Positive Psychology and Health

Posted on 10/09/12 by erynwicker No Comments

What does it actually mean to be healthy? People are constantly talking about living healthy, eating healthy, being healthy, and getting healthy. The World Health Organization defines health as: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist who has pioneered the positive psychology movement describes positive health as “the group of subjective, biological, and functional assets that actually increase health and illness targets.

As we were introduced to last week by Dr. Lees, positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning. Its core philosophy can be described as a “build what’s strong” approach that can augment the traditional “fix what’s wrong” approach.  In fact, proponents of positive psychology state that optimistic or happy people are healthier, more successful, and live longer than other people.

Positive health lends itself to the following questions:

  • Does positive health extend lifespan?
  • Does positive health lower morbidity?
  • Is health care expenditure lower for people with positive health?
  • Is there better mental health and less mental illness?
  • Do people in positive health not only live longer, but have more years in good health?
  • Do people in positive health have a better prognosis when illness finally strikes?

It would seem, in society, that so-called healthcare is really illness care. Even with regard to disease prevention and health promotion the focus tends to be on the reduction of risk factors for illness and very rarely on the encouragement of good health in its own right. However, the absence of symptoms and illness is not the same as health and vigor. For example, mental health or mental well-being (consisting of positive emotion, engagement, purpose, positive relationships, and positive accomplishments) is something over and above the absence of mental illness. It predicts lack of depression, higher achievement, and, according to positive psychology studies, better positive physical health. One of the most intriguing and beneficial themes to come from this research is the link between positive psychology and positive health: subjective well-being, as measured by optimism and other positive emotions, protects one from physical illness.

So, simply put, we all need to increase our life satisfaction, happiness, positive emotions, optimism, self-regulation, meaning and purpose, engagement, and social support so that we can predict our own good health. If we think about children and adolescents, positive health entails more than the mere absence of illness or behavioural problems. Yes, free from illness, disability, substance abuse problems, criminal activity, or premature parenthood; but shouldn’t we expect more than this minimum. I came across a great quote on this matter: “We want our teenagers to be healthy and vibrant, not merely free of disease; optimistic and exuberant, not simply “non-depressed”; intimately connected to others, not just part of the crowd; intellectually curious and determined to succeed in academic and extracurricular pursuits, not simply content to do just what it takes to avoid failing; and passionately engaged in activities that excite them, not just “occupied.”

Shouldn’t we all be so lucky, young and old, to live that view of health?

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