A few years back, I appeared on a reality show for TLC and met the wonderful Meghan Keener where she then served as a Story Producer. We hit it off instantly. I consider her a friend and most of all inspiring with her column and the study of applied positive psychology. As a proud junkie for inspiration, I was curious to learn of her take on the fundamentals of happiness.
1. I’m intrigued of what exactly is a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology. Can you tell me what is entails and why choose this as a study of work?
A master’s degree in applied positive psychology examines, through the lens of science, the things that make life worth living – things like achievement, good relationships, creativity, and vibrant health. Whereas psychologists’ general goal is to move people away from a negative state (such as depression or anxiety), positive psychology looks at where to go from there, positioning people towards their best possible ends. Also, whereas a lot of psychologists go into research or clinical applications, applied positive psychology is more focused on the real-world solutions to helping people achieve what they want out of life – in normal everyday situations like work and family life.
2. How does this study affect your everyday life in changing the negative to a positive?
The main thing it does is that it gives you a new lens through which you look at the negative. For example, that of resilience, or that of character strengths. Sometimes it’s not the experience but the way that you see that experience; you might ask yourself, “What resources do I have to deal with this?” or “How might I create meaning from this tragedy?” Being able to understand how mindfulness, for example, can help you become more emotionally regulated. The negative will always be there. But we can learn from exemplars (think Nelson Mandela) and now from the social sciences how we can transform our experiences of those negatives into something that benefits us.
3. Some have an innate quality of experiencing joy in everyday life. Do you believe people are born with a positive gene or not?
That’s a great question. There is research that shows that some people just naturally have more positive affect than others. (What’s very interesting there is that you can be high in both positive affect and negative affect. They exist on different dimensions, so being one doesn’t preclude the other.) However, we also know from research that some of your happiness is a result of your circumstances and a great deal of your happiness is under your own control, because of the choices you make and the people with whom you surround yourself. Also, the meaning you make out of situations and how you take advantage of your support resources plays a big part. And you can’t overstate the importance of physical health on well-being.
4. With crisis, lack of jobs, poverty or any other trauma surrounding us, what 5 basic steps can help us to improve our happiness and/or well-being?
- The first thing I have to mention is gratitude. I know your readers have heard this before, but it truly is like a magic pill. Gratitude practice actually retrains your brain to scan your environment for what’s already working in your life, so you start to see more and more of it.
- Understand your unique character strengths. One great tool is the free VIA character strengths assessment, which is a scientifically-valid test on how your strengths rank. The goal is for you to see what your natural assets are, so that you can put them to greater use in your life. It’s not about getting “better” at what you’re “bad” at, but aligning your life with what feels authentic and is your natural area for contribution. For example, the character strengths of social intelligence or kindness can create unique areas for contribution in the workplace.
- I would point to what psychologist Chris Peterson called the number one finding of positive psychology: “Other people matter.” Spending time in high-quality connections with the people we love makes people happier than just about anything else, and it even helps the immune system.
- Find your flow activities. Flow is the feeling you get when you’re using your skills to the point where you become completely immersed in an activity, time seems to stand still, and even your sense of self falls away. Try to notice which activities make you feel like this, and make time for them.
- Lastly, creating a mission or purpose statement can give you an overarching sense of why you’re here. It also helps you when faced with everyday decisions, because it’s a shortcut: “Would doing this move me closer or further from my mission?”
5. Why is it easier for people to be negative than positive?
This is called the “negativity bias”. It was important to our ancestors to remember the dangerous things in their environment (which berries were poisonous, etc.) to protect themselves. The people that were the best at remembering what was dangerous were the people that survived to create offspring. The problem is that part of our brain is still controlling our daily lives, giving us the fight-or-flight response in situations that aren’t actually dangerous – such as a stressful meeting at work. Some research shows it takes several positive messages to counteract a single negative message. Emotions can be contagious, so it’s not just about your own well-being – it’s also about the impact you have on others.
6. What do you hope to bring to the public with @PosPsychology?
Thanks for following! My Twitter feed is one place from which I generate purpose. I think that this field is something very exciting that can be applied in almost every domain of life, and people are hungry for this information. But not everybody can go get a master’s in this field, so it’s one way I can contribute and add to the collective knowledge in these exciting areas of theory, research, and application.
7. Although challenging, I feel having a positive attitude brings a fruitful purpose in life. What is your purpose in life?
This question gets me thinking about the difference between meaning and purpose. To me, meaning is more about making sense of the past, and purpose is something that drives you towards the future. One thing that’s meaningful for me is the understanding positive outliers. How do people become great at anything (even bad things)? How does excellence manifest – in being a mom, being an athlete, being a businessman? In terms of purpose, that’s starting to change for me. Just as in normal adult development, we start to care more about our families, our communities, as we get older. Especially being trained in all of the things that don’t buy happiness, I want to structure my life around creating real lasting value for those I love through who I am, and for the ripples around me through the various kinds of work that I do.
Meghan Keener, MAPP is a positive psychology expert and ICF-trained life coach. She is also a writer/producer, currently working at Discovery Communications and blogging for Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @PosPsychology or look her up at alifeextraordinary.us