For decades, clinical psychology and psychiatry focused solely on the negative side of human experience, emphasizing the need to reduce mental illness.
While this approach has helped many people, there may be a better way to achieve individual wellbeing and tackle society’s challenges.
Positive psychology proposes that a flourishing life involves more than just the absence of problems. By cultivating positive emotions, building solid relationships, recognizing achievements, and creating meaning in our lives, we can experience profound and lasting satisfaction (Kellerman & Seligman, 2023).
In this article, we’ll explore positive psychology’s impact on various fields and showcase real-life examples of its transformative power to help us thrive in all aspects of life.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
- Looking at Real-Life Examples of Positive Psychology
- 3 Practical Classroom Examples of Positive Psychology
- 2 Examples of Positive Psychology Interventions
- An Example of Positive Reinforcement
- An Example of Positive Punishment
- Just for Fun: Positive Correlation Examples in Psychology
- A Take-Home Message
Looking at Real-Life Examples of Positive Psychology
The following inspiring stories are taken from several very different populations to show how positive psychology interventions can help us flourish throughout our lives and across society.
On the battlefield
Martin Seligman (2011), one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, was surprised to receive a call from the US Army. The Army needed soldiers who were not just physically fit but psychologically ready. They wanted to ensure their forces could handle the battlefield and protect their veterans from a future of depression, divorce, addiction, and suicide.
The Army had witnessed decades of battle-worn stressed-out soldiers with degraded performance and damaged relationships at home.
Seligman (2011) recognized that the Army must change its approach, focusing on overcoming adversity by embracing resilience and growth rather than treating chronic disease.
In response, Seligman (2019) agreed to set up the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, comprising psychological tests, self-improvement courses, and a pilot resilience study, soon upgraded to 1 million soldiers.
The result was a program that helped soldiers recognize and use their strengths and become more resilient. And it was popular; the soldiers themselves rated it an unprecedented 4.9 out of 5.
It was staggeringly successful.
Before and after deployment in war zones, the Army found that the soldiers who received the training “improved in emotional fitness, active coping, and optimism and catastrophized less” (Seligman, 2019, p. 319).
While everyone recognized its value in training and on the battlefield, it was at home where the difference was most notable.
Seligman (2019, p. 319) remembers one soldier telling him he’d recently been on the phone with his son, who was excited to tell him about hitting a home run in Little League. When the call ended, the little boy said, “Dad, is this really you?”
Mending broken hearts
“I conclude that optimism is robustly associated with cardiovascular health, and pessimism with cardiovascular risk” (Seligman, 2011, p. 204).
It’s a bold statement, suggesting a direct link between positive emotions and physical wellbeing, but it’s backed up by science.
We know that optimists typically take action and live more healthily. They believe their actions matter and act more readily on doctors’ advice. But other factors related to positive psychology also come into play. Social support — the quality of the relationships we maintain — is also linked to happiness and physical wellbeing (Seligman, 2011).
So, what direct evidence do we have that life satisfaction and flourishing interventions can improve our cardiovascular system?
Plenty, it seems.
When cardiac patients were given positive psychology interventions (targeting positive feelings, using personal strengths, and meaningful living), they felt better. Still more importantly, their physiology responded directly with measurable improvements to their cardiovascular markers (Nikrahan et al., 2016).
Attributes associated with positive psychology are also linked to more healthy behaviors, such as improved diets and increased physical activity, both of which significantly impact cardiac health (DuBois et al., 2012).
In a 2018 pilot study where patients with heart failure completed positive psychology exercises (such as writing gratitude letters and using personal strengths), they were more likely to adhere to the guidance they received regarding healthy living (Celano et al., 2018).
Play to your strengths
Stressful situations are not only found in battle. Busy, high-pressure working environments often leave employees strained. When the stress is prolonged and outside the employees’ control, it can lead to mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion — and even burnout (Kolomitro et al., 2019).
Positive psychology has proven to be a powerful tool in the workplace, helping staff manage stress, become more resilient, and experience growth and flourishing (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019).
Southwest Airlines offers a great example of how psychology can help turn a company around and improve the lives of its employees. In the early 2000s, the airline struggled because of high operating costs and fierce competition from other airlines.
In response, CEO Gary Kelly turned to positive psychology, using a strengths-based approach to transform the organization and its staff (Southwest Airlines, n.d.).
They began by using the CliftonStrengths™ assessment tool to identify each employee’s unique strengths. Next, they helped staff members understand their strengths and how to use them to contribute to their personal success and that of Southwest Airlines. As a result, employees felt more engaged and motivated, and the company used their talents better.
Second, they aligned employee strengths with the company’s mission and values, particularly customer service and making flying a positive experience for its customers. In doing so, the company created a culture of service excellence that set it apart from its competitors (Southwest Airlines, n.d.).
Third, they used employee strengths to drive innovation and efficiency. For example, Southwest Airlines empowered their creative and innovative employees to share their ideas and implement process improvements, saving the company time and money and improving the customer experience.
It was a success. They turned a struggling airline into one of the most successful and beloved brands in the airline industry. And crucially, it showed the potential of a positive psychology-based set of interventions to help a company (and its staff) achieve better results (Southwest Airlines, n.d.).
3 Practical Classroom Examples of Positive Psychology
Studies examining positive psychology in schools have provided clear evidence for the value of such interventions in the classrooms, boosting students’ learning, enhancing the academic experience, and improving the workplace for teachers (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019).
Penn Resiliency Program
The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) is evidence based and underpinned by the theory and practice of positive psychology. It aims “to increase students’ ability to handle day-to-day problems that are common during adolescence” (Seligman, 2011, p. 81).
The program takes place in schools, teaching children how to (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019):
- Identify their feelings
- Develop a tolerance for ambiguity
- Adopt an optimistic explanatory style
- Analyze the cause of problems
- Develop empathy
- Build self-efficacy
- Take on new challenges
PRP teaches students resilience and an optimistic outlook by encouraging them to think realistically and flexibly about their problems (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019).
The positive results speak for themselves. Students from diverse ethnic backgrounds across various countries and community settings that have been through the program are (Seligman, 2011):
- More optimistic
- Less hopeless
- Experiencing greater wellbeing
- At a lowered risk of depression
- Less likely to experience anxiety
- Less aggressive
- Less delinquent
Geelong Grammar School Project
The Geelong Grammar School was founded over 150 years ago and is the oldest boarding school in Australia. Its year-nine students spend an entire year at the Timbertop campus. The setting is beautiful, and the experience rugged. For example, if they want a hot shower, they must be ready to chop firewood (Seligman, 2011).
When asked to introduce the principles of positive psychology to the school, Seligman (2011) brought in 15 trainers and began with a nine-day course to train the teachers. After that, several trainers remained in residence for the entire year.
In time, the teachers embedded positive psychology principles into everything: sports, music, the chapel, and, perhaps most importantly, academic subjects. For example, a preexisting, mandated activity requiring each student to speak about a time when they made a fool out of themselves was rewritten as “give a speech about when you were of value to others” (Seligman, 2011, p. 90).
Life even changed for the very young. Elementary teachers started each day with “What went well?”
Students and teachers began living positive psychology, and it was clear outside the class. Parents reported that their children were more helpful at home, cleaning up without being asked, sharing, and showing more gratitude.
And it improved life for the staff. “Not one of the two hundred faculty members left Geelong Grammar at the end of the school year. Admissions, applications, and donations are way up” (Seligman, 2011, p. 93).
SPARK Resilience Program
On the other side of the world, the SPARK Resilience Program had a similarly dramatic effect on the United Kingdom. This school-based positive education program combines Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy with positive psychology and a clear goal: “fostering emotional resilience and associated skills, as well as preventing depression” (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 248).
SPARK is an acronym that defines each of the program’s five components (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019):
Children use hypothetical situations to understand better how their perceptions can trigger their autopilot (i.e., emotional responses, such as anger, fear, or joy). They then learn to identify their behavioral reactions while reflecting on what knowledge they have gained (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019).
At the same time, students learn to identify and use their strengths, build problem-solving skills, and ultimately develop their resilience.
Once extensively implemented across Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, and beyond, the SPARK resilience program had an equally dramatic impact in these areas. Pluess et al. (2017) found that students engaged in the program had dramatically lowered risks of depression and significantly higher levels of resilience.
And beyond that, the “intervention was perceived as fostering empathy and better relationships between students and teachers, extending beyond the classroom to the whole school climate” (Pluess et al., 2017, p. 14).
Positive psychology can play an essential role in safeguarding students’ mental health while benefiting the staff and the school. If you want to read more, we recommend this Ultimate Guide to Positive Psychology in Education.
2 Examples of Positive Psychology Interventions
Positive psychology shifted psychology’s focus from pathology to wellbeing and flourishing. And based on research, theory, and models, it offers validated interventions to help individuals and groups create meaningful and satisfying lives (Snyder, 2021).
While there are hundreds of positive psychology interventions, the following two are popular inside and outside therapy.
Three good things
Individuals write down three good things that happened to them each day for a week. They can be significant or minor. Next to each one, they describe why they believe the good thing happened or what it means to them (Seligman, 2011).
It’s a powerful exercise, shown to boost gratitude, improve relationships, and help manage stress and burnout (Rippstein-Leuenberger et al., 2017).
The best possible resilient self
Visualization is powerful because it can feel as real as the experience itself (Clough et al., 2021).
One popular visualization exercise in positive psychology involves the individual imagining their most resilient self (Snyder, 2021).
The individual identifies a personal challenge then reflects on and records the obstacles standing in their way. Next, they imagine how they could overcome each aspect of the situation and how it would feel to do so.
Check out this article on positive psychology interventions for more details on these and other excellent interventions.
An Example of Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement involves introducing something enjoyable after someone performs a requested or helpful behavior.
For example, a child receives an ice cream cone after studying hard for an exam. The reward or reinforcement increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated in the future (American Psychological Association, n.d.).
We can combine positive reinforcement with other psychological tools, such as nudges, to improve the likelihood of positive behavior. For example, we leave our gym bag out the night before for an early-morning gym session (the nudge), and we reward ourselves with a favorite coffee on the way into the office (positive reinforcement; Thaler & Sunstein, 2021).
For a deeper dive, why not read our full article on positive reinforcement.
An Example of Positive Punishment
Positive punishment is one of four parenting methods (the others are positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and negative reinforcement) initially introduced by behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1971). It involves adding something to the mix that discourages a behavior — a consequence for unwanted behavior.
Such attempts at behavioral modification are commonplace in society. For example, a teacher may give a student extra homework or detention following rowdy behavior in the classroom. Or the parent may expect their child to complete additional chores after misbehaving.
Many have questioned the effectiveness of positive punishment, especially when it takes a physical form, such as spanking (Tee-Melegrito, 2023).
For more information on its origins, applications, and risks, check out our article on positive punishment.
Just for Fun: Positive Correlation Examples in Psychology
Correlational research examines the relationships between two or more variables.
So, here are five that you may be interested in, though bear in mind that some of the findings may not have been replicated.
- Strike a pose
Adopting a confident Wonder Woman or Superman pose is linked to increased feelings of power and affects hormone levels related to confidence and stress (Carney et al., 2010).
- Musical personalities
People who prefer certain types of music tend to have specific personality traits. For example, enjoying blues, jazz, and classical music suggests you may be more likely to be open to new experiences, and if you like country music, you may be more extroverted (Rentfrow et al., 2011).
- Intelligent owls
Individuals who score highly on measures of intelligence are more likely to be night owls, preferring to stay up late to get their work done (Kanazawa & Perina, 2009).
- Damned authenticity
A study found that people who swear a lot are more honest and authentic (Feldman et al., 2017).
- Turn the other cheek
Research suggests a positive correlation between the shape of someone’s face and their personality traits. People with wider faces tend to be more generous to others within their group and more aggressive toward outsiders (Stirrat & Perrett, 2012).
Perhaps less of a headline but important for highlighting the value of evidence-based positive psychology are the following five correlations, all of which have been widely replicated.
- Staying grateful
Practicing gratitude can lead to greater happiness, satisfaction with life, and overall wellbeing in children and adults (Nguyen & Gordon, 2019).
- Keep fit to stay happy
People who engage in regular physical activity are happier (Zhang & Chen, 2018). It may result from the release of endorphins and the sense of accomplishment from meeting fitness goals.
- A walk in the park
Spending time outside positively affects mental health and wellbeing. Bratman et al. (2015) found that even a 90-minute walk in nature reduced rumination and lowered brain activity in brain areas linked to depression.
- Random acts of kindness
Performing acts of kindness can make both the giver and the receiver happier, even if they are strangers (Curry et al., 2018).
- Crafting a life of purpose
People with a clear sense of purpose tend to be more resilient when they face challenges, more optimistic about the future, and more satisfied with their lives (Schippers & Ziegler, 2019).
A Take-Home Message
Positive psychology focuses on creating meaningful, satisfying, and fulfilling lives.
Cultivating positive emotions, building solid relationships, recognizing achievements, and finding meaning in life can help us as therapists, clients, and individuals overcome our challenges and learn to thrive.
In this article, we explored the impact of positive psychology across various fields and life areas and gained insights into real-life examples of its transformative power. We looked at the potential of positive psychology interventions to support therapists, teachers, students, and employees to create a life worth living.
As mental health professionals, we can prioritize positive psychology in our work with clients, adopting a positive, proactive, and supportive approach and moving beyond merely reducing mental illness toward achieving a flourishing life.
Incorporating positive psychology interventions into therapy sessions can help our clients reframe their thoughts and beliefs, develop resilience, and build emotional intelligence. We can guide them as they identify and develop their strengths, cultivate healthy relationships, and achieve greater wellbeing and more meaningful and fulfilling lives.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
Ed: Article updated March 2023
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Very good article it’s great:)
Very good article.
Very good article.
Thank you. I feel better already.
Great information and very encouraging. I’m graduating with an M.S. in I/O psychology in a few weeks and plan on positive psychology to be a specialization including EI. Definitely signing up for the newsletter as well.
Interesting reading. Thanks
Very good article and well structured.
As a practitioner who focused on the ” clinical ” aspect of illness you are all a breath of fresh air
Really good article.
Thanks – – great article