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How You Can Use Positive Psychology in Your Practice
November 1, 2012
Alysia A. Cirona, MD
Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology that is getting more attention. The positive psychology movement has gained momentum, both within the psychology profession and in the broader culture. Positive psychology is focused on the traits and features that contribute to a robust sense of happiness, resilience in the face of trauma and stress, and a sense of purpose and well-being.
Positive psychologists use this knowledge to enhance individual happiness and build communities and institutions that foster its development. Positive psychologists look at what is right (ie, strength-focused), not what is wrong (ie, symptom-focused). It is an approach that is meant to complement, rather than supplant, existing psychotherapy practices. Let’s take a look at some principles of positive psychology, followed by suggestions for incorporating these approaches into your psychotherapy practice.
The Three Domains of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is aimed at increasing satisfaction, facilitating contentment and joy, strengthening inborn virtues, and moving beyond a narrow focus on weaknesses and deficits. It holds that positive emotions are possible and exist regardless of psychological burden, and that well-being is more than the reversal or absence of negative emotions (Duckworth AL et al, Annu Rev Psychol 2005;1:629–651). Positive psychologists identify three domains of happiness: the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life.
The Pleasant Life
The first domain is the pleasant life, which concerns positive feelings about the past, present, and future. Positive emotions that may be associated with the pleasant life, and that positive psychologists believe foster happiness, include the following:
Serenity and satisfaction about one’s history and past experiences
Current, fleeting, pleasurable physical sensations, as well as more complex pleasures that occur in the context of learning, knowledge, and experience
Affirmative feelings about the future, such as anticipation and hope
Although this domain does concern pleasant sensations and experiences, it is not to be confused with what your clients may typically associate with “the good life” (in other words, fancy clothes, shiny cars, and lots of cash). This road to happiness is not paved in diamonds. It is independent of material goods.
Assessment of subjective well-being and quality of life will help you better understand your client’s standing in this domain. In most clinical practices, degrees of pathology are often assessed with symptom checklists and questionnaires that do not facilitate an understanding of your client’s general feelings and thoughts about his or her life, capacity to experience momentary pleasure and joy, or hopes for the future.
A practical place to start is to assess your clients’ sense of well-being. What areas of the past have contributed to their sense of self today? What are your clients most satisfied by in their lives? When do they experience real, albeit momentary, sensations of physical pleasure? How have educational and occupational achievements allowed them to succeed, and how can they use their skills to increase pleasure? What are their dreams and hopes for the future?
Certainly, this process may be more difficult for your clients suffering from hopelessness in the face of a severe depressive episode, or with generalized anxiety disorder who feel terrified about the uncertain future. You should empathically acknowledge such fears and negative emotions; positive psychology techniques should not interfere with rapport building and trust, and may not be appropriate during episodes of severe symptoms.
However, an exclusive focus on pathology is likely to result in a lack of awareness, perhaps on the part of you and your client alike, of the things that have gone right for an individual, setting the groundwork for an overemphasis on symptoms. Most people can identify a time in their lives that has contributed to a positive emotional state, and feelings of joy and laughter. With guidance, they may also be able to verbalize how they made the best of less than ideal circumstances and identify how their efforts in school or work have contributed to feeling competent and pleased. Assessing for a subjective sense of well-being can also be facilitated with the use of questionnaires and checklists. One checklist suggested by researchers Angela Lee Duckworth, Tracy A. Steen, and Martin E.P. Seligman, is the Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener E et al, J Pers Assess 1985;49(1):71–75). As with measures of psychopathology, you can share the results with clients in a collaborative manner.
The Engaged Life
The second path to happiness is the engaged life, which means using positive personal characteristics, such as strengths of character, talents, and interests, to enhance a sense of well-being and approach life with awareness of your individual tools. Strengths of character include honesty, integrity, diligence, and creativity, among others.
Assessing clients’ core strengths allows them to apply themselves to tasks and pursue roles in which they are more likely to feel effective, engaged, and valuable by leveraging their abilities in their approach to tasks (Seligman MEP et al, Am Psychol 2006;61(8):774–788). There are free tools available through the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania at http://bit.ly/a6MN, with which clients can assess their character strengths. These results can then be used in the course of therapy. One suggestion is to ask clients to use one of their character strengths in a new way every day for one week (described in Seligman, MEP et al, Am Psychol 2005;60(5):410–421). For example, if you have clients whose top character strength is creativity, they might try looking for a new solution to a problem at work. For other clients whose top strength is social intelligence, they might try to actively engage with new parents while picking their child up from daycare.
The Meaningful Life
The third domain is the meaningful life, consisting of affiliation with, and contribution to, positive organizations or groups. This domain underlines the importance of positive surroundings to support individual wellbeing and positive emotions, but moves beyond socioeconomic or cultural circumstances. It holds that involvement in something beyond oneself—a cause larger than one’s own concerns and needs—provides a sense of meaning and purpose. Examples of potentially positive institutions include family, peers, academic settings, politics, religion, and local and national communities. How might you collaborate with your clients to enhance their sense of purpose and connection? What groups or people might help your clients grow and flourish? Decisions about where to live and work, and who to spend time with, are a natural part of the discourse of psychotherapy. If you adopt and encourage a stance of enhancing meaning, rather than one focused purely on minimizing symptoms or avoiding a bad outcome, you can help clients find happiness via the meaningful life.
TCRBH’S TAKE: While the importance of focusing on “the positive” is nothing new in the practice of psychotherapy, the introduction (in the late 1990s) of positive psychology has offered practitioners new perspectives on how to identify and develop emotional strengths. There are many guidelines available for treatment of disorders, but the guidelines generally focus on symptom reduction, without much specific focus on the development of emotional strengths. Incorporating positive psychology into our psychotherapy approaches, however, presents us with a framework for focusing on these strengths.