positive psychology how to study happiness

The study of happiness, once the realm of philosophy and religion, has been taken over in the last 100 years by psychologists and doctors, who have studied people who had mental illnesses and were unhappy, in order to understand the nature of happiness. This has increased our understanding of mental illness, but has not increased our understanding of what it is that makes normal people happy.


Positive psychology can be said to have begun in 1998 when Martin Seligman urged psychologists to embrace the idea of studying how normal people’s lives can be made happier. It is fortunate that he did this from a position of strength, as he was president of the American Psychological Association at the time, and so his ideas got noticed. He wrote the book ‘Authentic Happiness’ to explain his ideas more fully, and has a web site Authentic Happiness which has a wealth of resources.

Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman

This book broke new ground when it explained Martin Seligman’s new ideas on his concept of positive psychology, which he chose as his theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association.

Available as a book from Amazon UK

Positive psychology aims to make normal life more fulfilling by studying both individuals and communities and looking at their strengths and virtues and seeing what makes them thrive. It looks for the best bits in these situations and how they can be encouraged and nurtured, so that people make the most of their natural gifts and talents.


The organization of these virtues and strengths has been published as a handbook for psychologists to use as a standard reference work to coordinate further studies, called the Character, Strengths and Virtues (CSV) Handbook. It lists the core values of six classes of virtue, made up of twenty-four measurable character strengths as follows:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning , perspective
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality
  3. Humanitylove , kindness, social intelligence
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality


Other psychologists were already working on areas of positive psychology, and what makes us happy, and one of note is Milhay Csikszentmilhalyi (pronounced ‘Me-hi Chicksent-me-he’), who was writing and publishing academic papers about people’s individual experience of happiness. In the end, he was persuaded to write a book to summarise his research, and so the book ‘Flow’ was born.

Flow by Milhay Csikszentmilhalyi

‘Flow’ is a state of joy, creativity and total involvement, in which problems seem to disappear, time stands still and we feel wonderful. We all experience this, and this book looks at how we can achieve more of it.

Available as a book from Amazon UK

Flow is described as the state where everything comes together to make you happy.


This is the state we all experience from time to time where you are totally engrossed in doing something you enjoy. Time flies by and becomes unimportant, and hours can pass by without you noticing. Flow was described as ‘being in the zone’ by athletes, as ‘extacy’ by religious people and as ‘rapture’ by artists. The ides of ‘you stop thinking and just do’ is also often mentioned.



Milhay Csikszentmilhalyi found that flow can be created and encouraged, and that certain things were essential for flow to occur, which began to put scientific evidence behind some fundamental ideas about happiness. Flow needs to have meaning and involve an active experience, and here a distinction was found between enjoyment and pleasure which is quite profound.



Enjoyment was found to produce happiness and flow, and it is when we are actively doing something which requires our full effort and that has meaning to us, and is growing us as a person, and moving us towards a worthy goal that flow occurs. It doesn’t matter if we actually reach this goal, it is the growth in us as a person that is important in our journey towards it. 


These experiences of flow were found to be such that the person became changed by the experience, and became more of a person after that experience. This is why opportunities to produce flow are so powerful, as life without them feels boring and meaningless. 


This is, perhaps, the nearest science has come to exploring the ‘meaning of life’ and it has show that it is what is meaningful to each of us individually. It has shown that two things are essential for happiness, a sense of purpose and self-knowledge. 


This sense of flow can’t be imposed, it must come from within. This idea of flow can also explain the blurring of work and play that many successful people have, because if you can get tese right both work and play become growth experiences, and each of them has their own flow, explaining our success principles of following your passion , loving your work and meaningful success.



Pleasure was found to be a very lightweight producer of happiness and flow. Pleasure was described as the things that are passive, and that don’t engage us, such as television, sleep and drugs. These are the things that we like, but in experiencing them we don’t grow as a person. This is typified by the consumer, celebrity, trend-following lifestyle that is so appealing in today’s society. 


The pursuit of pleasure was found to provide the happiness of instant gratification, but this happiness was short-lived and soon wears off, and can then leave us feeling empty, needing another quick-fix to fill it’s place. The pursuit of pleasure was found to produce an empty and unhappy life.

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