Is Positive Psychology the Same Thing As Positive Thinking?

How Is Positive Psychology Different From Positive Thinking?

Positive psychology goes beyond thinking, and involves taking action. Blend Images - KidStock/ Getty Images

When people talk about the happiness-related field of positive psychology, they’re talking about positive thinking, positive affirmations, and thought-based positivity.

When I’ve talked to people about positive psychology, an exciting and relatively new branch of psychology, people often mention that they are fans of positive psychology and that they have already used positive thinking in their lives for years. Sometimes I hear less-enthusiastic assertions that positive psychology is really just self-delusion (or any of a number of misconceptions about positive thinking) and that action-based techniques for getting into a good mood are much better than thinking strategies. Interestingly, both of these responses are based on a common belief that “positive thinking” and “positive psychology” are the same thing. It’s important to understand the distinction between the two, not only for stress management levels, but for overall wellness, happiness, and life satisfaction. Let’s break it down.

Positive thinking can be a fantastic way to relieve stress. It can encompass cognitive reframing to combat common cognitive distortions; it can involve a conscious focus on the benefits of a situation rather than its drawbacks, or on a focus away from negative events; it can include a conscious attempt to back away from focusing on the negatives in life. It involves optimism and gratitude and supportiveness, and can include positive affirmations as well as a determined effort to stop complaining. 

Positive thinking is based in large part on cognitive (thought-based) ways to attain a more emotionally positive frame of mind, with the understanding that when we think more positively, we feel better, and we operate from a stronger, more functional place within ourselves. 

Positive thinking is a way of thinking ourselves into better behavior and greater resilience, rather than behaving our way into a different frame of mind. Positive thinking can indeed help with stress relief in many ways.

Positive psychology is a bit different. It can include all of these things, but it is the scientific study of what makes people thrive, and it goes a bit further than what many people consider to be “warm and fuzzy thoughts” and into some meaty interventions based on research findings. Positive psychology focuses on behaviors that can lead to a more optimized frame of mind as much as on thought patterns that lead to more functional behaviors, much like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). But compared to CBT, positive psychology focuses more on what makes already-functional people thrive even more, rather than on fixing a problem that may be causing difficulties in someone’s life. Positive psychology can help people who are doing pretty well maximize their potential, and can help people who are coping with stress reasonably effectively become people who are more resilient toward stress and really enjoy their lives to a greater extent as well.

Positive psychology is a vast field of study, but it involves a few main components. The following are some of the more popular ideas and recommendations from the field of positive psychology, one of my favorite branches of science for stress relief.

  • Gratitude: How it works, and how to use it in your life.
  • Pleasures: These may or may not be what you think, but they can help you build resilience toward stress.
  • Gratifications: These take a little more effort than pleasures, but are well worth it in terms of benefits; they can literally change your life.
  • Meaning: It is important to find meaning in life. Here’s why—and how.
  • Optimism: What exactly does optimism mean (not necessarily what people think), and how does it help us?
  • 16 Areas of Life: Did you know there are 16 areas of your life that can be examined and maximized to bring greater happiness, resilience, and life satisfaction?
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