Positive psychology is sometimes dismissed as so much happy talk. But its practitioners believe it provides an essential counterbalance to psychiatry’s traditional focus on treating psychological problems and mental disorders, such as depression. This approach, which emphasizes a person's strengths rather than weaknesses, may be an essential ingredient for problem solving.
So what is positive psychology, how can it complement more traditional therapies, and how can you use its techniques to improve your sense of well-being?
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What is Positive Psychology?
The term "positive psychology" encompasses a variety of techniques that encourage people to identify and further develop their positive emotions, experiences and character traits. It was developed as a way to foster well-being and optimal functioning in healthy people. But positive psychology techniques are now being promoted as a complement to established forms of therapy.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., a well-known advocate of positive psychology, has described its core philosophy as a "build what's strong" approach that can augment the "fix what's wrong" approach of more traditional psychotherapy. Seligman and a fellow psychologist, Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., have identified various strengths or qualities that enable people to thrive: curiosity, zest, wisdom and courage.
Another pioneer in the field, Harvard psychiatrist George E. Vaillant, sees positive psychology as a way to encourage patients to focus on positive emotions and build strengths. It supplements psychotherapy, which focuses on negative emotions, like anger and sorrow.
A standard psychiatric textbook used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, he says, contains roughly a million lines of text. Thousands of lines are devoted to anxiety and depression, and hundreds discuss terror, shame, guilt, anger and fear. But only five lines in the textbook discuss hope, only one mentions joy, and not a single line mentions compassion or love.
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Positive Psychology Techniques
Many counseling and coaching strategies rely on aspects of positive psychology. Here are a few examples of how its techniques may complement more traditional therapies.
As its name implies, well-being therapy tries to promote recovery from depression and other affective disorders by having a patient focus on and promote the positive, as well as alleviating negative aspects of life. The approach was developed by Giovanni Fava, M.D., at the University of Bologna in Italy. Well-being therapy is based in large part on six tenets: mastery of the environment, personal growth, purpose in life, autonomy, self-acceptance and positive relationships.
In practical terms, well-being therapy is a lot like cognitive behavioral therapy. A patient uses a journal to keep track of and recognize the positive events that occur each day. Next the patient starts recognizing negative thoughts and beliefs that distract from or disrupt positive events. The ultimate goal is to challenge and eventually change negative ways of thinking so that positive events can have more of an impact on the patient's life.
Dr. Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania developed positive psychotherapy to treat depression. Instead of just by reducing negative symptoms like sadness, this approach helps the patient build positive emotions, character strengths, and a sense of meaning. Positive psychotherapy has been tested in a randomized controlled trial, which is the best way to test a treatment's effectiveness.
Here are some of the exercises positive psychotherapy uses:
- Signature strengths – Identify your top five strengths and try to use them in some new way daily. Dr. Seligman developed a questionnaire that measures 24 character strengths.
- Three good things – Every evening, write down three good things that happened that day and think about why they happened.
- Gratitude visit – Write a letter to someone explaining why you feel grateful for something they've done or said. Read the letter to the recipient, either in person or over the phone.
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Putting Positive Psychology Into Practice
Here are ways that a therapist might add the principles of positive psychology to more traditional psychotherapy. You can even try these practices on your own.
- Reverse the focus from negative to positive. Most people tend to dwell on negative events or emotions and ignore the positive ones. This tendency can be exaggerated in traditional psychotherapy, where the therapist is purposely asking you to reflect on pain, stress or conflict. One way to make up for that focus is to shift attention to more positive aspects of life. For example, a therapist might ask you to think about what parts of your day went right. Or, you might write down an "I did it" list instead of just compiling an endless "to do" list.
- Develop a language of strength.Therapists and patients often talk about pain, conflict and anger. Although these are all a normal part of life, it may be harder for people to talk about or even identify more positive qualities, emotions and personal strengths.
- Practice your strengths. The theory is that people who use their strengths regularly will function better in life. You may ask yourself to identify one top strength and then use it at least once a day.
- Balance the positive and negative. Identify and foster the positive in yourself and others in order to balance out the negative. For example, business executives may mix praise with criticism when evaluating employees to nurture their growth.
- Build strategies that foster hope. A therapist — indeed, any person — who fosters hope in others may increase the odds of successfully dealing with adversity and overcoming a challenge. One way to cultivate hope is to reduce the scope of the problem by breaking it down into parts that can be tackled one at a time. Another way is to identify and practice coping mechanisms to use in order to overcome a particular challenge.
So that brings us back to the message of hope. A positive psychologist might argue that being a skeptic when challenges are great isn't helpful. In fact, strength and hope are crucial if you want to overcome the overwhelming.
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Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 25 years.