Tuesday, March 03 | Thought Leadership, Value-based Care, Human Services

A Look Inside Positive Psychology

By Denny Morrison, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Advisor

When we think of mental health, we often picture negative experiences or emotions. Dissatisfaction, unhappiness and hopelessness–they’re all real and validated emotions that individuals with mental health challenges regularly face, and psychology is typically seen as a way to help those ailments. But another way of looking at psychological wellness suggests that mental health doesn’t always need to be approached or discussed as an illness or a problem to solve.

Positive psychology focuses on changing that negative, problem-oriented mindset to a more positive one. It aims to highlight the qualities and strengths that empower individuals to thrive. Instead of looking at psychology as helping someone with a problem, this approach aims to improve an individual’s quality of life. Positive psychology studies which factors, behaviors and choices contribute to having a positive and optimistic mindset. This method of thinking changes the message from “I’ve got a problem” to “How can I make myself happy?”

Positive psychology was discussed by the ancient Greeks who debated the difference between hedonism (external happiness) and eudaimonia (a good life or internal happiness). But positive psychology gained recent prominence in the late 1990s by Dr. Martin Seligman, who at the time was serving as the President of the American Psychological Association. Seligman wanted to focus on the optimistic aspects of psychology rather than the pessimistic or adverse side of mental health, with a goal of increasing one’s sense of happiness toward life and well-being. In hopes of asserting positive psychology as a standard practice in the behavioral health industry, Seligman became a major advocate for the approach and among others offers a variety of credential courses for providers, professionals or anyone interested in learning more about positive psychology. 

As with any method of practice, there are criticisms and precautions that come along with positive psychology. Some view positive psychology as being oblivious to the real world or that it minimizes the raw and distressing emotions that many individuals are unable to ignore when facing a mental health issue. However, this is only true if you take the absolutist perspective when analyzing positive psychology. Like any absolutist stance, saying this is the end-all be-all is opening the doors to criticism. Advocates of positive psychology are quick to point out that this is not the goal of this approach. Rather, it is meant to be used as an addition to other therapies and treatment methods. Positive psychology shouldn’t be looked at as the way the world works, rather a tool one can use to help increase optimism, reshape perspective and focus on the good. For providers, positive psychology integrates easily with other popular forms of treatment like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There is even a specific model of CBT called “Positive CBT”.

In fact, positive psychology can and should be practiced every day, even if you’re not seeking professional mental health treatment. It’s something we can all do on our own to help boost our outlook on daily life. Check out some of these positive psychology techniques you can put in practice today:

  • Keep a gratitude journal Maintaining a gratitude journal is an active way to focus on the blessings in your life. Regardless of the challenges you are facing, there is always something to be thankful for; sometimes we just need to remind ourselves of what those things are. A gratitude journal helps people keep things in perspective and focus on what is, rather than what could be.
  • Perform acts of kindness Doing something thoughtful and compassionate for someone else not only helps others, but it can improve your mood and overall happiness. The key is going out of your way to do something you wouldn’t normally do. Whether you help out a friend, buy a stranger’s lunch or spend the day volunteering, performing an act of kindness helps highlight the good you are giving to the world, which in turn can heightened optimism and even raise self-esteem.
  • Practice self-compassion No one is perfect, and life isn’t always as happy-go-lucky as we’d like. A big part of positive psychology is being kind to yourself and maintaining self-compassion during difficult times. Be kind to your mind. Treat yourself with love and patience, especially when you feel a rise of negative emotions. By recognizing your distress and meeting it with compassion, you are allowing yourself to feel negative emotions without letting them control you. Try repeating mantras to yourself to remind you that pain is only temporary.
  • Discover the benefit When difficult times arise, it is helpful to try to look for the positive side of the situation, no matter how small that might be. Challenges in life can be beneficial if we allow ourselves to see the benefit in seemingly negative experiences. Look to what this event or experiencing you is teaching you or how you can grow moving forward. Often called the “silver lining,” discovering positive outcomes when we are feeling distress can help us shift our thought process to have a more optimistic mindset.

For individuals wanting to adopt a more positive mindset for themselves or for providers who wish to add another tool in their clinical repertoire, positive psychology offers much for a modicum of effort. When paired with other psychology practices and approaches, positive psychology can be an approachable and beneficial method to improving one’s overall outlook while boosting self-worth and optimism.

Interested in learning more about positive psychology? Listen to the podcast with Dr. Tony Zipple where we discuss positive psychology in more detail. Dr. Zipple talks about the history of positive psychology and how it can be used for personal growth or incorporated into clinical practice.  For continued access to more podcast content, reach out to LearningServices@NTST.com to find out how your organization can gain access to the Enterprise Training Program.




Meet the Author

Denny Morrison, Ph.D. · Chief Clinical Advisor

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