By Garry Wickerd, Ph.D., Doctoral Intern, USM Counseling Services
When mental health practitioners such as psychologists and therapists tell other people what they do, sometimes they get comments such as “are you going to analyze me?” This type of reaction hits at the core of what psychology represents in the minds of most people – it’s about what’s wrong with someone mentally or psychopathology.
There is no doubt that it is important to diagnose and treat mental health problems. However, another brand of psychology, called positive psychology, views humans from a different perspective. Positive psychologists argue that it is just as important to focus on people’s strengths to foster mental health and what is called the “good life.”
You might be asking how does this apply to students in college? For college students, life is stressful but also exciting. There is homework, grades, attending classes and a busy social life, not to mention financial stress and working part-time for most. On the other hand, being successful at learning and in relationships is rewarding and exciting. Sometimes the excitement and success of college life is not enough to outweigh the stresses. For some students, stressors lead to feeling tired, depressed and anxious. When this happens it is hard to believe that one is living the “good life.” Without some purposeful planning in life activities, it is difficult to find the “good life.”
Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, has identified three core aspects to living the “good life”: positive emotion, engagement in fulfilling work and altruism.
Positive emotion is experiencing immediate pleasure such as when someone tells a funny joke.
Engagement in fulfilling work is applying one’s strengths to particular tasks such that time seems to stand still. For example, a student might get so interested in studying a topic that they aren’t aware of how much time has passed since they started.
Finally, altruism is the dedication of self and one’s strengths to something involving benefit to others such as volunteering at a charity event or service agency.
Positive psychology researchers have found that engagement in all three of these areas results in greater overall happiness for individuals, but also fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and exhaustion.
The key is purposely planning activities in these three areas. First, students in college should plan to spend time enjoying activities such as movies, eating good food, exercising and socializing – all positive emotion generators.
Second, finding engagement in fulfilling work is what college is all about. While a student is in college, interesting courses and activities can be very engaging. Locating a major that will lead to employment that focuses on using one’s strengths in meaningful work is a long-term task of creating engagement and ultimately satisfaction and self-confidence.
Finally, finding activities that contribute to others beyond oneself will produce long lasting feelings of fulfillment. This is altruism. To be altruistic, students need to be connected to a cause or effort that they sincerely support that helps other people. It could be a club, organization, or charity.
Ultimately, success living the “good life” can be created by balancing these three areas. The take home message is if you are feeling depressed, anxious, or exhausted, take a look at how you are balancing these three areas of life. Making sure that you have a little of all three could be life-changing in a very positive way.