Positive Psychology is in Demand

Positive Psychology is in Demand

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

The holiday season is a special occasion for "dwelling" on such positive emotions as love, joy, compassion and gratitude. In this context, you may like to note that positive psychology is joining the mainstream of psychological research. Experts are learning new facts everyday about positive emotions and how they affect us.

The John Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, psychology's largest monetary prize, started in 2000, supports and encourages the work on such topics as optimism, wisdom, self-control, persistence, courage and future-mindedness.

This year's first-place Templeton recognized research on how people feel when they watch "acts of moral beauty." Good! Psychologists have spent much, too much time on studying the "yuck!" reaction to "moral ugliness."

When we witness acts of moral beauty such as Mother Teresa ministering to the poor and the dying, we experience a state of "elevation." This elevation is both an emotional and physical feeling. We feel an inward stirring in the chest accompanied by a desire to help others. Many of you know this to be true. Some of you habitually experience a similar feeling and, additionally, tears of joy.

Perhaps you have experienced similar feelings at the sight of a mere stranger helping another stranger. The recipients don't have to be your relatives or friends, but you still experience that elevated feeling.

This phenomenon was recognized by earlier researchers also, and was labeled as the "helper's high." You get a helper's high, not only by helping someone yourself, but also by witnessing someone helping someone else.

On a related subject, are you taking stock of what you've accomplished and what you want to do next? We all make such assessments at the beginning of each year. Another research recognized by the Templeton Foundation shows that people who work on personal goals tend to be happier and healthier than those who don't. Perhaps personal goals related to our own growth and the betterment of relationships are most conducive to personal satisfaction.

Research by psychologist Laura King of Southern Methodist University shows that when people continually imagine and write about achieving their goals they tend to become more optimistic and satisfied with their lives than do those who write about traumatic events. She observes that talking or writing about the most hopeful and fulfilling aspect of our lives can boost our sense of personal well-being. So, do the "write' thing; start writing about them during the holidays.

Research by Psychologist Michael McCullough of Southern Methodist University shows that people who frequently experience gratitude are more cheerful, empathic, spiritual and helpful than those who lack such attitude of gratitude. It appears that human beings have always known this intuitively. Most religious and spiritual traditions instruct their followers in some sort of daily exercise in the expression of gratitude to a higher power.

Always try to do better. Psychologist Phil McGraw calls it, "rising beyond your raising." We must rise beyond the point our parents could raise us. That is one of the finest expressions of gratitude and homage one can offer to one's parents. The "feel good" people tried to make us happy with the mantra, "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough and doggone people like me." But we don't stop there. We've got to do better than what we can already do. This means thinking beyond our excuses and fears and looking past the weaknesses over to our strengths.

The goal is not to be perfect, but just better than what you are today. And, tomorrow, try to do the same thing all over again. This way, you will be most competitive, but you'll only compete with yourself and the world will be a more peaceful place.

What about the people who struggle everyday with some loss, pain or chronic illness? The challenge is not to merely survive the crisis and cope with a "crummy" life, but to rise above it, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

When you hear stories about other people's heroic achievements in spite of their hideous circumstances, you feel inspired. It is a fact unless one dismisses it by saying, "I wish I could do that." It is wrong because one knows one can.

On Good Morning America, the other day, I saw an 8-year old boy famished by a rare disease but endowed by an even rarer spirit. I am paraphrasing their dialogue. The interviewer asks him, "Do you think about questions such as, 'Why me'?" The boy says, "I do. But, then I think, 'why not me rather than some poor little baby.' " He appeared very positive and confident that he has seen angels and they were so beautiful. I believe he has. I now feel I too have seen one, in him.

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