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What is positive psychology, and what does the study of positive psychology tell us about how we should live our lives? The study of positive psychology concerns both the psychology of happiness and subjective well-being, and the psychology of virtue or character strength. With the study of positive psychology comes the importance of forgiveness, optimism, and hope.
In this episode of the Muslim Superdad & Wondermom podcast, we are joined by Dr. Everett Worthington, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, professor emeritus at the Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of numerous books on humility, forgiveness, and child-rearing. Dr. Worthington talks about his lifelong study of positive psychology and discusses the benefits of being optimistic, the power of hope, and the value of learning to forgive. You can listen to the episode below:
The Importance of Being Forgiving in a Relationship
Dr. Worthington first became interested in positive psychology and forgiveness while working as a couples counselor. He found when speaking with troubled couples that the first roadblock to bringing a relationship back on good terms was almost always the ability to be forgiving in a relationship. Those who were able to do so were more likely to come out of couples therapy with a happier, improved relationship dynamic.
Of course, some couples found themselves unable to forgive because of the amount of hurt they held in their relationship. As Dr. Worthington states, holding onto this hurt often makes individuals feel powerful and as if holding onto such hurt can help them get through it.
Tackling the question of what is positive psychology can lead to breakthroughs in discovering how to better our lives. Positive psychology can inform our decisions and push us to choose forgiveness and live a life of virtue and well-being. One important strategy for maintaining a positive relationship is to remain affectionate of each other, even in front of our kids, as explored in this Noor Kid’s article.
While working with couples who struggled with forgiveness, Dr. Worthington created an intervention plan to help couples forgive. From that point on, he and his team set out to research forgiveness. He now offers free workbooks that couples can use to help reach forgiveness on his website. You can access his forgiveness workbook, as well as other workbooks of benefit for you and your relationships here.
The Benefits of Being an Optimistic Person
Optimism is colloquially defined as seeing the glass half full instead of half empty. An optimistic person has positive expectations of life and believes they have a degree of control over what happens in their lives.
To answer the question, “What is positive psychology?,” we might say it is largely related to optimism, which has been studied vigorously and thoroughly with very strong findings over the last 30 years, states Dr. Worthington. These studies have shown that optimism is directly related to positive mental health outcomes; those who are optimistic see more positive outcomes for their mental and physical health and the quality of their relationships.
According to Dr. Worthington, optimism impacts an individual’s life so positively because optimists get things done more often than not. They tend to be more productive and successful in what they do. They also have lower levels of stress because they tend to feel that they can positively cope with whatever life throws their way. Optimists are generally less lonely and happier.
Of course, Dr. Worthington maintains that optimism is more of a personality trait than a character virtue. But that does not mean all is lost. One of the goals of positive psychology is to help people shift their negative outlooks for a more positive, optimistic view of life. This means that optimism is an important part of the study and use of positive psychology.
In his TED talk, Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, defines this field of study as one that examines healthy states. He believed these states are defined by happiness, the strength of character, and optimism.
The Power of Hope
How significant is hope? While he agrees that optimism is a good trait to have for positive consequences in life, Dr. Worthington suggests that teaching our children to have hope is far more effective and impactful on their lives.
Hope can be defined by its two categories: the first one is aimed at goals we set for ourselves, and the second is called persevering hope.
Goal Oriented Hope
An individual who has goal-oriented hope believes that they have some agency. They believe that there are things they can do to contribute to achieving a goal. However, just having hope for one’s goal doesn’t magically lead one to success. The missing pieces are the pathways and resources one would need to reach a particular goal, something this kind of hope cannot offer.
By contrast, persevering hope provides the motivation to keep moving forward even when one does not envision reaching their goals. It ensures we keep on trying, and it is a step ahead of having a sense of agency. Dr. Worthington believes that this is the kind of hope for which one should strive. It keeps the individual going regardless of how bleak things may seem. Further, one is no longer dependent upon one’s abilities.
Persevering hope comes into play most prominently: in times of chronic illness, when a relationship goes down an unhappy path, or in cases of having a child with a severe developmental disability.
Having persevering hope gives us the power to push through, no matter how difficult or large the obstacle in our path may be. This belief is rooted in the idea that there is a larger purpose to everything and that there is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Link Between Optimism and Forgiveness
If a person is optimistic, they are more likely to be forgiving in a relationship as well. A person with an optimistic outlook on life is less likely to hold onto hurt and grudges and more likely to be empathetic towards those around them, especially people most beloved to them. This Noor Kids guide explores 4 ways to keep the peace as Muslim parents and as a couple.
The power of forgiveness in a relationship is that it helps individuals move past difficult situations and hurtful feelings without creating an undeniable distance between one another. A 2020 study on the link between optimism, forgiveness, and spiritual health in predicting the psychological well-being of students found a strong link between these factors, indicating that optimism and forgiveness are indeed interrelated. When these two work hand in hand, a person’s chances of overall well-being are greatly increased.
What is positive psychology, and why does it matter?
The question of what is positive psychology can be answered in many different ways. In one interpretation, positive psychology is the study of happiness and well-being. For Dr. Worthington, it is the study of virtue or character strength.
The discussion of positive psychology also segues into the concepts of hope, forgiveness, and optimism. We can use the findings of studies in this field to improve the quality of our lives, as living positively has almost always been found to greatly increase a person’s subjective well-being in all areas, including emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological.
In the podcast episode above, Dr. Everett Worthington shares findings on the character trait of optimism and the implications of the findings offered by the field of positive psychology. To learn more about the power of hope and how being optimistic can improve your life for the better, listen to the Muslim Superdad & Wondermom podcast, now on Google, Apple, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts!
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