Today the world is facing a real historical choice between humanity and amassing of wealth. Using the privileged position of economic and political leadership, some of the so-called rich countries can continue to increase their material wealth while ignoring the real human needs of their people and the rest of the planet. Such a course is likely to lead to increasing selfishness, estrangement between the more and less fortunate people, and eventually to chaos and despair.
Science and technology have taken unimaginable strides during the recent decades. Yet we have scant knowledge of what makes life worth living. Psychology has helped to understand quite a bit about how people endure and survive numerous adversities they face. But we know very little about how normal people flourish under more benign conditions. The field of psychology has, since World War II, by and large, become a science and practice of healing. It concentrates on repairing damages within a disease model of human functioning, known as ‘pathology’, which neglects a flourishing individual and a thriving community.
However, the hope is not totally lost. Researchers, human behaviour scientists and sociologists alike are now working on a crucial and contemporary concept in psychology known as ‘positive psychology’. This new field has changed the focus of psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also understanding and building positive qualities. Positive psychology is the scientific pursuit of optimal human functioning and the building of a field focusing on human strengths and virtues. It builds on science and research methods that shed light on the "dark side" of human nature, and it opens the doors to some of the inherent potentials human beings have: the natural capacity to be happy, to love, to overcome anxiety and fear, to solve unlimited problems. Psychologists such as Martin Seligman have been able to shift at least some of the emphasis away from just the worst things in life to the study and understanding of some of the best things in life. Now, the human beings can rest assured that there is a bright side to being human, against only the dark side expounded by traditional psychology.
Positive psychology points out that human beings can be genuinely happy irrespective of the situation they find themselves in. It stresses that what is important is your mentality, and not the circumstances that you are in. If you have a ‘positive mentality’ the outside situation will not affect much your inner serenity, confidence, compassion and growth. It is discovered that there is a set of human strengths that are the most likely buffers against mental illness and that promote courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty and perseverance. Much of the task of prevention will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to foster these virtues in everyone, specially the young people.
Some interesting observations by Judith Orloff, MD, establish that people’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. An ability is not a fixed property; there is a huge variability in how you perform. People who have a sense of self-efficacy bounce back from failures; they approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong. Fear is the biggest energy thief there is. The key is to replace fear with faith and belief in yourself and the power of the good. Trying to go unconscious about it won’t stop you from carrying around fear and being drained by it. Spiritual involvement can get people in touch with an energy that is larger than the people themselves, and that helps ease fear. Another such example is the research on hope carried out by Harvard Medical School Professor Jerome Groopman. Can hope contribute to recovery by changing physical well-being? To answer this hotly debated question, Groopman embarked on an investigative journey to cutting-edge laboratories where researchers are unraveling an authentic biology of hope. There he found a scientific basis for understanding the role of this vital emotion in the outcome of illness. In his renowned book The Anatomy of Hope, he offers a new way of thinking about hope, with a message for all readers, not only patients and their families. "We are just beginning to appreciate hope’s reach," Groopman writes, "and have not defined its limits. I see hope as the very heart of healing."
Our religious scriptures such as the Vedas, Bible, Koran, Geeta, Dhammapada, Ramayana, Upanishads, etc. have always talked about highly positive human beings who are modeled as gods or demigods (sometimes called super-human). It is profoundly interesting and delightful to note that the recent developments in psychology corroborate the deep-rooted message these scriptures have for the humanity. This also throws some light on the re-discovered importance of these scriptures and the role they have for the future of humanity.
I believe that the social and behavioral sciences can also play an enormously important role at this juncture. They can show what actions lead to wellbeing, to happiness and a positive frame of mind, and to the prosperity of humanity. Psychology should be able to help document what kind of families result in the healthiest children, what work environments promote the greatest satisfaction among workers, and what policies result in the strongest civic commitment.