Self Care for Teachers: Positive Psychology Techniques
When you hear the term positive psychology, does it feel like another fad that you haven’t had time to Google? Do you remember a professional development session on it at work but don’t recall what it was about or how to make it part of your daily life? Whether this is the case or you are hearing about it for the first time, positive psychology is the study and practice of mental health as opposed to other psychology branches that have focused on illness or problems. Make no mistake, positive psychologists do not dismiss the need for theories and treatments that support clinical concerns, nor do they believe that permanent happiness is normal and achievable. Moreover, what is good in life is not simply the absence of what is unpleasant. Rather, through some pretty impressive research led by the father of positive psychology Dr. Martin Seligman, there are features of the human mind and experience that lead to more enjoyment and meaning. And these features can be worked on despite people’s circumstances or temperament. This podcast will aim to introduce you to some useful features of positive psychology to help you apply them at work, at home and in your relationships.
Let’s start with why positive psychologists place a strong focus on positive emotions. The brain is able to detect problems or unpleasant things quite easily. It then, quite persistently, seeks to find solutions to rid itself of the discomfort linked to such problems. This is a result of our evolution as humans. When there is a focus, and at times fixation on getting rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings we can develop habits which can lead to anxiety and depression. By training the brain to focus on positive emotion and optimism, we are actually opening up our minds and increasing creativity, helpful thinking, new experiences, enjoyment and our sense of meaning.
Okay, but what about mindless day to day thoughts? What impact do they have on our experiences? We’ve all been exposed to an ‘auto pilot’ mode. We are notorious for cluttering our lives with tasks and routines. When we engage with the world mindlessly, either by focusing on all the things from the past we have to fix or worrying about all the things we have to prepare for in the future, we miss the present... Time can therefore pass without a real understanding of how we spent it, what was meaningful about it and how we could have increased our enjoyment of it. Scary thoughts, right? A clever mental skill that has it’s origins in Buddhist philosophy and positive psychology, is call mindfulness. You may have come across it. Mindful attention to the present moment, using as many of the senses as possible (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch), can improve our focus and enjoyment of the present experience at hand. The tricky part is being about to use these senses with an attitude of openness and curiosity versus judgement and impatience which the mind tends to default to. Mindfulness is a skill that needs practice. It can be applied to any activity, like eating a piece of fruit, driving to work, waiting for your partner to get ready etc. When mindfulness is applied to our favourite activities, it can create the effect of flow, another positive psychology concept. Have a think about an activity that give you great joy, one that you lose track of time doing... For some that may be fishing, walking, pottery, model boats, swimming etc. Whatever it is for you, you experience in a state of flow, a sense of enjoyment, focus, achievement, challenge, control and the passage of time without you taking note of it.
Okay, enough about the internal world and onto our interactions with others. Healthy personal connections have been identified through positive psychology research to have the strongest influence on our happiness. A way to work on this element of is to engage in small acts of kindness, display gratitude and connect to a community group or cause that reflects a core value of yours. These features have been shown to increase positive emotion by releasing endorphins in your brain. Have a go at trying three acts of kindness each day and note the effect it has on your outlook and mood. They don’t have to be grand, spontaneous gestures but rather things like; greeting the security guard who works in your building, asking the person taking your lunch order how their day has been, taking out the garbage without being asked, getting up early to make your partner breakfast. These acts not only serve to connect your more authentically with others but increase your positive emotions as we’ve already mentioned. It could also benefit you to reflect on what you feel grateful for which can be a daily practice (e.g. before bed think of three things that made you feel content in yourself that day).
The journey of self awareness and self worth is equally important to positive psychologists. They encourage people to consider their strengths, in other words, elements of their personality and skills that make them feel happy. Take a moment to consider your strengths... For example are you able to understand people’s perspective well? Do you solve problems in creative or logical ways? Can you brighten up someone’s day with your sense of humour? Now reflect on how these strengths are utilised in your day to day and how they can be further enhanced. To explore this aspect of positive psychology in more detail, take Martin Seligman’s online test by following the links at www.authentichappiness.org.
If you are interested to look into this fascinating area of human behaviour, these and other strategies are detailed in Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. You may also want to check out his Ted talk, The New Era of Positive Psychology. I encourage you to keep exploring the benefits of positive psychology in your life. Come and speak to one of our experts at Clear Horizons to explore how you can implement and sustain positive mental health. Thank you.