The Origins of Positive Psychology
By Jennifer Morse MS PhD
Positive psychology can be traced back to the Humanistic psychologists. Most often Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy describing the steps of personal transformation is cited as the forerunner of positive psychology. His greatest gift popularized, beyond the concept of self-actualization, is the requirement for our survival needs to be met prior to self-actualization.
Survival and safety. Many think of safety only in financial terms. And financial security is an essential component to well-being. But safety is much greater than what is circumscribed by money. Safety encompasses personal safety, health, and most importantly safety buffers the erosive effects of accidents or illness. Now add in financial security. Too many of us have the appearance of financial success yet live in an abusive, violent family matrix. A perfect example of financial security not providing safety.
Maslow’s second step in the hierarchy of needs is family relationships and friendships. Functional and loving relationships are essential to the foundation of well-being. This is more difficult to achieve then it sounds. For those of us raised in a family environment of love and support it will be easier to build enduring friendships.
For those of us who were raised in an environment fraught with intermittent violence coupled with neglect it can take a lifetime to unravel the wounds to trust and innocence. Can you feel the weight of this challenge?
Personal freedom is discovered in Maslow’s next hierarchical dimension, esteem. Where does esteem come from? We can find the pre-cursor of self-esteem in childhood interactions within the loving family. Why? Loving families provide opportunities to explore and develop our interests.
Self-esteem is derived from our mastery of skills and the momentum created by a history of good decisions. It is within the dimension of self-esteem that even those of us raised in dysfunctional or impoverished settings can thread the eye of the needle.
What does it mean to thread the eye of the needle? Even those of us stranded in impoverished environments, through the development of our personal strengths, can develop a corresponding sense of well-being.
Building self-esteem requires a tolerance for success and failure. Yes, some of us need to learn how to tolerate success. Self-esteem requires building the muscles; delay of gratification, tolerance for ambiguity, and a one-pointed focus on building the skill-sets applicable to our dreams and goals. There are whole books written on the subject, including my own, The Way of the Fairy Godmother.
There is one more element in my cliff-notes version of Maslow’s hierarchy. It turns out true happiness requires a context of meaning and purpose, greater than ourselves, threaded through our dreams and goals.
Context: Our lives developed within a bubble or context of service, devotion, love, meaning and well-being not just for ourselves but for others as well. This element on the surface seems like a rubber stamp. Need a greater context in your life? Become a nurse, a psychologist, a financial planner.
Reality is a far cry from these simple decisions. If living a greater context of purpose and meaning were as easy rubber stamping we would see no abuses within the priesthood, nursing, psychology, elder care, financial institutions and the list goes on.
Can positive psychology help us out of this quandary? Yes, positive psychology does have answers for us. Positive psychology prioritizes our identification and development of personal strengths. Utilizing positive psychology we follow, like the trail of bread crumbs, where our interests and native talents lead us.
Have a passion for the ocean and its mysteries? Become a marine biologist! Yet even this pursuit has a slippery slope. Do you have the money to acquire the skills and education necessary to earn a degree in marine biology?
Here is the juncture where the one path has infinite expressions. The one path (in case I haven’t been clear enough) is developing our personal strengths, passions and interests. We want a career in medicine but don’t have the money to pursue the ultimate MD degree? Perhaps beginning in nursing at the junior college level affords us the entry into the world of medicine. Fueled by our strengths a foot in the door can take us a long way.
Developing personal strengths leads us into a state of absorption and flow. We lose track of time. Our strengths match the task. The task challenges, but doesn’t overwhelm, our skills. The joy of developing and evolving is at our fingertips. Can you see how absorption and flow leads to feelings of well-being? Well-being is the matrix where we experience kindness and friendliness. Immersed in well-being it is easier to be kind, and extend ourselves for the benefit of others.
Follow your dreams is the mantra for living in the United States. No, it’s not as easy as it sounds. However there are many right answers for one dream. And dreams evolve. Building on our natural talents and strengths is the foundation for self-mastery, well-being. When we develop skills we build a platform to extend ourselves to others. Sometimes we stumble into transcendence.
Whew! Thank goodness we have a lifetime because self-actualization is an enormous amount of work! Did I forget to mention the path to actualization is fraught with pitfalls? Here is an example. I am an author. For many years I was the kind of author who writes manuscripts and hides them in the computer. I wrote and retreated from the writing. Then my health failed. Simultaneously in the financial collapse of 2008 I was ruined.
Now writing became the vehicle to transcend my impoverishment. I wrote about what I know, my life’s passion; mysticism applied and made practical, tangible. Mysticism designed to create beauty and well-being. Okay I noticed the irony. My life is trashed and I’m writing about motivation, well-being, positive psychology and mysticism. What?
Where is the value? Firstly, I’m living what I write. Why is that important? Authenticity. Authenticity may have value and meaning for others; primarily readers. There might be clues in what I’m doing for others well-being. Is this the element of greater purpose for myself and others? Partially.
Yet the true passion of my driving ambition is to create an enduring shelter success makes possible. At the heart of it all is my desire to provide for myself and my family the buffer to life’s shattering moments.
Anything else? Yes, I want to provide education to people interested in dovetailing the practical and the mystical. Success as an author may reach that specific population. Is there more? Yes, I want to create a store, online and local, that will sell merchandise that supports the path to beauty, well-being and authenticity. My store will provide tangible tools that buffer stress.
Before I can create those opportunities I’m back at Maslow’s first step in the hierarchy of actualization; survival and safety.