While psychology has mostly concentrated on mental health disorders and how to deal with them, the field of positive psychology is exploring what helps make us happy and fulfilled – feelings that support our personal development and achievement.

The photo is psychologist Jeanne Nakamura appreciating the joking scowling of her colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University. They are co-leaders of the world’s first positive psychology doctoral program.

Professor Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) said, “Most research on human behavior has focused on what goes wrong in human affairs: aggression, mental disease, failure and so on. We don’t know enough about what makes life worth living, what gives people hope and energy and enjoyment.” [From The lowdown on upbeat, by Stuart Silverstein, Los Angeles Times March 15, 2007; photo by Mel Melcon]

The program site at Claremont Univ. explains, “Positive Psychology emerged at the beginning of the new millennium as a movement within psychology aimed at enhancing human strengths such as creativity, joy, enhancing flow at work, responsibility, and optimal performance and achievement.”

As I note in my article Creativity and Flow Psychology, Csikszentmihalyi has spent years researching optimal human experience, and has found the experience of flow is an active, not passive, engagement: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

But various feelings of pleasure, from contentment to ecstasy, can be stimulated by chemicals like alcohol and cocaine, at least temporarily. The new HBO documentary series on addiction explores, among other things, how feeling good is tied to substance abuse.

“We depend on our brain’s ability to release dopamine in order to experience pleasure and to motivate our responses to the natural rewards of everyday life, such as the sight or smell of food,” notes Nora D. Volkow, M.D., one of the series’ experts.

She explains the problem is that the response does not last: “Drugs produce very large and rapid dopamine surges and the brain responds by reducing normal dopamine activity. Eventually, the disrupted dopamine system renders the addict incapable of feeling any pleasure even from the drugs they seek to feed their addiction.” [From her article Addiction and the Brain’s Pleasure Pathway: Beyond Willpower.]

And temperament is an aspect of all this. In a BBC News article, The science of happiness, positive psychologist Martin Seligman, author of the book Authentic Happiness, refers to changing our biological set point of happiness.

He says, “The best you can do with positive emotion is you can get people to live at the top of their set range. But you can’t take a grouch and make him giggle all the time.” [From my earlier post Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Mostly.]

Books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life

Related Talent Development Resources pages:

article with quotes by Csikszentmihalyi: Psychological Factors in the Development of Adulthood Giftedness from Childhood Talent, By Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, PhD

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