I have decided after writing this blog post that a blank word document waiting for something to be written is quite possibly the most terrifying thing, particularly when it’s 10pm and you don’t know what to write! I wanted to write a post about my passion (and Masters subject), Applied Positive Psychology. Applied what, I hear you say? Let me explain! In scientific terms, Positive Psychology could be described as the study and application of optimal functioning. Still lost? In lay terms that is the science of wellbeing and happiness. It is a field that is so broad and constantly changing.
When I first came across the Masters course, my initial reaction was to assume it was wishy washy and certainly not ‘proper science’ but the more I read, the more I realised that this was finally something I could be passionate about, believed in and could use to help people. Positive Psychology, as a field, was born around the year 2000 so it’s quite a new area but research has blossomed quite quickly covering areas as diverse as happiness and wellbeing, positive aging, post-traumatic growth, creativity, emotional intelligence, character strengths, resilience, positive education, compassion, forgiveness, awe and wonder, mindfulness and the list goes on.
When we talk about Mental Health, often what we are really talking about is Mental Illness. Psychology has been so focussed on what we call the ‘Disease Model’ – fixing things that are broken. In human terms, this means improving the lives of those suffering from various psychological illnesses and disorders. This was and is vital and became a particular focus after the two world wars because of the rising prevalence of PTSD and Depression. However, until recently very little had been done around preventative measures. We wait for people to get as bad as they can get, until they have a ‘problem’ and then treat them.
The premise of positive psychology is twofold. Firstly, providing measures that are preventative is more effective and has better outcomes long-term than letting someone get as bad as they can and then jumping in to ‘save’ them. Secondly, that psychology should be just as much about improving the lives of those free of mental illness as it is about helping those that do suffer.
One caveat to add in here is the idea of a spectrum. I find that one common misconception is to have an ‘us and them’ mentality. In other words, there are people who have mental illness and people who don’t. That is not the case. Take depression as an example. There is a spectrum ranging from severe depression to the opposite, severe mania. We are all on that spectrum and will be in different places at different times in our lives so it’s vital that we actively look after our mental health.
I completed my degree in Psychology straight out of school but then, like a lot of people, fell into various jobs while I was ‘figuring life out’. I had started out in Psychology with the intention of doing a Masters and eventually a Doctorate in Educational Psychology but my seventeen-year-old self hadn’t quite understood the logistics of the required (minimum) nine years of study plus gap years between courses for work in order to pay for studying. I decided after my degree that I didn’t want my head in a book for the next decade and wanted to get stuck into real life. All well and good but I was left without any real direction. Flash forward to 2013 and I was starting my Masters in the subject that has quite literally changed my life.
The more I read and studied, the more my own life began to change. I started my Masters part time in September 2013 while still working full time. I finally graduated in November 2016, although I missed the graduation ceremony because my little boy decided to come rushing into the world at 36 weeks! When I started studying, I was commuting in and out of London, easily spending three hours a day on a train or bus. I was constantly tired and emotional, had an awful diet, did no exercise, my anxiety was through the roof and I had no idea where my life was going. Some of the interventions we had to do as part of our studies, forced me to take a long hard look at my life. At the time, I didn’t like it. In fact, I hated it because it made me admit to myself that I wasn’t happy where I was at, but even worse, I didn’t know where I wanted to be.
Learning about positive psychology interventions and how they can be applied helped me to make so many changes over the past three years or so. Life has changed a great deal. I’m now happily married with a gorgeous six-month-old that melts my heart every time I look at him. We have our own home and so many other things to be grateful for.
All this is great and I count my blessings every day but I know that it is not these material things that have had the biggest impact. It is the internal changes in my mind-set and attitude to life that have enabled me to manage my anxiety and given me the space to dream about the future and what I want. I still don’t have a step-by-step plan but I am better at sitting with that uncertainty. I still get anxious but I have tools to help me recognise my triggers and pull back from them. I still need to do more exercise and eat better but I have identified what does and doesn’t work for me and am much happier making small lifestyle changes gradually than crash dieting/exercising. I don’t feel that I’ve ‘arrived’ but I have a rough idea where I am going and that makes me happy.
I feel that there is a huge amount of wisdom in Positive Psychology that could help people in their everyday lives. Tools, if you will, to make life just that little bit better. I am currently setting up a project to help mums engage in self-care using Positive Psychology principles. I’m really enjoying the process and am looking forward to sharing it with others. Psychology in the past has been about getting people from minus five to zero. Positive Psychology thinks that’s great and necessary but asks why we also can’t get people from zero to plus five? We should be living lives full of meaning, passion, love and joy. We should be flourishing!
A Guest Blog from Una Jenkins
Una is 28 and lives in Southam, Cheltenham with her husband and baby son. She is a budding Positive Psychology Practitioner currently setting up her own self-care project for local mums whilst on maternity leave. She loves being at home while on leave and having time to spend with her little one as well as her passion, cooking (and eating!)
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