Scientists help unlock the secret to happiness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am

City catches the positive psychology bug sweeping US campuses

A new branch of psychology that promises to provide the scientific keys to the secret of happiness is taking Hong Kong's universities by storm.

Positive psychology has become a leading research topic in the United States in just seven years and more than 200 American universities and colleges offer courses such as 'the science of well-being'.

An introductory course in positive psychology was the most popular option at Harvard last year, with 855 students signing up for it.

The trend has spread to the UK, where the University of Cambridge has set up a Well-Being Institute to conduct research in positive psychology and promote educational programmes in positive psychology at schools and hospitals.

The discipline, launched by American psychologist Martin Seligman in 1998, aims to shift the focus of psychology away from providing remedies for pathological behaviour to helping people achieve higher levels of satisfaction and happiness.

Researchers in Hong Kong are working in partnership with academics in the US and the UK to extend experimental findings and adapt theories of positive psychology to a Chinese context.

At the University of Hong Kong, Samuel Ho Mun-yin has set up a positive psychology laboratory to conduct collaborative research with Dr Seligman. He has developed a system for measuring well-being among Chinese people and is researching positive psychotherapy for clinically depressed people in Hong Kong and the mainland.

'Traditional psychology brings people from a negative condition to point zero, but we are trying to bring people from point zero to a positive condition,' Dr Ho explained. 'We are doing individual psychotherapy using positive psychology with patients who are diagnosed with clinical depression in hospital.

'It is very promising. Positive psychology is very consistent with the Chinese philosophy of illness. Traditional Chinese medicine [takes] a more preventive than remedial approach to health and illness, and positive psychology promotes a similar approach to people's mental health.'

HKU's Centre on Behavioural Health is teaching positive psychology to doctors and nurses, social workers and teachers enrolled in a Master of Behavioural Health programme. The centre's director, Cecilia Chan Lai-wan, said: 'We have a placement where students can promote stress management using positive psychology, for instance, in work with cancer patients.'

Researchers at HKU, City University and Polytechnic University are undertaking joint research with Westminster University in England into the relationship between optimism, positive emotions and the stress hormone cortisol.

Julian Lai Chuk-ling, the associate head of City University's department of applied social studies, said he had found that optimistic people had lower levels of the stress hormone. He was now doing research into whether behaviour would change if they adopted more optimistic attitudes.

'Positive psychology is more effective than conventional psychology and psychotherapies in helping people to function at their full capacity and overcome life difficulties,' Dr Lai said.