GWU Students Learn Positive Psychology Theories

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Elements of “The Good Life” Explored in Emerging Positive Psych Field 

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. –The age-old question “is the glass half empty or half full” attempts to shed light on how we view the world around us.  Do we immediately notice deficits?  Or are we drawn towards surpluses?  While some consider the exercise a bit of a trick question, the study of psychology has long had a “glass-half-empty” approach.

According to Gardner-Webb University psychology professor Dr. James Morgan, who spent decades working in clinical psychology and social counseling, psychology experts primarily look at an individual’s insufficiencies and shortfalls.  “Much of the research [in psychology] was focused on what’s wrong with us,” Morgan said. “But positive psychology focuses on what’s right with us and how people can have a better quality of life.”

The concept of positive psychology is a relatively new one, emerging within the last 40 years, although it is based in part on theories that are more than 2,000 years old.  While psychology explores human emotional responses to various stimuli, much of the modern theory relating to positive psychology is logically based.  Dr. Martin Seligman is the modern-day researcher who founded the field, and Gardner-Webb’s positive psychology curriculum helps students better understand how to implement the “glass-half-full” theories into their overall understanding of psychology practices.

“There are three basic components to positive psychology,” Morgan shared.  “The first is having a pleasant life, in which we experience more positive emotions than negative.  Next, is the engaged life, where we are connected to others.  Finally, having a meaningful life, in which our lives allow for a more full expression of our potential.”

Through the positive psychology curriculum at GWU, students learn how to help their future clients build on positive emotions, relationships, and virtues.  “Overall, the goal is to help people build a better quality of life based on the giftedness or purpose they find within themselves,” Morgan said.  “We want to help people get beyond just experiencing an absence of symptoms.  In general, a more positive outlook will lead them to better health and a longer life.”

Seligman and his research team scanned historical data from multiple ancient and modern day cultures and discovered six universal virtues:  wisdom/knowledge; courage; love and humanity; justice; temperance; and spirituality/transcendence.   They suggest that positive emotions, strengths-based character, and positive institutions are all important elements in helping individuals experience overall life fulfillment.

As he became more familiar with positive psychology, Morgan was increasingly amazed by the Biblical parallels.  “I was struck by the similarity of these six virtues to the fruits of the Holy Spirit as described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians,” Morgan said.  “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  When our lives are Christ-centered, the fruits of the Spirit become both something we are and something we do.  This idea that virtues are both a part of our character and reflected in our actions is conveyed in positive psychology theories as well.”

Morgan believes that positive psychology is an important tool for clinical psychologists because it offers troubled individuals a mode of control in the midst of a world that can feel miserably chaotic. “One of the strongest predictors of suicide is hopelessness,” Morgan said.  “One of the positive emotions studied in positive psychology is hope.  So helping suicidal individuals gain hope is a very important part of treatment.”

Maintaining a grateful outlook is another important component to living the good life, according to Morgan, and the practice can give people an enduring hope even in the midst of life’s unknowns.

“We can think of gratitude as thanksgiving—expressing gratitude for blessings,” he shared. “Counting our blessings helps us to feel better; counting our burdens weighs us down even more.  Reflecting on our blessings is something we have control over and can choose to do at any time.  Gratitude is an essential part of the good life.”

For additional information on positive psychology or to take Dr. Martin Seligman’s Character Strengths survey, visit www.authentichappiness.org.

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