways to soothe the pain by helping to remove or lessen the symptoms.
While this approach is important, the results were nowhere near as effective as we had hoped it would be. In fact, epidemiological studies show that things are getting worse. Consider this: Eighty percent of people with depression relapse, stress is now considered responsible for most diseases where the immune system is compromised, and teenage suicide has become an epidemic.
By focusing on the barriers to well‑being, psychology developed tools for healing the problems, but not for developing positive emotions. The 2019 World Happiness Report shows that over the last decade, levels of happiness and life satisfaction around the world have gone down, while feelings of negativity have gone up.
This emphasis on symptom reduction alone has proven to be inadequate. To understand what it takes to be thin, psychologists studied obesity. To appreciate the benefits of sunlight, we studied darkness. To learn what makes people happy, we studied depression. Twenty years ago, not a single psychology textbook mentioned the words love, happiness, or joy. How could it be that the science of human behavior left out some of the most important motivating forces in people’s lives? As a science, psychology was long overdue for change.
The Positivity Approach
Fortunately, there’s been a radical shift in the science of psychology from studying what’s wrong to studying what’s strong. Somehow, in the history of psychology, it was perfectly acceptable to study the negative emotions—but not fashionable to study the positive ones. The change began when psychologists started studying optimism. While everyone knew optimists were different than pessimists, psychologist Martin Seligman was able to make clear why. It was something known as explanatory style. When good things happen, optimists explain what happened by believing they caused it, it would influence other areas of their life, and it would last. Pessimists think this is true when bad things happen to them. The key to this research went beyond description. It demonstrated that people could learn to be optimistic by changing their style of thinking.
Just glance at the list of things that go along with optimistic thinking:
- Fewer sy