Using Positive Psychology for Stress Management

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Positive psychology is a newer and increasingly popular branch of psychology that seeks to focus not on pathology, but on what contributes to human happiness and emotional health. It focuses on strengths, virtues, and factors that help people thrive and achieve a sense of fulfillment, as well as more effectively manage stress.


The positive psychology movement has its roots in the work of humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, who tried to focus more on the healthy human development and less on pathology, but really came into being as we know it around 1998. It was primarily founded by psychologist Martin Seligman, who made it the focus of his American Psychological Association presidency and inspired others to contribute to this growing area of study.

For Seligman, it became clear that there must be a new branch of psychology when he thought of how he wanted to raise his young daughter. He knew much more about what causes pathology and how to correct that than he knew about how to nurture strength, resilience and emotional health. This had been a greatly under-studied area of research, so it became his primary focus.

The Focus of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology aims to discover what makes us thrive. It looks at questions like, ‘What contributes to happiness?’, ‘What are the health effects of positive emotions?’ and, ‘What habits and actions can build personal resilience?’

So far, they’ve found some wonderful things. For example, it’s well-documented that negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness can impact our health in negative ways, such as triggering our stress response and contributing to chronic stress, making us more susceptible to cardiovascular disease. But positive psychology research has now found that positive emotions can aid health by undoing the physical reactivity that can lead to these problems.

Usage in Stress Management

Positive psychology has so far identified several positive emotional states that can contribute to greater emotional resilience, health, and fulfillment. Some are listed below.


Appreciating what one has in life can lead to more satisfaction and happiness. Both having what you want and wanting what you have can lead to a sense of gratitude, as can specific exercises such as maintaining a gratitude journal. Gratitude-promoting activities can lead to greater feelings of abundance and life satisfaction as well as lifting your mood.


We tend to have a natural tendency toward optimism or pessimism, but that’s just part of our potential. We can work on developing more of a tendency toward optimism if we choose. And, given that optimists see many benefits in life, this is something to work toward!


Losing track of time when you’re absorbed in fulfilling work or another engaging activity, ‘flow’ is a familiar state for most of us. This is what happens when you get deeply involved in a hobby, in learning something new, or in performing an activity that supplies just the right mix of challenge and ease. In addition to making activities more enjoyable, flow also has a number of other advantages such as improved performance and learning and skill development.


A state of being characterized by being fully present in the ‘now’, without trying to make anything different, mindfulness takes some practice for most people but brings wonderful benefits as well, including stress management, better sleep, depression relapse prevention, and cognitive improvements. 


Whatever the path, a focus on spirituality can lead to a greater sense of meaning in life, as well as greater resilience in the face of stress. Prayer and meditation can be a great way to become more centered, and getting involved with a spiritual community can provide excellent social support. 

Next Steps

Applying these principles to your life is a great next step for effective stress management. A simple strategy is to add more pleasures to your life to increase your level of positive emotions. For a more in-depth approach, learn about the positive psychology approach to stress relief.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.