How Can Positive Psychology Help in The Treatment of Depression?

Depression Treatment with Positive Psychology
Depression and Positive Psychology. Image Provided by Pixaby,

Positive psychology continues to grow in size, scope, and widespread public interest since its inception nearly 20 years ago, and has showed hope with aiding people who struggle with depression.

Positive psychology principles and ideas can be applied to many areas of life, including education, relationships, family, the workplace, and even the military (Cornum, Matthews, & Seligman, 2011; Matthews, 2008).

Traditional branches of psychology have tended to be more problem-focused in their approaches, and the literature in the field reflects this. Journals are saturated with articles on topics like depression, abnormal personalities, psychological disorders, and learned helplessness.

This overwhelming tendency towards the negative aspects of life has spurred psychologists to create a movement intended to swing the pendulum back towards positivity. Martin Seligman, who discovered the phenomenon of learned helplessness, was one of the original founders of the Positive Psychology movement (Handler, 2015; Peterson & Seligman, 1983).

With such clear intentions by positive psychologists to shed light on what makes humans thrive rather than what makes us deprived, positive psychologists have conducted research and developed interventions in the pursuit of positive psychological treatment for mental health problems.



A +5 On The Scale: How Does Positive Psychology Contribute to The Treatment of Depression?

Although positive psychology leans towards the positive, it does not intend to lose sight of the “negative” and “neutral.” The subfield was created to correct an imbalance within psychology, not to replace the field altogether.

To understand what positive psychology has to offer in the area of depression, it helps to understand how psychologists tend to understand affect or mood.

Much of what we know and believe about affect comes from the groundbreaking work of Watson and Tellegen, who stated that positive and negative affect are not two sides of the same coin, but two different coins entirely (1985).

In other words, if an individual is high in positive affect, that does not mean they are necessarily low in negative affect. The two are independent constructs that can vary in level and intensity, regardless of the level or intensity of the other.

As some researchers have put it, positive psychology treatment attempts to bring a person with depression from a -5 up to a +5 on the scale of well-being, instead of just up to neutral 0 (Sin, Della Porta, & Lyubomirsky, 2011).


Types of Positive Psychology Interventions for Depression

There are several intervention strategies used by positive psychology programs to bring a person with depression up to +5. Some of the most popular positive psychology interventions include:

1) Increasing Positive Emotions

Several studies have shown that increased positive emotions are a promising way of fighting depressive symptoms. Lightsey (1994) showed that positive cognition could predict future happiness and depression, and Wood and colleagues (2008) found that practicing gratitude improved well-being and prevented individuals from experiencing depression.

Similarly, increasing positive emotions and engagement resulted in higher remission rates for people with depression than treatment as usual or even treatment as usual plus medication (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006). Positive interventions aimed at increasing hope and gratitude have also proven effective in enhancing life satisfaction and reducing symptoms (Kwok, Gu, & Kit, 2016).

While increasing positive emotions may not necessarily reduce negative emotions, it does have a positive impact on affect and reduces depressive symptoms. This may be due, at least in part, to enhanced coping and resilience.

2) Enhancing Coping Skills and Building Resilience

There is a lot of evidence about the effectiveness of developing coping skills in counteracting depression. Santos and colleagues (2013) conducted a systematic review of the literature on positive psychological interventions for depression and found that increasing resilience and coping mechanisms were common themes and that these interventions caused significantly reduced remissions in depressive symptoms.

Depressive Symptoms.
Depressive Symptoms. Image Retrieved from Shared Google Images.

Burckhardt and colleagues (2016) tested an intervention aimed at helping students regulate their emotions and deal with life’s stressors more effectively.

They found that their program Strong Minds (a combination of acceptance and commitment therapy) aided their participants by significantly reducing their symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress through the development of coping skills.

3) Finding Purpose

Meaning and purpose are constructs utilized in positive psychological interventions. A meaningful life is considered an important component of a positive life and a pathway to greater well-being (Seligman, 2002).

One intervention that included a meaning component showed that this construct may most effectively improve well-being and relieve depression in older adults (Ho, Yeung, & Kwok, 2014). Another study found that encouraging meaning-making in patients with breast cancer can promote a positive way of dealing with the experience (Casellas-Grau, Font, & Vives, 2014).

Overall it appears that interventions aimed at meaning-making can help individuals with depression achieve increased well-being and reduce their depressive symptoms (Gander, Proyer, & Ruch, 2016).

4) Building Social Support

It’s no surprise that social support is an important factor in dealing with depression and promoting well-being. Several positive interventions target improved social support as a tool for ameliorating depressive symptoms.

For example, research from McWhirter, Nelson, and Waldo (2014) discovered that community-based groups improve social support for those with depression, which in turn decreases symptoms of depression and enhances life satisfaction.

Sin and colleagues (2014) also state the importance of social support in their exploration of positive interventions, finding that social support can help increase well-being for depressed individuals in a sustainable way.


The Structure of Positive Interventions

Interventions based on positive psychology take many forms, but typically they are composed of several short sessions spaced out over weeks or even months. Courses are a popular positive intervention, in part because it is easy to include several short exercises and allow time and space for participants to try out the new techniques they are learning and apply new skills.

Depression and Treatment.
Treatment for Depression. Image Retrieved by URL.

Researchers have also used college courses to deliver positive preventative interventions, with sessions spread out over the semester (Goodmon, Middleditch, Childs, & Pietrasiuk, 2016).

The Say ‘Yes’ to Life (SYTL) program, an intervention designed to build the capacity to cope with depressive symptoms through factors such as personal strengths, humor, and forgiveness, is offered as a four-stage program involving twenty two-hour sessions over several weeks (Carr & Finnegan, 2015).

On the other hand, some interventions are simple, one-time exercises with follow-ups to check on how participants’ measures have changed since the intervention (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).


Who Benefits The Most From Positive Interventions For Depression?

While many enthusiastic, positive psychologists will recommend positive interventions for any person diagnosed with depression who is adventurous enough to try them, there is evidence that they work best for specific groups.

Several researchers found a greater effect for those who are suffering from mild to moderate depression rather than intermittent bouts of depressive symptoms or more severe depression (Celano et al., 2016).

There is also evidence that those who seek out positive interventions and the participants who are highly motivated to complete the program reap the greatest rewards (Sin et al., 2011; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009).

Finally, participants in individual-focused positive interventions may fare better than those in a group or self-administered interventions, a finding that fits with research on therapy and mental health interventions in general (Sin et al., 2011).


Can a Positive Intervention for Depression Help You?

There’s only one way to find out.

Whether you’re interested in a self-administered intervention for depressive symptoms or a guided course on positive psychology, these interventions hold promise for helping you to cope, creating a buffer of positive emotions, and building valuable skills.

You may find varying degrees of effectiveness with different interventions, but there’s no downside to giving them a try.

Please share your experiences with positive interventions for depression in the comments section below! We would love to hear from you.

Akhtar, M. Positive psychology for depression. Retrieved from

Burckhardt, R., Manicavasagar, V., Batterham, P. J., & Hadzi-Pavlovic, D. (2016). A randomized controlled trial of strong minds: A school-based mental health program combining acceptance and commitment therapy and positive psychology. Journal of School Psychology, 57, 41-52. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2016.05.008

Carr, A., & Finnegan, L. (2015). The Say ‘Yes’ to Life (SYTL) program: A positive psychology group intervention for depression. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 45, 109-118. doi:10.1007/s10879-014-9269-9

Casellas-Grau, A., Font, A., & Vives, J. (2014). Positive psychology interventions in breast cancer. A systematic review. Psycho-Oncology, 23, 9-19. doi:10.1002/pon.3353

Celano, C. M., Beale, E. E., Mastromauro, C. A., Stewart, J. G., Millstein, R. A., Auerbach, R. P., Bedoya, C. A., & Huffman, J. C. (2016). Psychological Medicine. Advance Online Publication. doi:10.1017/S0033291716002798

Cornum, R., Matthews, M. D., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Building resilience in a challenging institutional context. American Psychologist, 66, 4-9. doi:10.1037/a0021420

Goodmon, L. B., Middleditch, A. M., Childs, B., & Pietrasiuk, S. E. (2016). Positive psychology course and its relationship to well-being, depression, and stress. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 232-237. doi:10.1177/0098628316649482

Handler, R. (01/07/2015). Positive psychology revisits depression therapy: Martin Seligman and the positive thinking movement. Retrieved from

Ho, H. C. Y., Yeung, D. Y., & Kwok, S. Y. C. L. (2014). Development and evaluation of the positive psychology intervention for older adults. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9, 187-197. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.888577

Kwok, S. Y. C. L., Gu, M., & Kit, K. T. K. (2016). Positive psychology intervention to alleviate child depression and increase life satisfaction: A randomized clinical trial. Research on Social Work Practice, 26, 350-361. doi: 10.1177/1049731516629799

Lightsey, O. R. (1994). “Thinking positive” as a stress buffer: The role of positive automatic cognitions in depression and happiness. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41, 325-334. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.41.3.325

Matthews, M. D. (2008). Toward a positive military psychology. Military Psychology, 20, 289-298. doi:10.1080/08995600802345246

McWhirter, P., Nelson, J., & Waldo, M. (2014). Positive psychology and curative community groups: Life satisfaction, depression, and group therapeutic factors. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 39, 366-380. doi:10.1080/01933922.2014.955384

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1983). Learned helplessness and victimization. Journal of Social Issues, 39, 103-116. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1983.tb00143.x

Santos, V., Paes, F., Pereira, V., Arias-Carrión, O., Silva, A. C., Carta, M. G., Nardi, A. E., & Machado, S. (2013). The role of positive emotion and contributions of positive psychology in depression treatment: Systematic review. Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 9, 221-237.

Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61, 774-788. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.8.774

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410

Sin, N. L., Della Porta, M. D., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). Tailoring positive psychology interventions to treat depressed individuals. In S. I. Donaldson, M. Csikszentmihalyi, & J. Nakamura (Eds.) Applied Positive Psychology: Improving everyday life, health, schools, work, and society, 79-96.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65, 467-487. doi:10.1002/jclp.20593

Watson, D., & Tellegen, A. (1985). Toward a consensual structure of mood. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 219-235. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.98.2.219

Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 854-871. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003

About the Author

Courtney Ackerman, MSc., is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion.


  1. John Thurman

    Outstanding and helpful! I think this is probably one of the best, and most succinct and practical articles that I have read on the topic in some time. Thanks for you work on the topic.

  2. Glen Blaschke

    There are many ways about how you can help a person who has a disorder. First of all, you may suggest them to seek depression treatment. Moreover, you can give all your support and trying to find solutions for them to alleviate their symptoms.

  3. Robert Watson

    That is pretty amazing that more than 300 million people suffer from depression at all ages. This should help and make you feel that you are not alone. There is no shame in seeking help and trying to better yourself.

  4. Dr. Nazeer

    thanks for sharing your insights. This is such a great article. More power!

  5. Kiran babu

    Hi Courtney
    Thanks for this superb article. I constantly come across people who are going through various forms of depression. Being a Social worker, i dont have complete knowledge to address psychological issues. Can you email me worksheets, or intervention steps to support such needy people.
    God Bless
    Kiran babu

    • Annelé Venter

      Hi Kiran
      Glad to know you appreciated the article, and excellent work on helping so many needy people. Unfortunately we cannot email you worksheets, but I would suggest you browse through these articles – some of which do contain worksheets you may download. Have a look: Depression Articles

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