Just two decades ago, the field of psychology was a gloomy place. The science focused its clinical gaze mainly on the dark side of life—anxiety and depression, pathologies and disorders. It was glum in those academic corridors, and sometimes downright scary, though important work was being done to understand and hopefully to relieve human suffering. Then, in the 1990s, the dark curtains lifted and the light poured in. A new branch of psychology emerged with a focus on human happiness. It was as if an interior designer had come in and painted the room in bright, sunny colors. Instead of studying fear and paranoia, many researchers turned their energies toward understanding traits like optimism, resilience, and compassion. A positive psychology was born.
Officially, positive psychology has been enjoying its moment in the sun since 1998. That was the year Martin Seligman—professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of books like Learned Optimism (Penguin, 1998) and Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2004)—was named president of the American Psychological Association. Yet there were definite stirrings of positive psychology before then. One pivotal moment came through the work of Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who did some groundbreaking science with the Dalai Lama. It was the Dalai Lama who asked Davidson in 1992 why scientists didn't focus more on positive human qualities like happiness and compassion. Davidson went on to use brain-imaging technology on Buddhist monks to learn how meditation affects mental health. His findings suggest that contemplative practices can help build compassion, empathy, kindness, and attention. They also support the notion of brain plasticity—or the ability of even an adult brain to change through learning and experience. Today, the science of positive psychology continues to evolve and mature. You might say that after all our fumbling in the dark, we've found Buddha—and he's wearing a lab coat.
The Power of Positive Texting
On the beautiful, manicured campus of Vassar College, happiness experiments are afoot. This is due largely to the efforts of Michele Tugade, PhD, associate professor of psychology and director of Vassar's Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory. On many a weekday, you'll find Tugade's students in the lab analyzing data from her latest positive psychology study. You'll also often find them looking at smartphones—but not as an extracurricular distraction. In a sense, smartphones are what give positive psychology its true smarts; these days, they're a great way to gather data in the field. There's even a formal name for it: experience sampling methodology, which is a technique that uses global technology to assess psychological processes in the context of one's everyday life.
Recently, Tugade and her assistants completed a study in which 80 participants received about five text messages a day over the course of two weeks. The participants were divided into experimental and control groups. In the experimental group, the participants received texts that prompted them to attend to a positive experience, such as, "When you walked to class, did you appreciate your surroundings?" or "Did you take a moment to consider something you're thankful for?" In the control group, participants were asked to attend to more neutral experiences, such as, simply, "Did you walk to class?" After the two-week texting experiment was over, participants were invited into the laboratory so that researchers could run health-assessment tests. Says Tugade, "We were able to look at the differences, and we found that even after just two weeks, attending to positive experiences had benefits. The participants in the experimental group had fewer health symptoms, as we had measures of their health functioning. They also reported greater connectivity with others, which is a marker of resilience."
Going forward, Tugade plans to build on the texting study by identifying ways to train people to be more resilient in the face of stress. "Some of my early work shows that people who are able to recover from stress are those who are able to, for whatever reason, experience positive emotions in the midst of a stressful experience," says Tugade. "They might feel grateful in the midst of stress. They might feel love toward another individual or be able to cultivate positive emotions when they're feeling stressed. So where we are now is trying to identify how to train people to do that more automatically. We believe that practice is key. We need practice to identify opportunities to feel positive emotions as we go about our lives. The texting study may be one way to do that. We've found that we actually experience positive emotions more frequently over the course of our day, but we don't remember. We're trying to remind people that there are these opportunities, and they may actually have benefits."