I realised I haven’t really given my views and opinions on anything related to mental and physical health yet, so I thought I should change that. Thus, I present to you ‘Positive Psychology’.
Traditional psychology tends to exclusively focus on the negative aspects of human functioning (Banicki, 2014). But positive psychology arose to change that by addressing the other forgotten side of psychology. Instead of looking at how to help people experiencing problems with their mental health, it would instead look at how to maintain good psychological health.
Knowing how to maintain good psychological health can then be used to help those who have not-so-good psychological health. Basically, the objective of positive psychology is to understand and intervene in order to improve life satisfaction and well-being of both clinical and well populations (Krentzman, 2013).
Why focus on the positive? I hear no one ask. Well, according to Layous, Chancellor, Lyubomirsky, Wang, and Doraiswamy (2011), positive emotions are crucial for our wellbeing, and positive emotions do not just make us feel good, but also encourage better outcomes in a number of life domains, such as enhanced social relationships, better physical health, and improved marital satisfaction.
This view is also shared by Garland, Fredrickson, Kring, Johnson, Meyer, and Penn (2010) who stated that positive emotions, although fleeting, have lingering consequences; building personal resources which can trigger other positive emotions, leading to sustainable well-being.
A similar view was also put forward by Layous, Chancellor, and Lyubomirsky (2014), suggesting that when positive feelings disappear, their impact on physical, social, and intellectual resources could still remain. They also state that increasing happiness could dampen the pain of negative life events and/or increase the use of coping mechanisms, preventing a decline into clinical level mental health problems and increasing well-being.
Basically, positive emotions should work as a way to mitigate the effects of negative emotions (Wood and Tarrier, 2010), even causing people to take positive action rather than allowing themselves to get trapped in negative moods (Krentzman, 2013). Layous, Chancellor, and Lyubomirsky (2014) went so far as to claim that positive psychology should aid people in protecting themselves from developing mental health problems. That boat has long since sailed for me, unfortunately.
In short, the better your psychological wellbeing is before an event triggers a negative emotional state, the better equipped and able you are to manage it effectively. This is another good reason why mental health awareness and wellbeing training should be taught in schools.
Thus, as Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009) explained, it is important to understand how to raise languishing individuals to a more optimal condition. This will then allow them to better manage negative emotional states. The key question is, how do you apply this to people with long-term mental health problems? Don’t worry, we’re coming to that.
What Is Positive Psychology?
For psychology, emotions are not really positive or negative, each emotion exists to fulfil a function, they only become a problem when they go to the extremes, thus becoming a problem: extreme happiness would be mania and extreme sadness would be depression (Wood and Tarrier, 2010). The idea of positive and negative emotions is largely a societal notion, rather than a scientific one.
So what is positive psychology, then, if not the study of positive emotions? Well, according to Peterson (2008), positive psychology is the investigation of our strengths, while the rest of psychology focuses on our weaknesses.
Linley and Harrington (2006a) were kind enough to define ‘strengths’ in the context of positive psychology, as being our innate capacity for thinking, feeling, or behaving that facilitates favourable performance and functioning in the quest for valued outcomes.
For example, Linley and Harrington (2006a) work in the workplace shows that a manager that has a clear understanding of their staff’s strengths can match them to tasks they’re better suited to handle. It also allows the manager to create personalised management and developmental support tailored to each staff member’s personal list of strengths.
Taking Linley and Harrington (2006a) work from management and adapting it to mental health, a practitioner who knows their client’s individual character strengths should be able to tailor treatment plans and coping strategies to capitalise on them. This utilises the client’s strengths to help manage their mental health and future negative life events better. This will not only increase the likelihood of better outcomes but also make the client feel good in general (Linley and Harrington, 2006b).
Thus, to get a better understanding of your mental health, not looking at how your character strengths have helped you and could help you in the future could mean missing out on an important part of helping you manage your mental health. This will limit your resources to mitigate future life stresses. Simply put, ignoring positive characteristics would give you an incomplete picture (Wood and Tarrier, 2010).
Strengths and Virtues
The character strengths that define positive psychology are a collection of 24 traits which have then been grouped into six virtues. The six virtues as defined by Linley and Harrington (2006a) are:
Wisdom and knowledge
This is made up of: creativity, love of learning, perspective, curiosity, and open-mindedness/judgement.
In short, the acquisition and use of knowledge.
Which is made up of: zest, bravery, persistence, and integrity.
Basically, using your ‘will’ to reach your goals.
This is comprised of: kindness, love, and social intelligence.
This is your interpersonal skills, such as befriending and helping people.
This consists of: fairness, leadership, and citizenship/teamwork.
This is your community-focused strengths.
Which it incorporates: forgiveness, prudence, self-regulation and humility.
Basically, your self-control.
Lastly, this is composed of: an appreciation of beauty, gratitude, humour, hope, and spirituality.
This is what gives us meaning and connection to the larger universe.
If you’d like to take a short test to see what your strengths are according to this list, then you can do so here. They offer a free version of your list of strengths, it’s a little basic, but it’ll give you an idea on what your best strengths are, so you can then try and figure out how to take advantage of them to support your wellbeing. You could also take note of which ones come near the bottom of the list and take steps to improve on those if you wish as well.
Positive Psychology Interventions
A study by Huffman et al. (2014) which sort to address the spike in the suicide rates of those recently discharged from inpatient mental health care using positive psychology interventions. The results of the interventions showed that there were improvements in hopelessness and optimism, suggesting that positive psychology interventions can be used to help those with mental health problems.
The nine positive psychology exercises used in this study were:
Acts of Kindness
Engage in three acts of kindness for others within a single day and write about these acts and their outcomes. For example, buying a meal for a homeless person or giving up your seat on the bus.
Behavioural Commitment to Values-Based Activities
Create or find a list where you can select a principle to guide the way you hope to live. For example, being physically fit or creating art, and then taking a small step toward connecting to this principle. If you picked creating art, then maybe looking up art classes online would be your first small step.
Best Possible Self (Accomplishments)
Imagine and write about what your best possible future accomplishments, then work out how to achieve this future. For example, maybe you’ve always wanted to be a published writer, so you work out what steps need to be taken to make that happen, such as going to night school to learn writing skills.
Best Possible Self (Social Relationships)
Imagine and write down what your best possible future interpersonal relationships could be and then work out what steps you need to take to make these relationships a reality. For example, if you wanted a better and honest relationship with your partner, one of your steps could be to figure out how you could approach the topic with your partner (maybe writing down what you want to say first before talking to them).
Examine your past week for three instances of events where something happened that you were grateful for and record them in detail. For example, how the bus driver didn’t drive off as they saw you running to catch the bus before it departed.
Select a painful event that happened at least two years previously and write a letter to the person who wronged you. The goal of the letter was to forgive the person who wronged you for at least some aspect(s) of the event. You don’t have to send this letter. If you’ve read my article ‘Childhood Neglect: An Awkward Phone Call With My Mum‘ then I could write a letter to my mum forgiving her for the various incidents where I didn’t get the support I desperately needed as a child. I could even write a letter to my former bullies (Suicidal Child).
All you need to do for this one is to recall another’s act of kindness towards you and write a letter to the person that describes your feelings of gratitude associated with this act. If desired, you could send that person the letter. If you’ve read my post Suicidal Child then I might write a letter to thank the only person who stood up to my bullies with me.
Participate in Enjoyable and Meaningful Activities
Deliberately complete these three acts in a single day, and write about it:
- Engage in pleasurable activity alone, for example, playing a video game.
- Engage in an enjoyable activity with others, for example, playing football.
- And do a meaningful or important act, such as signing up for an adult education course.
Write a brief list of personal strengths (or find a list), then select a strength to be used internationally within the next 24 hours. Then write about how you used the strength and its outcome. For example, if you picked ‘perseverance’ as your strength to be used within the next 24 hours, then to use it you’d have to make sure you didn’t give up on something you’d normally give up on.
Further examples of positive psychology interventions come from Johnson, Gooding, Wood, and Tarrier (2010). They got students who were experiencing suicidal ideation to use positive self-appraisals to see if it would help manage the impact of negative life events. They found there was an increased resilience due to positive self-appraisals when dealing with negative life events.
Another study by Johnson, Gooding, Wood, Taylor, Pratt, and Tarrier (2010) also found a link between decreased hopelessness which led to a reduction in suicide rates in those on the schizophrenia spectrum, due to a positive self-appraisal intervention.
These studies further support the validity of using positive psychology interventions to aid those suffering from mental health problems. They also show how different interventions can be designed to target different strengths and emotions in order to get a preferable outcome in the management of their issues.
So what is the positive self-appraisal intervention?
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. The idea is to focus on your own good deeds, your good characteristics, and reflect on your accomplishments. If I was going to pick an accomplishment, then I would pick how I went to university to do my undergraduate degree even though I was still suffering from anxiety-induced psychotic breaks, which caused daily hallucinations. I mentioned this in my previous post: How Being Diagnosed with Dyslexia Changed My Life. It’s also one of my accomplishments my partner often reminds me of when I’m feeling like all I’ve done is waste my life.
Another example could be that even though you’re suffering from depression, you’ve still managed to drag yourself out of bed to attend treatment, or simply to shower and get dressed rather than spend yet another day in your PJs. I know I’ve had large periods of time where I’ve basically just moved from my bed to the sofa and then back again at the end of the day, wearing the same PJs without changing for longer than I’d like to admit.
Another good positive psychology intervention to build yourselves up, one you’ve most likely encountered a lot, is positive affirmations.
All you need to do is say positive statements to yourself, such as I deserve to be happy, I am worth it, and my mistakes are in the past and I forgive myself for them. It sounds easy, but it’s actually a lot harder than you think if you’re suffering from depression.
Unfortunately, most clinical treatments leave people in a state where they are not depressed, but still suffer a low sense of well-being, so Layous, Chancellor, Lyubomirsky, Wang, and Doraiswamy (2011) proposed that positive psychology interventions that aim to help people in treatments to experience positive thoughts, affects, and behaviours can be motivated to push past simply not being depressed, to the point of thriving.
This is backed up by Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009) earlier work, finding that positive psychology interventions caused a significant improvement in wellbeing and decrease in depressive symptoms.
Thus, I encourage you to spend some time and look for other positive psychology interventions for yourself, or even try creating your own. But in the meantime, here’s a couple more intervention ideas to get you going:
Much like I stated earlier, empathy interventions are all about fortifying positive emotions in interpersonal relationships. Healthy social networks are good for our happiness. The key to this style of intervention is communication, communication, and communication. Learn to talk openly within the relationships you want to improve, allowing you to enhance your understanding of other people’s perspectives.
As already suggested, you could write a gratitude letter in order to use this strength to support your mental health, but you could also do this in the form of a journal. Write down all the events that you feel grateful for whenever you encounter them. This will allow you to keep a journal of all the things you have to be grateful for in one place, which you can look back on to restore some happiness and satisfaction when you’re feeling low.
This is about gaining contentment and happiness through achieving the things that are meaningful to you or finding meaning in your daily activities. This can be done by setting realistic goals and how you’ll achieve them: I’d recommend SMART goals. Using meaning-oriented interventions is meant to be good for helping people suffering from stress disorders, even PTSD.
Savouring interventions focus on encouraging you to grab every little aspect of an experience, meaning you need to focus in on all the sensory, emotional, and social experiences of an event. This is meant to be good for depression and mood disorders, as such interventions should elicit happiness and self-satisfaction, due to you fully engaging in positive experiences. It might be good to try this approach when trying something new, like a new hobby, in order to increase the chances of you engaging in the new fun hobby again.
Hope is an important strength. Positive psychology interventions that affect hope can have some of the biggest impacts on your wellbeing. So I recommend you try out interventions that affect your sense of hope.
People with high levels of hope will push themselves to take the next step, unlike people with low levels of hope (Snyder, Lopez, Shorey, Rand, and Feldman, 2003), and have greater problem-solving abilities (Chang, 1998). Thus, if you can increase your sense of hope using positive psychology interventions like positive self-appraisal or counting your blessings, then it should help you manage your mental health and negative life events better. Thus, reducing the likelihood of your mental health getting as bad as it could have been when these events occur.
Weaknesses Of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology does have its issues, in part due to it being a fairly new area of psychology. Because of its newishness, there’s limited available research into all its possible applications. Meaning, some applications are easier to find than others, such as those focusing on hope.
There’s also the issue of the blurring between scientific inquiry and the self-help movement. Due to the marketing of life-enhancing services and goods to the general population (Krentzman, 2013), this area of psychology has become tainted by the stigma of pop psychology. A view I once held.
In general, there’s a huge problem with the media taking research out of context to sell magazines and newspapers, but positive psychology seems to have been affected more than most.
Positive psychology has also been criticised for overstating its claims and has issues around how to conceptualise wellbeing for the purpose of research and clinical practice (Wood and Tarrier, 2010). Hopefully, a shared definition will be used in order to gather better research data for the application of positive psychology sometime soon.
I’d also like to point out that there is something that needs to be considered when adhering to one’s ‘spirituality’ (transcendence) strength. A person’s religious views can be very important to them, but over-emphasis on this can have its downsides (Kim, Reid, McMahon, Gonzalez, Lee, and Keck, 2016). Choosing to use the power of praying to resolve health issues rather than seeking professional help has cost people their lives. So practice your religion by all means, but don’t use it alone.
To sum up, positive psychology interventions have been shown to be useful in a number of different mental health areas, ranging from depression (Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009), protecting against future negative events in students suffering from suicidal ideation (Johnson, Gooding, Wood, and Tarrier, 2010), reducing the spike in suicidal behaviour in recently discharged mental health inpatients (Huffman et al., 2014), and helping patients on the schizophrenic-spectrum (Johnson, Gooding, Wood, Taylor, Pratt, and Tarrier, 2010).
If these areas can show the benefits of positive psychology interventions, then it is reasonable to think that positive psychology and positive psychology interventions can be useful to help people suffering from a broad range of mental health problems, especially as an addition to clinical support/treatment.
As Garland, Fredrickson, Kring, Johnson, Meyer, and Penn (2010), Wood and Tarrier (2010), and Layous, Chancellor, and Lyubomirsky (2014) stated, the effects of positive psychology interventions in allowing us to access positive experiences and connect with our character strengths can have a lasting effect, even when the fleeting positive emotions have subsided, as they always do. But the fact that they can leave a mark on how well we handle future stressful events is highly significant.
As I already stated, ‘Hope’ is one of the key character strengths, because of its ability to motivate us. Thus, it shouldn’t be overlooked even if it doesn’t make your top 10 strength characteristics. After all, hopelessness is linked to increased suicidal ideation and depressive symptoms (Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009; Johnson, Gooding, Wood, Taylor, Pratt, and Tarrier, 2010; and Huffman et al., 2014).
Positive psychology interventions that reduce or mitigate these feelings of hopelessness will lessen depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Thus, ‘hope’ should always be considered as a strength to work on, especially if you’re dealing with trauma and shame.
‘Gratitude’ is another important character strength that shouldn’t be overlooked. If you can appreciate the help loved ones and other close people have made or are making to help you (including the practitioner), then that too can work as a motivating force to manage your mental health.
In regards to your treatment practitioner, it’ll also help with improving the therapeutic relationship, which in turn should produce more favourable treatment outcomes.
For someone who has a borderline personality disorder like me (especially in my earlier days of dealing with it), positive psychology interventions for ‘self-control’ and ‘prudence’ could be highly beneficial in reducing risk-taking behaviours from a harm-minimisation perspective.
Lastly, three other strengths I also think are important:
- ‘Bravery’, it takes a lot of inner strength to change your life and to push through the pain.
- ‘Perseverance’, being able to keep trying in the face of setbacks and to continue with your treatment and recovery goals is no easy feat.
- ‘Honesty’, which is especially important for those suffering from substance dependence, because if you can’t be honest about how much you’re using and when, then you’ll struggle to reach your recovery goals. The key stage of overcoming substance dependence is being honest about your addiction, which includes your using. Being able to be honest about this is a huge sign of your commitment to trying to beat your addiction.
I feel these characteristics should be addressed regardless of where they appear on your character strengths list, because of the amount of influence they hold over you.
There’s still work to be done with positive psychology and its interventions in order to maximise its potential to help in all aspects of psychology. Should I come across new evidence-based interventions, you guys will be the first to know. I know I want to figure out how I can apply positive psychology to my work in the future.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences with positive psychology in the comments section below as well. If you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
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