During college, I changed my major seven times. I floated all over the place, from health sciences to education to human development. I didn’t recognize the trend then, but I never strayed from beneath the “helping humans” umbrella. Somewhere, deep in my design, I guess I’m wired to help people.
As you might imagine, every one of these programs required psychology classes. Then, when I landed in a graduate program for counseling, I took a lot more. The history, the theories, the practice. I learned all about the folks who pioneered unique (and sometimes odd) ways of understanding human behavior. Eventually, I came to model my practice after a few of those pioneers who made sense of people in a way that made sense to me. And while I won’t list them all, near the top of those scholars is Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology.
Dr. Seligman, bless his science-and-people-loving heart, is a man who changed the landscape of psychology in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Previously, almost the entire focus of psychology had been on the unwell. Diagnostic tests focused on what was wrong. Theories and treatments were created by studying those who were suffering, rather than those who were thriving. It was a disease model rather than a wellness model, and Seligman saw this is a problem. That’s when he started asking a different question: What is going right with people?
His theory was that while a portion of the population suffers from mental illness, there is another (larger) portion of the population who does not. Seligman was curious about them. He wondered what made them tick. He wanted to know what positive practices and attributes helped them flourish. He figured that understanding people who were well and who stayed well could help those who were suffering.
Fast-forward to the current day, and Dr. Seligman’s work has caused significant changes in how we approach mental health. He identified a number of practices and qualities of mentally well people and how those can be used to help the unwell. For example, he discovered that people who flourish tend to have more positive emotions and more optimism. Feels like a “Duh,” right? It turns out there is science behind this: brain science. Positive emotions and optimism are not simply a matter of “looking at the bright side.” Rather, they are a result of the pathways our brains take as we interpret the world around us.
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