Parables and Positive Psychology

How does the field of positive psychology relate to the prodigal son parable in the bible?

As you may know, this blog pertains to the foundations of well-being from a perspective of positive psychology. I strongly believe in several findings from the field of positive psychology in questioning what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory is one of my favorite theories to apply to several components of my life. I also am fascinated by the intersection between this theory and my christian faith, which is why I would like to start a new segment on this blog called “Parables and Positive Psychology.”

The purpose of these posts is relatively simple; I would like to examine parables from the bible and demonstrate how it could tie into Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being. This acronym stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (Seligman, 2011). I find messages from the bible to be complementary to the scientific findings of positive psychology. So, without further ado, here is the first segment of “Parables and Positive Psychology.” I hope you enjoy!

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to make merry,” (Luke 15:24).

This excerpt is based on a son who once strayed away from his father by spending all of his money and making poor life decisions. After a sustained amount of time away from his home, the son came back to his father asking to be brought back into the home and for forgiveness of his past actions. While many would expect the father to be upset with the son for the wrongdoing he had done for so long, the father instead welcomed him back with open arms. On top of this, the father even threw him a large feast with several friends to celebrate his homecoming!

There are two components of Seligman’s PERMA theory that especially stand out to me. First off, several positive emotions are demonstrated in the parable. These include the forgiveness of the father, the gratitude of the son, and the joy brought to all the family and friends (outside of the brother, who initially expressed jealousy and resentment over the situation). These positive emotions are probably included among several others from the parable, so feel free to leave any contributions in the comments section of any others you can think of!

A sense of meaning can also be derived from this parable. The father demonstrates his commitment to contributing to the well-being of his son, even when he was lost for a while. The father seems to have a strong sense of meaning in doing this in his own life even through times of difficulty. It can also be argued that the son was unsure of his meaning in life until he was away from his family for a while. After he had left, he was able to finally be grateful for where he was placed in his life by being a part of that family. Therefore, even though the son had strayed away, the experience really helped him realize how grateful he should be to have his family, and to understand that his family contributes to a strong sense of meaning in his life.

Lastly, it is pretty evident from the parable that the father represents God, and that the son represents anyone who feels they have drifted away from God. So to wrap up with the meaning component of Seligman’s PERMA theory, someone who comes back to God after drifting away for a long time may find that their sense of meaning in their lives is stronger than it was before. Please feel free to share your own personal experience if you feel that you can relate to this situation!

Thank you all for reading. I really enjoy writing my thoughts about these topics as I am fascinated by the intersections between psychology and religion. I welcome any contributions that you may have to the content (even if you respectfully disagree!). As always, I hope their is something of substance that you derive from these writings, and I hope you are all doing well!

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4 thoughts on “Parables and Positive Psychology

  1. Hi,
    In response to one of my posts on the parable do the prodigal son, you mentioned that you write about this parable from the perspective of positive psychology. You explained what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life from a scientific point of view. And so here I am intrigued after checking out your writing. What you wrote is interesting but for me I view things a little differently.

    For me, meaning and purpose in life is found in Jesus. I am a scientist by profession and I must say that my faith or scripture is not complementary to any scientific fact. Rather the other way around for me. Science is absolutely necessary, it explains a lot of the ‘how’ but not necessarily the ‘why’.
    For example if you look at the forgiveness of the father to the son, science can explain the how- with a positive approach and attitude. But the why- even though he should have been angry with the son, for me the why is because the Lord forgave us first, teaches us to forgive and instead love. And most importantly he enable us to let go and forgive.
    I so agree on the positive emotions aspect that you talk about and liked how you pointed out those positive emotions in the parable. For me, those positive emotions of forgiveness, finding meaning and purpose all originate with the father. A positive emotion such as Joy also originated with God. For example, a person can have a lot going on in their life but not have Joy. And I have met people who are of faith but view everything with a glass half empty attitude and kind of suck out the joy from everything.

    So yes I like the PERMA theory, it is something that we can apply in our lives but I think I look at it a little differently than you do.
    I hope I made sense explaining my thoughts and I am in no way undermining what you think or believe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Perth Girl,
      Thank you so much for your input! I really appreciate what you have written here, and I really appreciate how much you engaged with the content overall! I would like to clarify a few things, especially since I think that we are actually in agreement on a lot of topics. I just may not have been as clear as I would like to be.
      First off, I absolutely love that Christ is the center of your life. I think this is so important for all of us to strive for! What I would like to mention here is that I absolutely agree with your point that God and Christ are where everything points back to. What I aim to do with my studies and this blog in general is to show from a different perspective how people can live more meaningful and fulfilling lives. What I like about positive psychology so much is that it provides empirical support for several important things such as having strong relationships in our lives, experiencing positive emotions, and applying our talents in engaging ways. These are things that Christ has been trying to tell us all along, instead of pursuing things that lead to a temporary and distorted sense of happiness like the endless pursuit of wealth or material things. This is what I mean by complementary. Christ is absolutely the center point, and positive psychology findings should not be viewed as a replacement of what Christ is trying to teach us. Rather, I feel that positive psychology and other scientific findings are helpful for people to grasp what Christ tells us is important in our lives. One is relatively new, while the other has been telling us this from the very beginning. But they’re both emphasizing the same very important facets of our lives.
      I do feel a strong sense of purpose and a calling for sharing with the world fascinating scientific findings and how they relate to our well-being. I think it is very in line with what Christ values in our lives. He is definitely at my center, and I feel that part of my mission is to bridge the gap between what Christ teaches us and scientific findings. They are both useful for us to understand the bigger picture of life in general. This is a very daunting task and a lot of work is yet to be done, but we all have to start somewhere!
      Thank you again so much for engaging with the content in the way that you did. It means a lot to me when people think this deeply about the content. I hope that I have made a little more sense to you and I am happy to clarify anything else. Thanks again, I hope you are doing well, and God bless you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi,
    Thank you for patiently going through my lengthy message and clarifying things. I feel I now better understand what you are trying to convey through your writings. Your emphasis is on positive psychology but in no way does it take the place of Christ in your life – I like that. Maybe, a bit more of Christ could be infused into your writing so that people like me can understand that.
    I look forward to more of what you have to say through this blog.
    God bless you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had this own realization myself, which inspired my recent segment of “Parables and Positive Psychology.” My goal now is to basically post every Sunday for this segment. I also aim to have one post a week for the knitty gritty science stuff that takes a long time to research, which hopefully is of benefit to everyone. I will be starting school soon though, but at very least, I will be striving very hard to not miss posting on Sundays. I am so glad I was able to help clarify things for you and I really appreciate your feedback on my writings. I hope you are doing well, and God bless you!

      Liked by 1 person

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