Psychology can seem exclusively like the study of what goes wrong with human psychology—but according to John Zelenski, whose expertise is in the connection between nature and human happiness, positive emotions are a lot more common than the negative ones. Positive psychological traits like happiness, bravery and creativity will be explored in PSYC 3302, Positive Psychology.
Q: What is positive psychology?
A: Positive psychology got started 20 years ago—you could almost think of it as a movement in psychology. The idea was that psychology had been focusing a lot on what goes wrong with people—mental disorders, errors and biases in the ways that people think. And those are interesting things to study, but it turns out that positive outcomes and positive experiences are really common, and that psychology had paid relatively less attention to the kind of things that seem to contribute to happiness.
Q: Why do you think we tend to focus on negative emotions more than positive ones?
A: Positive emotions are certainly more common; we experience them more. But something about the negative ones jump out more. If you’re angry, you remember that. In that way, negative emotions tend to grab us, but part of that may be just because they’re less common or have more urgency.
Q: What kind of things will people learn in positive psychology?
A: We’ll talk about positive emotions, and how they might be different from negative emotions. We’ll talk a lot about happiness—who are happy people? What characteristics do they tend to have?
We’ll look at the way people perceive themselves. Do the things they do feel like authentic expressions of their true selves, or do they feel like they’re being coerced into doing things?
We’ll talk about some things that aren’t necessarily about happiness, too—things like creativity and wisdom. You can think of other personal characteristics that we value, like bravery or self-control. These may not be fun, but they’re conducive to living a good life.
Q: Is there any practical advice for students in the course?
A: What this course isn’t exactly is 10 Steps To Becoming a Happy Person. One of the things that we do will do is talk about positive psychology exercises—things that people could try that could produce these happiness boosts. We’ll talk about if it’s possible to become meaningfully happy and some of the challenges with that.
Q: With all that’s going wrong in the world—rising depression rates, poverty, climate change, etc.—what is the value in focusing on the positives?
A: By identifying and realizing these challenges, something like positive psychology does have a lot of potential. If we think about it like “depression is the problem, we need to worry about depression,” we might give people anti-depressants and bring them back to a neutral, “alright, I can go to my crappy job and things will be okay.” Positive psychology says, “Wait, what if we focused on people thriving and flourishing and living really good, meaningful and/or joyful lives?”
Zelenski’s course on positive psychology will be taught in Fall 2019 and Winter 2020.
by Greg Guevara, Fourth-year Journalism, Carleton
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