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Dec 2013 by PCI College

Positive Psychology

Imagine there was a way to supplement your therapy with tools that can help your clients with depression feel better, sooner. Well, there is a way: Positive Psychology offers such tools.

Positive Psychology is a science of optimal human functioning (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). It examines what is good about people and creates interventions that help them flourish (Seligman, 2011). It was originally created to examine the aspects of our psyche that were usually ignored. In the 90s, 17 out of 18 studies focused on human deficits and what was wrong with us (Peterson, 2006). Only one study in 18 looked at what is right about us. While the deficit approach is useful to understand unhealthy human conditions, it is crucial to take a balanced view and consider the positive side to us.

The traditional and positive psychologists’ approach is complimentary. We look at a human being from a different viewpoint. For example, when clients attempt suicide, traditional psychologists focus on what they lack in comparison to mentally healthy and well-functioning people. They create and use interventions to ‘fix’ them and help them feel ‘normal’ again.

On the other hand, positive psychologists examine clients’ character strengths and other psychological resources they can use to recover from adversity. Rather than ask them to ‘think positive’, we help clients explain the negative event in a specific way that is based on the research around developing optimism (Seligman, 1998). We are also curious about the small sample of people who, rather than PTSD, experienced post traumatic growth, as a result of their adversity. Therefore, both approaches are necessary for us to see the whole person. Ignoring one aspect of us, creates imbalance in the way we view our clients.

Originally, Positive Psychology research focused on helping already mentally healthy people flourish. Positive psychologists created over 100 interventions that would help their well-adjusted clients further enhance their well-being. However, a few years into the research, a significant change happened. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, spent many years of his academic career studying learnt helplessness and depression. Having experienced it himself, he and his team wondered what would happen if positive psychology interventions were introduced to people suffering from mild to severe depression. Would they be effective in reducing their depressive symptoms?

The results surprised even the researchers. Compared to traditional approaches used in therapy, not only did the interventions help clients feel better, but the change happened sooner (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006). It was not because positive interventions have magical powers of transforming people. Rather, they create a shift in their thinking and help clients experience more positive emotions. Following from the initial research, a meta-analysis of positive psychology interventions with over 4,000 participants found that positive exercises seemed particularly effective with people experiencing higher levels of depression (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009).

Positive psychology interventions are different to the traditional ones. Consider the famous Pennebaker activity that is widely used in therapy. Over 20 years of research found that asking clients to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings for 20 minutes over three or four consecutive days results in many psychological benefits: mood enhancement (Pennebaker, 1997), reduction of depressive symptoms (Esterling, L’Abate, Murray & Pennebaker, 1999) and increase in effective coping behaviour (Spera, Buchfeind & Pennebaker, 1994). However, we also know that writing about negative events puts our clients into short-term stress (Pennebaker & Uhlman, 1994). Therefore, Positive Psychologists wondered if they can reduce it by asking them to write about positive experiences instead. Rather than dwelling on how trauma affected them, they were encouraged to recall a traumatic event and describe how their experience benefited them as a person and made them more resilient (King & Miner, 2000).

In another series of studies, they wrote about the best possible self in the future when all they wished to come true, actually has (King, 2001). What the researchers found was that both negative and positive writing had the same long term effect of significantly reducing depressive symptoms. However, positive writing was considerably less upsetting and resulted in enhancing positive emotions noticeably sooner than negative writing.

Encouraged by the initial results, the researchers created a series of positive psychology interventions applied in therapy (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006). They were based on a 14-session programme which introduced activities enhancing clients’ positive emotions, engagement and meaning. The results showed more reduction of depressive symptoms and significantly higher remission rates than traditional therapy or antidepressant medication. Can they supplement your therapy?

Positive psychology is a rapidly growing science providing evidence to Maslow’s Humanistic theory. Recently, it is particularly flourishing in therapy with progressively more research showing strong evidence of its effectiveness not only with people suffering from depression but also schizophrenia and other mental disorders. What therapists find attractive about it is the science behind the interventions and their striking results. It may be a great supplement to whatever approach you use. Are you open to try them?

Jolanta Burke
PCI College Lecturer


Jolanta Burke is a positive psychologist and PhD Researcher in Trinity College Dublin. She has written numerous articles for professional and psychological magazines in Ireland and abroad. She is the first author of a book chapter about positive psychology applications in the recently published NCGE handbook for Guidance Counsellors in Ireland. For further information on Positive Psychotherapy, visit www.jumpp.ie

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