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Positive psychology much more than ‘Happyology’

A positive mental and physical trajectory over our lifespan is the key to health and wellbeing, says Dr Peggy Kern

In many ways it was a happy accident I stumbled into the field of positive psychology. I’m originally from Arizona and I started my training in early education. I changed my major a few times and realised I liked health psychology. Others I knew were going to graduate school, so I thought, ok, I’ll go to grad school too!

I got my PhD at the University of California (Riverside), where my focus was on healthy ageing and longevity – which developed my positive psychology approach. I was really interested in understanding the pathways that support and predict longer life. Through different connections I had the opportunity to go to the University of Pennsylvania as a post-doctoral researcher and worked under Professor Martin Seligman, who’s one of the founders and pioneers of the positive psychology field.

The truth is I went there with a very sceptical attitude to positive psychology. It sounded too much like ‘happyology’ to me. But through being involved with students in the applied positive psychology program, I could see a much deeper side to the field. At Penn we were investigating life factors such as birth, crime and survival rates, really crunching the numbers, and so I got into the area of big data. That allowed us to start exploring the connection between language and wellbeing – which turned into a collaboration of psychologists and computer scientists.

People are unfiltered when they are using social media. Picture: Pixabay

We used Facebook and Twitter to investigate what a person’s word choices could tell us about their health and wellbeing. Out of that research in 2015 we published a study that showed language used on Twitter – particularly angry or negative language – was predictive for heart disease.

It’s fascinating what we can discover through people’s projections of themselves into cyberspace. People online are often really unfiltered and in the moment. Social media creates a kind of natural experiment that way. When we layer together some of the theories and thoughts we have from psychology and other social sciences with the tools of computer science, we can take what we do to a whole new level – we can mine information that’s readily available out there. Another study looked at gender stereotypes, as revealed through language.

Through my research, I’ve learned other important lessons about wellbeing. People define wellbeing in different ways. It’s quite abstract and there are various theories. There are multiple dimensions to wellbeing, it’s not just positive emotions, but also things like the relationships we have. Our physical health is part of it, as is our overall sense of life purpose.

Wellbeing is also bidirectional, which people sometimes forget, and why exercise is so important in treating things like depression or anxiety for instance. If you have a positive frame of mind, you’re likely to be healthier, but if you’re healthier, you’re also more likely to have a positive frame of mind.

I like to think of wellbeing as about asking: what’s the trajectory that a person is following? It’s more helpful to take a lifelong patterns perspective, rather than a moment in time wellbeing snapshot. The important thing it to look at the pathway a person is on. Is it one that is really beneficial to you and others? Or is it one that’s on a downward trend? Ups and downs along the pathway don’t matter as much as the trajectory over time.

World events can upset our wellbeing, obviously, but it’s the local stuff that happens around us that has the most impact on our wellbeing. Not just your family and work relationships, but local events, like a bushfire or car accident, have a much more direct impact on us than huge global events might. They happen in our space, they impact people we know and care about personally. When we’re advised to think about how lucky we are compared to others, that’s all well and good, but an individual’s psychology doesn’t really work like that.

Media can be terrible for our wellbeing. By its nature, it generally focuses on all the negative news around us and people receive miserable, depressing, sensationalised messages over and over again, telling us how horrible the world is.

Technology is another stress – it both helps and hurts us. We’re so pervasively engaged with technology and being connected all the time is not good for our health. We need to step away from it for significant periods. It should be shut down a couple of hours before sleep, to let our bodies naturally shut down, along with bright lights and noise and busy activity. Deep down we all know what we should do to improve our wellbeing, we just often lack the discipline to do it. That’s something all of us can work on.

There’s a lot of stress in our lives, and the more we can do of that self care for ourselves, that’s going to benefit others as well. Balancing work and rest is hugely important. We’re seeing so much hard evidence now showing how fundamental good quality sleep is for health and wellbeing. People might be sleeping for seven or eight hours, but if you’re not really resting and your mind is going all the time, it’s not very beneficial.

– As told to Katherine Smith, University of Melbourne

Banner image: Selfie 2016 by Flickr user Ville Hyvönen

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