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7 things you didn't know about positive psychology (and can use to help your team build resilience)

Before you dismiss positive psychology as mere "happy talk", there are a few things you should know.

While traditional psychology focuses on pathology, aka, what’s wrong, positive psychology was originally developed to help improve wellbeing in healthy people. It did this by encouraging them to identify and further develop their own positive emotions (Harvard Medical School, 2008).

Now it’s also being used to complement other traditional forms of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The core belief at the center of it all, per University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, is "build what’s strong".

In more technical terms, the APA Dictionary of Psychology describes positive psychology as a field of psychological theory and research focusing on the mental states, individual traits, and social institutions that enhance subjective wellbeing and make life "worth living".

Since most of us would prefer to feel like ourselves, our jobs, and our lives are worthwhile as often as possible, positive psychology is probably a good idea.

Read on for a few of the most intriguing ideas behind positive psychology, plus more on how you can use this approach to help your team handle stress and build resilience over time.

1. Accepting stress is more important than reducing it.

In an interview with Stanford News, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal and author of The Upside of Stress says, "Stress isn’t always harmful. Once you appreciate that going through it makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge". Stress is a given in life, but how you think about it, ahem, attitude, can make all the difference when it comes to coping methods.

Why? Because people who view stress as harmful may try to deal with it in unhelpful ways such as drinking to excess, procrastinating and spending their free time imagining worst-case scenarios.

2. Finding meaning in stress makes a difference.

When stress feels out of your control, against your will and without meaning, it’s likely to be harmful to your mental wellbeing. But research shows that if you can find some significance or function in the stress you’re going through, you can reduce its harmful effects. According to a 2013 study, when people suffering from stress had higher levels of purpose in general, the correlation between daily hassles and depressive symptoms was weaker.

So basically, meaning is a buffer of sorts when it comes to stress—embrace it wherever you find it to take the edge off.

3. There’s a vaccine for stress.

Aaaand...it’s stress. Just like a flu vaccine injects your body with a small amount of the flu itself so your body can build immunity against the illness, you can become more immune to stress over time by getting through it. Psychologists call this "stress inoculation" and sometimes use this technique to prepare patients dealing with life-threatening illnesses like cancer to deal with the inevitable stress that comes with treatment.

Elite athletes, astronauts, and emergency responders are even trained with "practice stress" as their jobs require them to perform at their best under extreme levels of stress.

An astronaut (trained with the positive psychology technique of 'practice stress' so that he can perform at his best even under extreme conditions like those in space) floats in his white space suit above the Earth in the distance.

@nypl via Unsplash

4. Stress might mean you’re engaged.

No, not engaged to marry the love of your life. Engaged, as in, invested and interested in what you’re doing (also vital if you’re the fiancé kind of engaged). Remember that stress isn’t always a sign that there’s something terribly wrong with your life and how you live it. More often than not, it’s a marker of just how engaged you are in the task at hand—when something really matters to you, it’s only normal to feel some pressure.

Here’s where learning to differentiate between helpful stress that motivates you and destructive stress that distracts and overwhelms you becomes crucial.

5. Positive self-talk makes a difference.

It may sound like a stretch, but what your inner voice says to you matters. Words, even spoken silently in the echoing chamber of your head, are powerful. Feeding your brain upbeat thoughts has been shown to reduce interfering thoughts and increase focus while learning (WebMD).

Treat yourself the way you would a friend—be encouraging, not hypercritical.

6. Gratitude journaling is good for your health and wellbeing.

A 2009 review of Gratitude and wellbeing in Clinical Psychology Review found a strong connection between gratitude and wellbeing. Gratitude journaling was also found to improve sleep quality and duration in a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Finally, there’s also some evidence that it can lower the risk of heart disease and symptoms of depression for some.

So keep track of what’s good and happy-making instead of what makes you unhappy, and reap the rewards in good vibes and better zzzs.

7. Using your strengths keeps you motivated.

As defined by positive psychology, character strengths are positively valued, narrow personality traits. They’re qualities such as being friendly, persistent or understanding. For a detailed list of character strengths and descriptions of what they entail, check out this list by Peterson and Seligman.

While character strengths are intrinsic to the person in question and not performed for tangible outcomes, they do contribute to a happier life overall, both at home and at work and are associated with dealing positively with adversity.

The work of German researcher Claudia Harzer also suggests that it may help if our strengths are a good fit for the type of work we do. She recommends learning how to use our signature strengths at work to make our jobs feel more like a "calling" and increase positive feelings.

What’s been your experience with positive self-talk? Does it work for you? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.