Would you like to be happier?
The answer to that might seem to be a no-brainer yet many of us settle for just being ok.
Positive psychology shows us how we can become happier with our lives by making a few simple changes.
Changes that really do make a difference.
A blogpost about positive psychology might seem to be a far cry from my usual posts about photography, but if you read on, you’ll see the connection.
First, it is worth defining what exactly positive psychology is and what it is not.
While many areas of psychology concern themselves with how to help those with mental health difficulties live in a more fulfilled and productive way, positive psychology is focused on strengths instead of weaknesses.
It starts from the premise that most people are happy most of the time and that this sense of wellbeing can be built upon.
One illustration of positive psychology suggests that people can be moved from +2 on a scale of wellbeing to +8 by developing certain behaviours and practising these.
Positive psychology scientists think about topics such as character strengths, gratitude, resilience, happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem and self-confidence and how these can be developed in the individual.
All of the theories in the field, which prove that people can learn to be happier, are backed by scientific research.
Some of the main research findings of positive psychology are:
For the most part, most people are happy.
People can learn to be happier by developing optimism, gratitude and altruism.
Money doesn’t bring real and lasting happiness but spending money on others can contribute to your happiness.
A meaningful and purposeful activity in life is important to wellbeing. Engaging in work that is meaningful is beneficial to happiness.
Life inevitably has disappointments and setbacks. Having strong social relationships and developing character strengths can increase resilience.
‘Flourishing’ is considered to be one of the most significant concepts in positive psychology, “as it encompasses and extends to so many other positive concepts.” Positive psychology believes that we flourish when we cultivate our talents and strengths, develop deep and meaningful relationships, when we feel pleasure and enjoyment in life and when we make a meaningful contribution to the world.
The many benefits of positive psychology are well described on the above website and elsewhere, and there are numerous books and research papers which discuss the main concepts in this field of psychology.
I want to outline my own perspective and how I have seen the principles of positive psychology work in my own life and how, with some minor changes to your perspective, they can work for you too.
We have often heard the phrase “health is everything”, and for most of us our goal is to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. If we are fortunate enough not to suffer from mental health issues we may not pay much attention to our mental state, yet many of us are stressed, possibly in a constant state of low level anxiety, not very fit and maybe even a few pounds overweight.
A few years ago, I found myself in a similar position: in a stressful job, not making time for proper rest and food breaks, eating the ‘wrong’ foods, not exercising and constantly anxious.
When I developed a serious, probably stress-related, illness, the need to make life changes took on a renewed importance in my life. It was then that I was introduced to positive psychology and what appealed to me was the fact that even beginning to incorporate small changes into my life made an immediate difference. I found that focusing my thinking each morning on what I could contribute to the day and to my colleagues gave me greater job satisfaction.
I continued to incorporate more small changes into my life – taking a daily walk, practising mindfulness, renewing my interest in photography as a hobby and beginning to write again – and these did indeed have the required effect of changing my perspective and improving my happiness and wellbeing.
Today my life consists of activities that are fulfilling and life affirming, and that promote personal growth.
You don’t want to wait until illness makes you take stock, so this is an ideal time to look to the principles of positive psychology to increase your wellbeing.
Two of my ‘flow’ activities, photography and writing, fit neatly into the principles of positive psychology.
Having first been scientifically explored by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the “founding fathers” of positive psychology, flow was defined as a state of being totally immersed in an activity, where time does not seem to matter, and where the activity is intrinsically rewarding.
I wrote a previous post describing how, for me, photography provides one such flow activity. When I take my camera out and about I forget all about my every day cares and concentrate on enjoying the experience. Similarly, when writing I can also find myself engrossed in the task to the extent that hours can pass without notice.
What is good about the concept of flow is that research backs up the claims that to experience flow is linked to greater happiness and wellbeing as well as to healthier and more positive personal relationships (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988).
To learn more about flow, below is a link to an interesting TED Talk on the subject by Csikszentmihalyi.
Mindfulness and photography
Positive psychology practitioners report a growing recognition that mindfulness-based therapies offer support for our mental health and contend that these techniques can also dramatically improve our physical wellbeing.
“Mindfulness takes us beyond coping and making do. The techniques help us to see the world differently, grow, flourish, and live a more compassionate, fulfilled life.” https://positivepsychology.com/importance-of-mindfulness/
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been credited with introducing mindfulness to Europe and North America, defined mindfulness as “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and without judgement.”
Mindful photography is about paying attention to what is around us, it is about letting go of expectations and stress and rush, and making images of what speaks to us. It is about slowing down, taking time, being in the moment.
In mindful photography there are no judgements of ourselves as photographers or comparisons with others. There is no bad light or bad weather or poor subject. There is just this subject, in these conditions, that draws us and asks us to make an image.
In mindful photography there are no judgements of ourselves as photographers or comparisons with others. There is just this subject, in these conditions, that draws us and asks us to make an image.
It is true that if we practice mindful photography on a regular basis, we find that just having a camera in our hand can transport us into that mindful zone, attentive to what is around us, able to notice the little moments of beauty that occur every day. Even without a camera our mindful photography practice helps us to live more mindfully as we begin to view everything with wonder and awe, becoming aware of what makes us pause and take in the moment, tuning out the noise of the world and spending moments in silence, tuning in to what the world has to reveal to us.
The more often I practise mindful photography, the more I become aware of its benefits to my own mental and physical health.
Below is a link to a blog post I wrote when I first discovered how mindful photography can enhance the practice of mindfulness. https://www.wildwillowways.com/post/photography-a-gateway-to-mindfulness
Central to positive psychology is the PERMA model, an influential model which was introduced to explain wellbeing in more detail,
It is suggested that when we pay attention to each aspect of the PERMA model we build up a solid sense of wellbeing.
One of the concepts in PERMA is Meaning. It does seem logical that if we have a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives we will experience a heightened state of wellbeing, and we also have the added weight of scientific research to say that when we dedicate ourselves to a cause or recognize something bigger than ourselves, we experience a sense of meaning that cannot be rivalled. Many of us find this experience through meaningful work, paid or voluntary, although there are other ways that add meaning to our lives.
This leads me to blogging.
I have been creating content on my blog for over two years and during that time my themes have begun to change as I go deeper into my writing.
What began as a personal blog to chart the course of my journey as a beginner photographer has become a record of how photography has developed into something more than just a hobby, how it has opened doors to mindfulness, creativity, appreciation of beauty in the ordinary, and how it has enhanced my sense of wellbeing in so many areas.
Seeing photography as an aid to wellbeing has begun to move my writing in a new direction and as I share my insights, I experience a great sense of purpose and a feeling that I am making some small contribution to the world.
My deepest aim in my blog writing is to be useful to others; to provide an answer to someone’s question or a solution to someone’s need, and this is what motivates me to keep going even though I have only a small number of readers. If I believe that even one person is helped by what I write, then my writing is worthwhile. When I get an occasional message from someone who likes something I have written, that is enough to spur me on to keep improving my writing and perfecting the skill of content creation.
If something I write can change people’s lives, either by informing, educating or even inspiring them, then I feel I am being useful and that gives me great satisfaction as a blogger, and I experience that meaningful and purposeful activity in life that is so important to wellbeing.
My hope is that, by sharing my images, I can inspire someone else to go out and explore the wonderful world of photography.
We flourish when we cultivate our talents and strengths, develop deep and meaningful relationships, feel pleasure and enjoyment, and make a meaningful contribution to the world.
Boniwell I. (2012). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell. Maidenhead, Open University Press. Carr A. (2020). Positive Psychology and You: A Self-Development Guide. Oxon, Routledge
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