Positive Psychology - Enhancing Meaning, Fulfillment, and Resilience in Life

Dr. Colin Armstrong, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, introduces Positive Psychology. He discusses the definitition of Positive Psychology, its fascinating origins, and its simple yet profound real-life applications. Listen to learn more about how to enhance meaning, fullfillment, and resilience in your life with the practical lessons of Positive Psychology.

Begin Transcript

Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Bridgette Butler with Health Plus.  Today we are speaking with Dr. Colin Armstrong, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.  Colin, what is positive psychology?

Colin Armstrong:  Positive psychology is the scientific study of what factors lead us to thrive, to flourish, and the proven psychological interventions that have been supported by that scientific study.  It is not about helping people be positive all the time.  It is not this concept of "fake it 'til you make it" or "put on a happy face."  Instead, the aim of positive psychology is to help folks develop resilience, to experience greater hope and happiness, and to live lives of meaning and purpose.

Bridgette Butler:  That's wonderful.  Now, why is positive psychology important?

Colin Armstrong:  Following World War II, as large numbers of soldiers came back in need of assistance, a major focus was placed on the treatment of emotional health problems, and this work was extremely crucial.  We have made great strides, working alongside our colleagues in psychiatry and social work, in the treatment of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia; however, we have devoted far less attention to identifying scientifically sound methods to help individuals live more fulfilling lives and to enhance their experience of happiness, their wellbeing and their engagement in work, love and play.  Unfortunately, in the absence of scientifically sound methods, a great deal of really bad pop psychology junk has risen to fill the gap.  So, in 1998, Dr. Martin Seligman, a very well-respected scientist, and at the time President of the American Psychological Association, proposed positive psychology as a unified field to study and promote the factors that truly make life worth living.

Bridgette Butler:  Who would benefit from learning about positive psychology?

Colin Armstrong:  Pretty much most of us.

Bridgette Butler:  It sounds like it.

Colin Armstrong:  The Army is actually using strategies from positive psychology to help soldiers and their families prepare for the intense stress of repeated deployments.  I have used positive psychology strategies with patients with heart disease, COPD and other really serious medical disorders.  I also teach positive psychology to healthcare providers with the goal of hopefully preventing burnout.  So, pretty much, anyone would benefit who is interested in decreasing their stress, improving the quality of their life and experiencing greater joy, meaning and purpose in their life and in their work.

Bridgette Butler:  What are some real-life applications of positive psychology?

Colin Armstrong:  Well, a few of my favorites include work on character strengths and work in the area of gratitude and kindness.  In terms of strengths, we tend to focus on shoring up what we perceive to be our shortcomings and our weaknesses; however, very often, more can be gained by focusing on identifying our natural strengths and figuring out how to use those strengths more often.  So, positive psychology researchers have developed questionnaires to measure character strengths, such as fairness, open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity, perseverance, and as you learn to more fully utilize your unique character strengths during the day, you will likely experience less stress and greater satisfaction in your work and in your personal life.  Gratitude strategies are another area.  They are very well known outside of positive psychology.  They are aimed at increasing our genuine experience of gratitude and our expression of gratitude toward others.  Then, finally, kindness strategies are another one of my favorites.  As you think about how you felt when you did an act of kindness for another person and you expected nothing in return - think about how that makes you feel.  Think about how rewarding it is to give somebody a gift as opposed to spending that same money on yourself.  Most people get greater joy out of giving than receiving.  So, what we know is that we don't have to wait for these random opportunities to engage in acts of kindness.  We can figure out how to build these acts into our day, especially when we need a boost, and simply by becoming more aware of these opportunities and more willing to actually act upon those impulses, we tend to get a boost in our day.  They don't have to be profound, they don't have to take a lot of time, and they don't have to cost us any money.  They can be as simple as letting another driver in in traffic or making a checkout clerk smile.  They can be very simple, very quick and completely free.

Bridgette Butler:  Those are some wonderful real-life applications.  Now, what have you found to be the most beneficial application for most people?

Colin Armstrong:  Honestly, after all these years, I have never found a positive psychology intervention that is just head-and-shoulders above the rest.  It is a very young field and it could be that I will be proven wrong with time, but my belief is that we are far too unique, in terms of our circumstances, our priorities, and our hopes and dreams, and I don't believe we will ever find an approach that is best for everyone.  Now, that being said, if someone is having a bad day, I would consider engaging in an act of kindness toward another person, and the chances are it will do them a world of good.

Bridgette Butler:  Thank you so much, Dr. Colin Armstrong, for these wonderful insights and these great practical tips on how to use positive psychology in our everyday lives.

Colin Armstrong:  Thank you, Bridgette.  I appreciate it.

Bridgette Butler:  Thanks for listening.  Please feel free to leave us any comments on this wellcast on the form at the bottom of this page.  If you have a story suggestion, please email it to us at health.wellness@vanderbilt.edu or you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website at healthandwellness.vanderbilt.edu.