Positive Psychology: Psychology or Mythology?

June 13, 2014

Positive Psychology: Psychology or Mythology?

Other than posing an interesting question, what is meant by this title? In order to answer that question we need to take a step or two back, back to understanding what are the key differences are between psychology, mythology AND positive psychology.

Defining Terms:

I could suggest that you define the three terms identified above. That would be well and good except our definitions may not match – that would not be so good. So, for the sake of clarity, let’s go with the following:

1. Psychology: Let’s keep it simple, psychology is a scientific discipline that studies mental processes and behaviors.

2. Mythology: The story accepted and believed in different cultures explaining how or why humans act in certain ways.

3. Positive Psychology: The application of psychological principles and practices that emphasize how to achieve a “good life” for oneself.

Why are these important?


Among the newer areas of psychology is positive psychology. The very use of the word “positive” has strong Euro-American cultural mythologies attached to it. Most particular this can be found in the work of Norman Vincent Peale, “The Art of Positive Thinking” and similar self-help approaches of making all things better by simply thinking positive. These are myths.

I refer to this myth as thought replacement. It even works for some. The difficulty with this approach is that it remains a superficial solution. Serious work to address your preferred choices in your mental processes and behaviors requires an attitude with a deeper effect. Achieving the good life, that is, a life of contentment calls for something more.

Positive Psychology:

While psychology in general can provide such an impact, its use raises a question about the ability of most psychological approaches to provide a path to the good life. Positive psychology is a compliment to the practice of psychology and not a replacement. Its use allows the scientific method to be applied in the areas of human development, thus opening an area in your life that you can change.

By focusing only on disorder or problems the risk of limited or partial progress is always present. By including the strengths and values of a person as a target to achieve the focus shifts from the past to the future. The person finds themselves in the middle of a continual work in progress.

The past remains just that, in the past. An unchangeable series of experiences and events defined as good, bad, or as of no consequence. The future is only what may be. The best laid plans are not always the ones that happen. You can prepare for the future, but you cannot predict it.

Implementing a Plan for Using Positive Psychology:

Positive psychology teaches the person to learn from their past, plan for their future, while living in the moment. It is only in the moment that any real change can occur. For some this idea of positive psychology can become somewhat of a dilemma. Notice how little emphasis is placed on the use of the word happiness. This is in no way meant to devalue being happy, rather, let me use the word contentment meaning being satisfied with what is. If you think about these two words happiness and contentment, happiness is often in a state of flux and is more of an emotion whereas contentment is a state of mind. While you may not be “happy” about everything, you can be content as you move toward change.

 Using positive psychology challenges us to address three areas of our lives, positive emotions, positive traits, and positive institutions. Within this triad are the necessary elements of a contented life. In contrast to these elements, many of us dwell on what is wrong. These ruminations can quickly become negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. It doesn’t take very long for these negatives begin to affect our experiences in the world. The key here is not to just think positive, rather it is to work toward becoming positive.

Applying positive psychology to your life is a process. A process that comes with its own challenge. That challenge is your learning to live in the moment. Using the moment as both a place for understanding what has been and a jumping-off point for your future. Your biggest obstacle will be your own mind. Since the mind doesn’t do very well if it is not in charge it will become filled with anxiety, full of “what if” questions, it will do what your mind is really good at, being the trickster.

As a part of learning how to apply positive psychology in your life you will need to do a few things:

• Stop sweating the small stuff

• Only concern yourself with what you can change

• Step outside your box

Practice mindfulness

You and Your Box:

All of these are based on your ability to accomplish one thing, Think of a cardboard box. Four sided, open at the top, and closed on the bottom. Most of us have constructed such a box. In that box are the judgments and definitions of our experiences, people, events, and circumstances that we have encountered over our lifetime. This box is well constructed and secure. It holds all that we are – and we are trapped inside that box!

Now, I’m going to ask you to envision yourself stepping outside the box. Yes, everything in the box is still there, except you. Those Once you free yourself from the restrictive definitions you have been using to understand your life from inside the box you have the power to change their meaning.

As an example, say you grew up with a negative body image. At a very early age, you remember being called chubby. This stuck with you and no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t shake that image. You aren’t chubby, but you still think you are. When you step outside the walls of your box you begin to understand things differently. You recognize that it isn’t you that is chubby, it is only a memory that you should have been able to let go of.

This then is the role of positive psychology. To make you and your world a better place to be by redefining it.


Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wansinkphotography/6581954665