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Positive Spin

For many, the term “well-being” brings to mind a touchy-feely quest for personal health and happiness, but there’s a wealth of research behind well-being where strategies are being tested and proven scientifically successful.

George Mason University psychology professor Todd Kashdan realized early in his career that treating problems “only gets you so far.”

Todd Kashdan

Todd Kashdan

Now a world-recognized authority on well-being research, Kashdan was then treating individuals with anxiety and panic disorders, PTSD, and emotional problems. But he noticed how, even if he removed these conditions, his clients didn’t necessarily go on to live fulfilling lives.

“They could live a completely neutral life,” Kashdan says, “where they just sit on the couch and mindlessly flip through channels, as opposed to knowing what meaningful goals they could pursue and how they could spend their time in a productive and satisfying way.”

In the late 1990s, when the term “positive psychology” was first coined, Kashdan met famed psychologist Martin Seligman, considered the founder of the new field. Seligman told Kashdan what he already knew—that he was studying the wrong thing.

“So I flipped it,” says Kashdan, who is also a senior scientist at Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. “Instead of studying [anxiety] as the response to threatening situations, I began to explore what happens when you respond to threatening situations with a mindset of curiosity.”

His book Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life is the result of his investigation using curiosity as a strategy for managing uncertainty, discovering passions, and becoming mentally tougher and more agile. He extends that theme in his latest book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, where he explores how uncomfortable experiences and situations can be a portal for the realization of human potential.

Beth Cabrera

Beth Cabrera

Psychologist Beth Cabrera, a senior scholar at the center and wife of Mason president Ángel Cabrera, was also influenced early on by the positive psychology movement. A university professor for most of her career, Cabrera was prompted to write a book when she realized much of the science of well-being “never gets out to the people,” she says. “I felt like I kept writing these academic articles that maybe three academics might read. That moved me to try to share the science with a broader audience, to make it easier to understand, and more accessible.”

Her book Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being examines the challenges women face in trying to fulfill both career and family responsibilities, and offers strategies for living a more authentic, meaningful life. Through the center, Cabrera also teaches strengths workshops and leadership development courses. “[These classes] present applicable strategies that have been proven through research to increase well-being,” she says.

Such strategies include practicing mindfulness and gratitude, identifying and learning to apply strengths, and finding new ways to nurture relationships—techniques that help people cultivate positive emotions and appreciate what’s going well in life, rather than focusing on what’s not. And Mason researchers are looking even deeper and pushing farther into this emerging field.

Kashdan is currently researching what he calls “distress tolerance,” or learning to accept the distress caused by being around people with views, ideologies, and feelings that are different from your own. While distress tolerance may require people to visit some dark places, it is, he says, the “secret juice for creating a kinder, more compassionate, more happy place to be living.”

In the end, will this area of science truly make us happier?

Yes, says Cabrera, if we work at it. “The whole point is, there are very simple tools and strategies anyone can do that will make a huge difference in their life, as long as they’re intentional about doing it. It’s simple, but not easy. It takes effort and attention.”

Kashdan agrees, adding that embracing the research behind these strategies leads to better results. Research has shown that even something as simple as a keeping a gratitude journal is more effective if the person does it two to three times per week. Studies show that daily journaling has a downside. “Because on the fifth day, when you can’t think of anything new, you start to think, wait, maybe I don’t have that much richness in my life,” Kashdan says. His Science of Well-Being course [1], which he created and teaches at Mason, delves into the many methods and strategies individuals can employ to achieve a fuller, richer life.

Part of the mission of the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being is to contribute to the growing body of knowledge on well-being. The center’s scholars and fellows are working to make connections between science and application and develop evidence-based practices. The center supports a number of research projects across the disciplines.

“Our common sense is not calibrated sufficiently for us to figure this stuff out on our own,” says Kashdan. “This is where science gets the exactitude of what works best for whom, under what conditions, and with what dosage. And that’s where the magic comes in.”

If you would like to support well-being initiatives at Mason, contact Kevin R. Augustyn at kaugusty@gmu.edu or visit fasterfarther.gmu.edu.