BYU positive psychology labs study how to improve overall well-being

Hikers enjoy the beautiful scenery near Mount Timpanogos. The narration in this video is taken from quotes by Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology. (Made in Adobe Premiere by Hannah LeSueur)

Psychology and Experience Design and Management students are currently researching how to help students have a better, more fulfilling life with the mentorship of professors Jared Warren and Brian Hill.

Martin Seligman is the founder and leading researcher of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He leads the scientific world in the promotion of well-being. Christopher Peterson, who has played a large role in forwarding this concept, described positive psychology on Psychology Today as “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.”

BYU experience design and management professor Brian Hill teaches the class Creating a Good Life through Experience Design to over 600 students each semester. The class focuses on positive psychology and how to apply it in life.

Hill believes that all of us are naturally interested in being happy.

“We know that from the gospel and God’s intention for us,” Hill said. “It can be confusing about what is really the root of happiness though.”

For the last 70 years, the core interest of the experience design and management faculty as behavioral scientists has been the quality of people’s lives, according to Hill.

“I have been convinced by my study of positive psychology that life at its best is a full tapestry of good experiences, challenging experiences and even negative experiences,” said Hill. “It’s a beautiful curtain with all kinds of colors and experiences, just like our lives.”

He shared how the goal of his class is to teach his students how to find true happiness among a wide variety of life experiences.

“The focus of the course is applying all those principles,” said Hill. “I think that’s why it’s become so popular. It’s relevant, and it’s applied. Students are finding the value in it.”

Douglas Turner received his undergraduate degree in organizational communication at BYU. He then went on to be a part of the first cohort in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He studied the concepts of well-being with Dr. Seligman, who started the program.

Turner shared that since then, schools across the globe have adopted and started teaching the principles of positive psychology to their students.

“It all started with Dr. Seligman,” Turner said. “I was lucky enough to be in the very first inaugural [Masters of Applied Positive Psychology] program there.”

Turner’s opportunity to study with Seligman came at a pivotal time in his life. Almost immediately following the completion of his degree, Turner’s wife, Laurie Turner, was diagnosed with cancer.

“When Laurie was diagnosed, we said we’ve never done this before, and we’re never doing it again,” Turner said. They brainstormed together what it would look like for a positive person to respond well to this challenge of battling cancer.

Turner said they asked themselves, “What would a positive person do? What would they think? What would they share with others?”

They concluded that they would have a good attitude about the cancer. “A positive person wouldn’t go around complaining all the time,” Turner said. “Let’s be kind. We don’t know what people’s individual struggles are, so let’s not assume. Let’s just always be kind.”

Turner also shared how accepting these challenges and hardships helped him and Laurie to beat the cancer.

“Being positive or happy does not mean absence of negativity, hardship and challenge,” Turner said. “Some people think that to be happy, you can’t have any sadness in your life. The scriptures say there must be opposition. You have to have opposition, and the research echoes that.”

Logan Call, a senior studying psychology and student researcher in Dr. Jared Warren’s positive psychology lab, shared how his family has helped him maintain a happy attitude about life.

“They are the world to me,” Call said referring to his family. “They are there to lean on and get advice and bounce ideas off of. That’s mostly my avenue of moving forward.”

Hill also shared how focusing on our strengths helps us to find joy in the activities we participate in.

“We each have a unique set of virtues,” Hill said. “Seligman is convinced that if we use those to deal with problems at work, at home, with family, in our own personal lives, we’ll be happier people.”

The acronym PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Seligman teaches that living by PERMA helps improve well-being. (Made in Canva by Hannah LeSueur)

Seligman coined the word “PERMA,” which stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationship and meaning, to describe effective ways to improve overall well-being. Turner shared how living the principles of PERMA helps him to achieve happiness.

“When I remember all of that and use my strengths, that’s when I am most happy,” Turner shared. “That’s when I feel the best.”

Will MacDonald, a senior psychology major and the lab manager of Dr. Warren’s positive psychology lab, shared what he does to help when life gets hard.

“Mindfulness practices are essential to control my stress,” MacDonald said. “Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of oneself and things around oneself. It is similar to meditation in that you can focus on your breath and the feelings in your body as well as calm your thoughts.”

Hill added a tactic called “taking in the good,” found in Rick Hanson’s book “Hardwiring Happiness.”

“Anytime something really good happens like BYU winning the football game, noticing the first change of leaves in the fall or getting a better score on a test or paper than you expected, just take a few seconds—even 5 extra seconds—to take it in,” Hill said. “Take in the good, and just breathe—that trains our minds to be better at savoring, being positive and feeling more happiness.”

Call explained that he keeps an open mind about life to help him stay positive.

“Keeping a long-term perspective in mind has really helped me to see that one bad grade isn’t the end of the world, or to see that this breakup or this car accident can actually be overcome with time, with effort, with friends and with Christ,” said Call. “You can still move forward with it.”

Turner shared that Chris Peterson, a leading researcher in positive psychology, summed it up the best for him.

“The bottom line is that other people matter,” Turner said. “We’re not alone, and to be happy and feel this sense of well-being, we have to be with other people. How you treat them and how they treat you matters to your personal happiness.”

Hill ended by saying that it is important to enjoy every moment.

“What will make us the most positive is learning to savor and enjoy each time in our lives,” said Hill. “If you’re single, just enjoy what that means and the opportunities that you have. If you’re newly married, enjoy that. If you’ve had a child, enjoy what that means. It’s hard, but savor it.”

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