The Positive Psychology Approach to Stress Relief

happy couple cooking together
Creating a new meal or starting a new relationship can be a way to relieve stress in your life using positive psychology. Cultura RM Exclusive/Sofie Delauw/Getty Images

Movies about making an inner journey through an actual journey, like "Eat, Pray, Love," resonate with many people who are seeking greater resilience and stress management.  When I watched the movie, couldn't help but notice how this movie about finding personal fulfillment is in line with the positive psychology approach to stress relief. Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology that takes a break from the focus on pathology and instead studies what makes life meaningful, what brings happiness, and what promotes mental health. Research and thinking in positive psychology hold that there are three paths we take to feeling good and creating happiness in our lives: pleasures, gratifications, and meaningful activities. And, yes, they correspond nicely with eating, praying and loving.

Pleasures, according to the positive psychology approach, are activities that delight the senses, make us feel better easily and in the moment, and take no effort to enjoy. The act of eating delicious food is a pleasure--it feels good, and anyone can enjoy it. (The downside of pleasures are that their effectiveness diminishes over time.)

Gratifications are activities that use our strengths, challenge us in just the right way, and lead to the experience of flow. Gratifications don't have the same ease as do pleasures--they take some effort--but their impact grows with usage, rather than diminishing. Much of what creates a healthy love relationship can be classified in the realm of gratification: listening well, performing kind acts, and doing other things for our beloved. That's not to say that love is just one big gratification and that all gratifications are based in love, but there is a correlation there, definitely. 

The third main path to happiness studied by positive psychology is a meaningful activity. By committing ourselves to activities that promote meaning in our lives, we can achieve the greatest feelings of fulfillment, both professionally and personally. This can apply to spirituality, prayer, and other spiritually-focused activities, as well as other activities we do to instill meaning in our lives. Perhaps that's why research on spirituality shows that those whose lives contain spirituality tend to have more positive health outcomes, are more fulfilled and have a buffer against stress.

The great thing about all three of these approaches is that they can all lead to a lift in mood, or "positive effect," and this can help you to more easily handle the stress in your life. This works by making you more able to notice opportunities in your life and build your personal resources, which help you to better handle stress.

So how can people like you and me--people who don't have time to take a year-long sabbatical--bring a little Eat, Pray Love into our lives? Below are some ideas:


In the movie, the main character begins a practice of meditation every morning. This is a wonderful way to relieve stress and can bring health benefits and a meaning to life as well. Regular practitioners find greater resilience toward stress over time. If you don't have time for a trip to India right now, you can start a meditation practice in your own home, or find a meditation group in your community. 

Eat Well

You may not be able to take a tasting trip around Italy, but you can try a new food once a week at local restaurants, experiment with healthy or gourmet cooking, or take a cooking class to get your fix for fine food. Because what you eat can impact your stress levels and make you feel good in the moment, eating sensible portions of really delicious (and nutritious) food in your own hometown can be a very pleasurable experience and can take the edge off of stress. 

Make New Friends

What I noticed about the movie Eat, Pray, Love was that most of the fulfillment and meaning the character found wasn't created by the activities themselves as much as by her interactions with the new and wonderful people she met along the way. She learned from them, grew from her interactions with them, and found meaning from the new ideas and experiences they had to offer. Fortunately, you can find this kind of experience in your own backyard, too. Take a class, join a club, get to know your neighbors, or just start talking to the people around you more. (Or listen to them more!) Being open to new people and new experiences can bring personal growth and fulfillment, and provide resources against stress. 

Focus on Spirituality

If you have a spiritual tradition that you've been neglecting, or if you've been wondering if you should pursue spirituality in your life, start putting a spiritual practice in place in your life. Go to services, read books to deepen your spirituality, or start praying before bed, if you aren't already.

Try Something New

A general theme of Eat, Pray, Love is the idea of challenging one's comfort zone and getting into something new. Unless you're under tremendous stress, new challenges can help you to feel vital and alive. Take on a new hobby, start a new practice, expose yourself to new things. This could be a great route to stress relief and personal fulfillment for you. 

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Article Sources
  • Peterson, C. A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.
    Seligman, M. E. P. Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002.