Psychology is a word that is casually thrown around in conversation, and is usually taken to mean the study of the mind, in particular the ‘abnormal mind’. One could be forgiven for thinking that psychology is a discipline that focuses on what is wrong with the human psyche. Much of psychology focuses on erratic behaviours as a result of brain damage, an imbalance of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), or fundamental flaws in the development of the brain. Psychology students are taught about possible fixes to these problems, and are prepared for a career path that will deal with that small percentage of the population who suffer from severe enough mental distress to warrant a visit to a therapist. Dealing with mental distress is what people assume the stereotypical psychologist does, and this assumption is generally correct.
Mental health awareness has increased exponentially in the past few years, with the stigma surrounding mental illnesses becoming less and less, but unfortunately still present. An optimistic view of the future is one where mental issues such as depression and anxiety are no longer seen as issues to be pushed under the carpet, but as issues which are instead aired out in the open. It would be a fair guess to say that everyone reading this article knows at least one person who has a mental illness, or who has dealt with one in the past.
A mental health utopia is something we should all aim for, with mental disorders and illnesses being easily treated, as well as easily prevented. But what about the rest of the population who don’t suffer from such acute mental distress? In the past, psychology has been so focused on mental disorders that it has almost overlooked the general mental wellbeing of the average individual. However, in recent years, a new branch of psychology has emerged called positive psychology. This area focuses on increasing the happiness of all humans. Why should we be content with the happiness or lack thereof that we have? There is a huge spectrum of mental difficulties, and even if you don’t qualify as having a mental disorder, there can be all sorts of troubles and stresses that may detract from your quality of life. That’s where positive psychology comes in.
Positive psychology aims to increase our quality of life, to make it as good as it can possibly be, by making us realise our potential for happiness. Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Christopher Peterson are the founders who initially developed this branch of psychology. They wanted to move away from the pessimism of the past, with its focus on disorders and illness, and move into an area which promoted happiness, wellbeing and a fulfilling life in the average individual.
A key concept of positive psychology is eudaimonia, which is a Greek word that means ‘flourishing’. This means living a life that consists of meaning, development of one’s strengths, and having worthwhile values. All of this contributes to the ‘good life’, a life of wellbeing and happiness. Positive psychology builds on this concept and highlights the factors that contribute to this ‘human flourishing’. Positive psychologists investigate factors such as positive emotions, positive relationships, positive psychological traits, and positive social institutions, all of which can contribute to greater wellbeing and fulfillment in the general populace.
Clearly, positive psychology wants to take the application of psychological theory in a new direction. But how does it apply to the everyday life of a normal individual? And how can you take steps to incorporate the findings from positive psychology into your life? Positive psychology interventions (PPI) include things such as forming close relationships with others, general socializing, focusing on one’s strengths and virtues, reflecting on positive past memories, having personal goals, and being grateful to others.
In relation to the everyday college student, this means that you should maintain those friendships you have now, join a club or society to meet new people and test your boundaries, focus on what you like about yourself, remember the good times, have meaningful goals, and try to see the good in each day that passes. Life is not always easy, and perhaps by taking these steps, we can learn to cope better with everyday struggles and hopefully become happier and more fulfilled as a result. Other steps people can take to manage their mental health include meditation, physical exercise, walks in nature, and making sure to get plenty of sleep
But it must be noted that if you do struggle with serious mental health issues, or even seemingly ‘trivial’ ones, don’t be afraid to talk openly about it. Your mental health is important and is something that should be cultivated and cared for. Talk to your friends about it, talk to a therapist about it, and realise that people are there for you. The mind is not something that is either healthy or isn’t but is something that must be nurtured and cared for. It’s the only one we’ve got!
Senan Tuohy Hamill – Features Writer