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Applied Positive Psychology in Therapy: Your Ultimate Guide

Positive psychology in therapyWithout a doubt, this is an exciting time for positive psychology in therapy.

Many academics and therapists now recognize the value of this fascinating, evolving field and its potential to help those in need of support and growth while searching for a more valued and meaningful life (Ivtzan et al., 2016).

Such an approach aims to enhance clients’ wellbeing in therapy by focusing on their strengths and values and the positive aspects of their lives, rather than the negatives.

This article explores the importance of applied positive psychology in therapy, its uses, and the tools and techniques available to practitioners.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

Chapter 1 – What Is Applied Positive Psychology?

While this new and innovative approach was born out of Martin Seligman’s 1998 address to the American Psychological Association, applied positive psychology’s spirit harks back as far as classical Greece and the great philosophers of the time (Seligman, 2011).

In the article, Who Is Martin Seligman and What Does He Do?, we shine a light on the author of several bestsellers and the man often referred to as the father of positive psychology. In one of his most famous texts, Flourish, Seligman (2011) explains his approach (and research backs it up): We all have the capacity and capability to achieve a pleasant life that consists of both engagement and meaning.

Our article about the founding fathers and the history of positive psychology explores the positive psychology theory further, its psychological antecedents, and the events that led to Seligman’s revelation. The article points out that it is possible to help people by focusing on what is right rather than what is wrong and paying attention to their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

And if you wish to dig deeper into what positive psychology is (and is not), check out What Is Positive Psychology & Why Is It Important? and, crucially, learn why it is the exploration of all that makes life worth living (Seligman, 2011; Lomas et al., 2014; Ivtzan et al., 2016).

But how do we apply the theory and concepts of positive psychology in the world, treating people and changing their lives for the better? And how can therapists create meaningful and valued living that focuses on their clients’ strengths?

Understanding applied positive psychology

Positive psychology is not prescriptive, it is facilitative (Lomas et al., 2014). In What Is Applied Positive Psychology?, we go beyond the theory surrounding what it means to make life better.

We examine how we practically apply the approach, enhancing our clients’ wellbeing in therapy by focusing on their strengths, self-compassion, and values. After all, it works well as a therapeutic treatment even for those not seeking or expecting help (Lomas et al., 2014).

Most notably, the application of positive psychology, while valuable in therapeutic sessions, can also be readily applied to (among other fields):

  • Healthcare
    Advancing the theory and practice of positive mental health
  • Management
    Increasing focus of leaders on their own and their staff’s strengths and meaningful engagement
  • Politics
    Focusing attention on the power of policy to influence wellbeing positively
  • Economics
    Affecting how we gauge societal progress and happiness at an individual and community level
  • Education
    Exploring the potential to reform and revitalize the education system

3 Applied positive psychology theories

Positive psychology does not have to replace traditional psychology in therapy; it can complement it by focusing on identifying and cultivating factors including strengths and virtues that contribute to a meaningful life where the individual flourishes (Seligman, 2011).

PERMA model

In Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology Theory, we introduce positive psychology theory and the five elements that make up Seligman’s PERMA model (Csíkszentmihályi, 2016).

  • P – Positive emotions
    Feelings of awe, joy, and curiosity can build our social, physical, and intellectual abilities.
  • E – Engagement
    Stretching our performance by exceeding (even slightly) our skill levels can lead to deep engagement and flow.
  • R – Relationships
    We have an innate disposition to seek out connection, love, and form close and personal bonds.
  • M – Meaning
    Beyond positive emotions, deepening our exploration of meaning is vital for a healthy life and wellbeing.
  • A – Accomplishments
    Reaching for and achieving our goals (especially those most meaningful) encourages a sense of personal involvement and, ultimately, better mental and physical health.

Each element builds upon three intrinsic properties:

  1. They contribute to wellbeing.
  2. People pursue each of them for their own sake rather than to attain the others.
  3. They are each measurable and defined independently from the other elements.

And whether considered as part of the PERMA model or complementarily, the following theories remain supportive of positive psychological approaches to wellbeing and happiness.

Flow theory

Flow Theory in Psychology: 13 Key Findings and Examples explores what it means to be in a flow state, the theory of flow, and its effect on our lives and performance.

That feeling of timelessness and everything coming together is not simply something to be enjoyed; it is intimately linked with self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, and the capacity to ignore distractions until tasks are complete.

Ultimately, the pursuit of flow is related to seeking happiness by acquiring the skills required to achieve a larger goal. As such, it has a strong application in therapy, where goals can build confidence and feelings of psychological wellness (Csíkszentmihályi, 2016).

Flow at Work explores the theory’s application in the workplace and its capacity to keep employees engaged, motivated, and performing optimally for the benefit of themselves, the business, and ultimately the customer (Dahlke, 2018; Csíkszentmihályi, 2004).

Strength theory

Focusing on strengths at work (and in education, relationships, and family life) offers a theory-led yet practical approach to energizing employee performance, leaving them invigorated to do their best work, as explored in Strength-Based Leadership: 34 Traits of Successful Leaders and 10+ Ways to Build Character Strengths at Work (& Examples).

Whether we use CliftonStrengths or the VIA Survey, identifying and using our strengths can help us overcome difficult situations and take advantage of opportunities, not to mention feel happier.

Becoming aware of our character strengths helps us identify the good in us and others and move focus away from negatives to positives (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).

Chapter 2 – How to Apply Positive Psychology in Therapy

While the following therapeutic approaches vary in how they support clients, in keeping with the principles of positive psychology, they work toward fostering wellbeing and a better life by focusing on clients’ strengths, values, and positive emotions.

Positive psychology therapy 101

In What Is Positive Psychotherapy? (Benefits & Model), we learn how this practical approach focuses on cultivating a client’s positive aspects and strengths, promoting their engagement with the world, personal growth, and fulfilling their potential.

Positive psychotherapy, like positive psychology, draws on humanistic and psychodynamic models of psychology to emphasize self-development while using personal strengths to overcome difficult emotions and life events (Seligman & Wyatt, 2008).

How to use positive psychology in therapy

Positive psychology is as much an outlook as an approach and therefore can shape and influence a host of therapeutic treatments, as described below.

Positive psychotherapy

Positive psychotherapy uses various approaches taken from other therapeutic traditions (such as stories, narratives, and metaphors) to create a new, optimistic view of what mental health means to the client. Three core principles (Peseschkian, 1979; 2016) underpin positivity and positive outcomes:

  • Hope
    Fostering an increased focus on overall positivity and recognizing negative experiences
  • Balance
    Exploring how we experience discontent and learning coping mechanisms to deal with it
  • Consultation
    Observing, creating an inventory of feelings and symptoms, identifying situational support, talking openly about challenges and symptoms, and learning to use goal setting to cultivate positive emotions and strengths

Hope therapy

Our article on How to Perform Hope Therapy introduces the importance of the positive emotion hope in imagining and working toward a successful future.

Such a powerful approach relies on combining several techniques, such as goal setting, imagery, identifying support, and developing a sense of urgency. The therapist helps the client use their experience of the past to benefit their understanding of the present and open up opportunities for the future (Lopez et al., 2000).

Mindfulness

In How to Use Mindfulness Therapy for Anxiety, we learn how mindfulness can act as a therapeutic intervention, reducing anxiety and the client’s sense of aloneness. While mindfulness is a powerful means to support individuals through their tough times, it can also encourage positive emotions such as joy, wonder, gratitude, and awe (Shapiro, 2020).

Positive psychology in specific contexts

Positive psychology has incredible potential for helping individuals overcome difficulties and live better lives in line with their values.

In What is Positive Criminology? (+ 14 Theories & Worksheets), we see the potential to reduce criminal behavior through paying attention to positive life opportunities and meaningful growth.

The article Positive Psychology in Education: Your Ultimate Guide explains how a focus on the positive can align with educational practices to foster development and growth throughout a child’s learning journey.

Research shows that students show an increase in wellbeing and decrease in mental health problems when staff and academic institutions create a more growth-oriented environment for education that focuses on positive qualities and strengths (Kwok, 2021).

Positive psychology therapy in groups

The How to Successfully Teach Positive Psychology in Groups article explores how group learning of positive psychology provides a practical and powerful environment for growth. It then describes how it is of particular value in group therapy (Seligman et al., 2006; Seligman, 2011).

  • Improving self-esteem
  • Reducing symptoms of depression
  • Increasing wellbeing
  • Boosting hope and savoring
  • Increasing positive emotions, behaviors, and thinking

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is also valuable as a group therapy, helping clients to not avoid uncomfortable feelings and encouraging a willingness to experience them (Lopez & Luciano, 2009).

Providing Psychoeducation in Groups: 5 Examples & Ideas explores some additional benefits of group learning about psychological phenomena and how it can help individuals manage and overcome phobias (Wannemueller et al., 2020), mood disorders (Janis et al., 2021), and substance abuse (SimplePractice, 2021).

A look at couples and family therapy

Relationships all go through difficult times. Teaching clients the social skills described in Social Skills Training for Adults and Relationship Therapy Sessions: 45 Questions & Worksheets can be a helpful addition to your couples counseling toolkit.

What Is Marriage Psychology? +5 Relationship Theories introduces some theories around marriage and how therapy can support couples through difficult times and ultimately improve wellbeing by targeting the R (positive relationships) in the PERMA model (Seligman, 2011).

What Is Positive Parenting? 33 Examples and Benefits examines the importance and techniques available for common parenting challenges and how to increase children’s (and indeed the entire family’s) resilience and readiness for growth.

Positive psychology and art therapy

Creative Arts Therapies Explained and 15 Art Therapy Activities & Ideas for Kids (Incl. PDF) explore the incredible value of free self-expression through art and its therapeutic impact on psychological wellness by supporting self-awareness (Isserow, 2013), emotional intelligence (Hussin et al., 2020), and overcoming trauma (Sandel et al., 1993).

Narrative positive psychology therapy

When we look at our lives, we get to choose whether we see ourselves as hero or victim. In 19 Best Narrative Therapy Techniques & Worksheets [+PDF], we learn that the story we tell ourselves can change how we see opportunities for growth and find meaning and even how well we understand ourselves. Narrative therapy has the potential to remove the individual from the problem, externalize issues, and stop seeing ourselves as inherently bad or unworthy (Morgan, 2000).

Chapter 3 – Therapy Techniques & Interventions

Psychoeducation InterventionsWe have a wealth of information and downloads that offer guidance around techniques and interventions that support an applied positive psychology approach to therapy.

Below, we include some of our favorites that are popular and effective in supporting clients as they learn the skills to manage and overcome difficulties while increasing and developing their wellness as part of sustained change in line with their values.

40+ Popular therapeutic interventions

The following list contains many of the most widely used therapeutic interventions and the links where you can find more detailed information.

25+ Positive psychology techniques to use

Positive exercises and techniques in therapy can be life changing and life affirming for clients. They go beyond simply providing a remedy for problems, offering a framework for a more fulfilling life.

Review and test some of the following to identify opportunities for including them in therapy.

  • 19 Top Positive Psychology Exercises for Clients or Students includes both classic and novel positive psychology techniques that should have a place in any therapist’s toolkit, including:
    • Self-care vision board
      Appropriate and ongoing self-care can boost self-awareness, coping, self-regulation, and mental wellbeing (Baker, 2003).
    • The passengers on a bus metaphor
      This exercise offers insight and a deeper understanding of the internal experiences that drive our lives.
    • Benefit finding
      This exercise teaches clients how to find positives in negative and traumatic events.
    • Strengths-based life story
      This exercise explores clients’ strengths through their personal experiences.
    • Daily motivational awareness
      This exercise encourages clients to spend time thinking about what excites them and motivates them into action.
    • Finding your example of forgiveness
      This exercise helps clients focus on the benefits of forgiveness and let go of psychological distress.
  • 10 Best Problem-Solving Therapy Worksheet & Activities introduces problem-solving therapy as a powerful approach in reducing the effect of mental health disorders and improving clients’ abilities to face life’s challenges (Dobson, 2011). It includes:
    • Fostering self-efficacy through visualization and adopting appropriate tools
    • Recognizing problems and seeing them as challenges
    • Encouraging better decision-making
    • Rapid problem-solving through applying questions and guidelines in various situations
  • What Is Flow in Positive Psychology? (Incl. 10+ Activities) explores the potential of being entirely immersed and present in an experience to increase creativity (Dietrich, 2004), productivity (Kotler, 2014), and happiness (Csíkszentmihályi, 2016).

Therapists can work with clients to identify strategies and techniques for inducing and increasing flow through a series of activities, including:

    • Intense concentration
    • Goal clarity
    • Immediate feedback
    • Balancing the skills-to-challenge ratio
  • PositivePsychology.com’s Sailboat Metaphor is hugely effective at explaining and exploring human complexity to clients through the lens of positive psychology. Watch and discuss the video with clients to create a common language for therapy sessions and interventions.
  • Visualization in Therapy: 16 Simple Techniques and Tools introduces the value of mental imagery for understanding and coping with problems and difficult times, along with providing a focus for working toward meaningful and value-driven goals. This article offers techniques and tools to overcome anxiety, work through tough times, and improve sleep.
3 positive psychology exercises

Download 3 Free Positive Psychology Exercises (PDF)

Enhance wellbeing with these free, science-based exercises that draw on the latest insights from positive psychology.

Most effective worksheets and workbooks

We provide more than 25 valuable worksheets and workbooks that have proven effective for building strengths and improving client wellbeing and positive emotions that can all lead to more happiness and improved performances.

Chapter 4 – Training in Positive Psychology

As with all areas of psychology, and for those offering therapeutic treatment to clients in particular, training in the latest theories and practices is vital.

The following articles and links provide a valuable starting point for exploring the path to greater knowledge and certification in positive psychology and associated therapies and treatments.

50+ Best courses, certificates, and degrees

Applied positive psychology master’s programs

  • 20 Top Positive Psychology Degrees & Certificates – With increasing interest in positive psychology, there are many opportunities to study for a master’s degree. This list includes many of the top academic institutions for beginning or continuing study of this valuable approach to therapeutic treatment.
  • Master of Applied Positive Psychology: The MAPP Program – This vital read for anyone wishing to pursue a career in positive psychology includes many of the top institutions around the world along with distance learning options.

Chapter 5 – Applied Positive Psychology Books

Stress Relief BooksWhatever level of positive psychology study you have reached, it is vital to remain motivated and aware of the latest developments in the field.

While some of these books are specialist and specific, others are more general, offering deeper insight into therapeutic approaches for helping individuals, couples, and families overcome difficulties and create more fulfilling lives.

The following books have been handpicked and include many of the most exciting, engaging, and motivating books on positive psychology and related disciplines.

World’s Largest Positive Psychology Resource

The Positive Psychology Toolkit© is a groundbreaking practitioner resource containing over 500 science-based exercises, activities, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments created by experts using the latest positive psychology research.

Updated monthly. 100% Science-based.

“The best positive psychology resource out there!”
Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, Flourishing Center CEO

Chapter 6 – A Take-Home Message

Positive psychology doesn’t just focus on what is positive in our lives. While it pursues wellbeing and a fulfilling life, it recognizes that we face obstacles, challenges, and uncomfortable emotions throughout our existence.

As a result, it offers valuable and potentially helpful perspectives and approaches to support clients throughout their therapeutic treatment.

Furthermore, as interest in the field expands and our theoretical understanding develops (along with the body of research), it becomes increasingly clear that positive psychology offers considerable value in treating those finding life difficult while supporting those wishing to live a more authentic and complete life (e.g., Csíkszentmihályi, 2016; Lomas et al., 2014; Seligman, 2011).

The links to other information, tools, and resources within this article are hugely valuable and yet offer only a sample of the knowledge, worksheets, guidance, and downloads we have available.

While we have selected many of our favorite articles on positive psychology in therapy, we also suggest spending time browsing the categories within the blog, searching for keywords, and scanning the wealth of information available.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

  • Baker, E. K. (2003). Caring for ourselves: A therapist’s guide to personal and professional wellbeing. American Psychological Association.
  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2004). Good business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning. Penguin Books.
  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2016). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. Springer.
  • Dahlke, J. A. (2015). Fitting flow: An analysis of the role of flow within a model of occupational stress (Unpublished master’s thesis). Retrieved from Cornerstone. https://cornerstone.lib.mnsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1385&context=etds
  • Dietrich, A. (2004). Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition, 13(4), 746–761.
  • Dobson, K. S. (2011). Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies (3rd ed.). Guilford Press.
  • Hussin, U. R., Mahmud, Z., & Karim, D. N. F. M. (2020). Psychoeducation group counselling for emotional intelligence among secondary school female students. Journal of Counseling, Education and Society1(2).
  • Isserow, J. (2013). Between water and words: Reflective self-awareness and symbol formation in art therapy. International Journal of Art Therapy18(3), 122–131.
  • Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Worth, P. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Embracing the dark side of life. Routledge.
  • Janis, R. A., Burlingame, G. M., Svien, H., Jensen, J., & Lundgreen, R. (2021). Group therapy for mood disorders: A meta-analysis. Psychotherapy Research31(3), 342–358.
  • Kotler, S. (2014, May 6). Create a work environment that fosters flow. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2014/05/create-a-work-environment-that-fosters-flow
  • Kwok, S. (2021) Implementation of positive education projects in Hong Kong. In M. L. Kern & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of positive education. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Ivtzan, I. (2014). Applied positive psychology: Integrated positive practice. Sage.
  • Lopez, S. J., Floyd, R. K., Ulven, J. C., & Snyder, C. (2000). Hope therapy: Helping clients build a house of hope. In C. R. Snyder (Ed.), Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications (pp. 123–150). Academic Press.
  • Lopez, M. H. & Luciano, M. C. (2009). Acceptance and commitment therapy for smoking cessation: A preliminary study of its effectiveness in comparison with cognitive behavioral therapy. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 23, 723–730.
  • Morgan, A. (2000). What is narrative therapy? An easy-to-read introduction. Dulwich Centre.
  • Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. VIA Institute on Character.
  • Peseschkian, N. (1979). In search of meaning: Positive psychotherapy step by step. Springer.
  • Peseschkian, N. (2016). Positive psychotherapy of everyday life: A self-help guide for individuals, couples and families with 250 case stories. AuthorHouse UK.
  • Sandel, S., Chaiklin, S., & Lohn, A. (Eds.). (1993). Foundations of dance/movement therapy: The life and work of Marian Chace. American Dance Therapy Association.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61(8), 774–788.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., & Wyatt, R. C. (2008). Positive psychology and psychotherapy with Martin Seligman (Individual Version). [DVD]. Distributed by Psychotherapy.net.
  • Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. Aster.
  • SimplePractice. (2021, February 11). 8 Substance use disorder group topics for addiction treatment counselors. SimplePractice. https://www.simplepractice.com/blog/substance-abuse-group-topics-addiction-treatment/.
  • Wannemueller, A., Schaumburg, S., Tavenrath, S., Bellmann, A., Ebel, K., Teismann, T., Friedrich, S., & Margraf, J. (2020). Large-group one-session treatment: Feasibility and efficacy in 138 individuals with phobic fear of flying. Behaviour Research and Therapy135.
  • Woodyatt, L., Worthington, E. L., Wenzel, M., & Griffin, B. J. (2017). Orientation to the psychology of self-forgiveness. In L. Woodyatt, E. L. Worthington, Jr., M. Wenzel, & B. J. Griffin (Eds.). Handbook of the psychology of self-forgiveness (pp. 3–16). Springer.
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