What do you do when you are not reaching your goals? Who can you turn to if everything in your life is pretty good, but something seems to be missing?
You know that you want more or can do more, but you cannot put your finger on what that is. You have read about flow and mindfulness. People talk about getting “gritty” and practicing self-compassion.
Twenty plus years ago, people did not have the option to visit with a therapist who focused on these questions or concepts. This is the purview of positive psychology. Now, practitioners, coaches, teachers, social workers, and other professionals have access to an abundance of research-backed material to help people thrive and flourish.
Throughout this article, we share 19 resources that you can use with your clients. If you are not a coach or mental health professional, but still want to explore what positive psychology offers, you also can use these resources.
One of the significant aspects of positive psychology is its focus on what is going well and how to get more of that in your life. You can accomplish this alone and with a mental health provider.
This article contains:
- Using Positive Psychology in Therapy
- Commonly Asked Questions
- Popular Techniques Used in Positive Psychology
- A Look at Using Positive Psychology with Kids
- 4 Positive Psychology Based Activities for Children
- 5 Useful Assessments, Tests and Questionnaires
- 4 Positive Psychology Worksheets Every Helping Professional Needs
- A Take-Home Message
Using Positive Psychology in Therapy
The primary purpose of psychotherapy is to help a person work through their blocks. These blocks could be the result of negative behaviors or thinking patterns. They also could develop from dysfunctional relationships with others. Whatever the cause, therapists work with the person to resolve issues. The common element is that the issues negatively affect the person’s well-being.
The purpose of positive psychology is to help people flourish. It is an investigation of what makes life worth living (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The approach is useful and beneficial for a wide variety of life circumstances.
There are many different positive psychology techniques and tools used by therapists. A central theme in the approach is to allow space for the person to trust that the answers they seek are within. The person is the expert about themselves, not the therapist.
Several years ago, Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, explained how to use positive psychology in a therapeutic relationship. He described positive psychology as a “supplement” to traditional therapy (PsychotherapyNet, 2009). Seligman points out that conventional therapy is compatible with positive psychology techniques.
Therapist and coach Robert Biswas-Diener (2010) developed a Positive Diagnosis System. This system is a checklist, much like the traditionally used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
The Positive Diagnosis System helps a therapist work more effectively with their clients. Biswas-Diener defined five axes to guide the therapist-client/coachee interaction.
- Capacities (strengths, interests, and resources)
- Future orientation
- Situational benefactors
- Sense of mission
In his book titled, Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching: Assessment, Activities, & Strategies for Success, he outlines a variety of tools for each axis. For instance, he suggests the Satisfaction with Life Scale for assessing well-being. For the future orientation axis, Biswas-Diener recommends using the Adult Hope Scale.
Another area to explore is universal assessments (UA). These are the judgments we make about the universe as a whole (Clifton, 2013). We express these in our words and behaviors. For example, if you often say or share a particular quote, chances are it shows a UA that is important to you.
In the play, Auntie Mame, Mame says, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” What do you think is a UA she believes about the universe? Share your thoughts in the comment section.
As a therapist, you can work with clients to identify their UAs. Then, the client can figure out how their UAs affect their daily life. Some might serve them well, while others keep them from achieving their goals.
Commonly Asked Questions
The most frequently asked question is, “What is positive psychology?” followed by, “Does it really work?“
Positive psychology is a well-researched area with more than twenty years of exploration. Researchers study everything from how to increase one’s well-being to how to be more resilient. If you want to become a more compassionate person or experience flow, there is evidence-based research showing you how. If you want to live more fully and flourish, then a positive psychology approach can help you do that.
When people ask the second question, “it” means the tools and techniques. For example, does loving-kindness meditation make a person more compassionate? Does savoring help a person appreciate the little things more?
An excellent resource for an introduction to positive psychology research is Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing. Authors Compton and Hoffman (2013) discuss a wide range of topics, including:
- Introduction to positive psychology (dimensions, scope, themes, history)
- Foundations: Emotion, motivation, and the nature of well-being
- Subjective well-being
- Leisure, flow, mindfulness, and peak performance
- Love and well-being
- Positive health
- Excellence, aesthetics, creativity, and genius
- Well-being across the lifespan
- Optimal well-being
- Religion, spirituality, and well-being
- Positive institutions and cultural well-being
- The future of positive psychology
This book answers the above questions and many more. After you get acquainted with the general field of positive psychology, consider exploring the following publication.
Positive Neuropsychology: Evidenced-based Perspectives on Promoting Cognitive Health (2013) – Editor John J. Randolph put together a useful resource covering:
- what positive neuropsychology is,
- coping in neurological disorders,
- promoting executive functions,
- modifiable lifestyle factors,
- technologies for assessment, and more.
Positive Psychology as Social Change (2011) – Editor Robert Biswas-Diener’s central question is, “How can we use positive psychology to affect lasting, worldwide change that benefits everyone?” The collection of essays and research answers this question in sections discussing:
- Public Policy,
- Focusing on others,
- Social change interventions, and;
- Changing the world.
Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-being (2013) – Editors Todd B. Kashdan and Joseph Ciarroch share the knowledge of several thought leaders in this arena.
- Kristen Neff discusses self-compassion and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy).
- Eric Garland and Barbara Fredrickson explain how mindfulness affects meaning.
- Ian Stewart enlightens us about perspective-taking.
- From Lance McCracken we learn about committed action.
- Since everything is not always rosy, Mairead Foody, Yvonne Barnes-Holmes, and Dermont Barnes-Holmes investigate the downside to positive psychology interventions.
There is something for everyone who has an interest in mindfulness and acceptance.
The Positive Organization: Breaking Free from Conventional Cultures, Constraints, and Beliefs (2015) – Author Robert E. Quinn gives practical advice about how to build and sustain a positive culture. He discusses the conventional mental map that hinders progress and change.
To him, this is an organization that believes hierarchy and control are the keys to success. This, he argues, creates more constraints. The goal is to build positive mental maps.
By this Robert Quinn means, creating a culture in which people “flourish and exceed expectations.” This mental map assumes that people are capable, full of potential, and eager. It is a short read at 116 pages. Each chapter concludes with actions and reader insights that allow you to internalize the material better.
For practitioners, there also is Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual (2018) by Tayyab Rashid with Martin Seligman. The first part of the book covers what positive psychotherapy is and is not. You also learn about interventions and theoretical assumptions. Symptoms, strengths, practices, and processes are introduced. The second part includes 15 session-by-session practices.
Each of these books covers a wide range of questions you may have about positive psychology. Feel free to leave your question in the comments if it is not answered.
Popular Techniques Used in Positive Psychology
Character Strengths Interventions by Ryan Niemiec is a fabulous resource.
Filled with a variety of research-backed activities, you are sure to find something that meets your needs.
Niemiec invites you to reproduce the tools for personal or client use. Here are some of what awaits you:
Mental subtraction is imagining your life without one of your key strengths. The purpose of this activity is to help us appreciate our strengths more. It boosts happiness and well-being (Niemiec, 2018).
Visualize how you use the strength now. Be detailed. Imagine what your life would be like if you did not use that strength. For example, if a key strength for you is curiosity, how would your day-to-day life be different without it? How would its absence affect your relationships or work?
Life Summary is an opportunity to write how you want others to remember you. Specifically, how would you want your grandchildren to remember you? What stories do you want them to hear about you? Write a short paragraph, then set it aside for a few days. When you review it, what character strengths surface? Are these evident in your day-to-day life now? If not, what changes can you make so that they are?
When was the last time you thought about what matters most to you? For this activity, you imagine what a specific area of your life will look like six months or one year in the future. You can choose an area that is already strong or one that is not. Visualize how that area will be better or stronger.
Create an intention that focuses your energy on that area. For example, you could improve your health, complete a degree, or become more efficient at work. Using your top five strengths, make a list of how each one can help you fulfill your intention. Now you have five different plans to get you closer to what matters most to you.
The Three Good Things exercise boosts gratitude. It helps us appreciate the little things in our daily interactions (Niemiec, 2018). At the end of your day, write down three things that went well and why. Do this for one week.
Research supports that doing this once per week makes a person happier when compared to three times per week (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). The point is this: If you want to increase your happiness, practice gratitude beyond saying, “Thank you.”
Active Constructive Responding teaches the value of listening to and engaging with others. It is a powerful way to build rapport. The exercise invites participants to learn a more productive way to give feedback. The technique is non-threatening and easy-to-understand. It was developed initially by Shelly Gable (2004; 2006; 2010).
This activity gives participants time to hone their new skills in a group setting. Divide the group with some assigned as interviewers and the others as interviewees. The interviewers receive instructions to respond to their interviewee’s positive story in one of four ways:
- Active-constructive – Engaged, asking questions, maintaining eye contact, orienting body toward the speaker
- Active-destructive – Engaged, responding negatively or pointing out the downside to the person’s experience, minimize the importance of the event
- Passive-constructive – Little to no engagement, react positively, but not very interested, low enthusiasm, no elaboration on the person’s statements
- Passive-destructive – Orient body away from the person slightly, show little to no interest, break eye contact, change the subject, talk about yourself
This exercise is part of the Positive Psychology Toolkit available through this site. It includes detailed instructions, reference materials, and advice for its use. For more reading, have a look at our post on Character Strength examples.
A Look at Using Positive Psychology with Kids
Magyar-Moe and colleagues (2015) discuss the inclusion of several positive psychological constructs in more familiar treatment approaches. These include emotional regulation, positive emotions, and strengths integrated into cognitive-behavioral play therapy, positive behavioral support (PBS), and positive family intervention (PFI).
They also highlight the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP). The purpose of this program is to “increase resiliency in children and youth by coping with common, daily stressors” (Magyar-Moe et al. 2015). The 12-week program incorporates role-plays, games, cartoons, and stories. PRP uses Ellis’ ABC model to increase the use of cognitive skills to build resiliency. According to the authors, PRP accomplishes the following:
- Decreased cognitions related to depression and negative thoughts, and;
- Reduced symptoms of depression.
Their review also includes the effects of several specific interventions. They are:
- “Mighty Me” – This technique teaches a child to externalize their concern. Doing this allows the child to gain control over it because they see the matter as outside of themselves.
- “Circle of Friends” – This is a peer group intervention used to increase social acceptance of children with special needs.
- Writing a gratitude letter and delivering it. This helped children who had a low positive affect.
- Writing five things for which they were grateful every day for two weeks led to reports of greater well-being, and;
- Drawing pictures of their best possible selves increased global self-esteem.
CoVitality, a “model and measure of positive mental health for children and adolescents” (Magyar-Moe et al. 2015), is a counterbalance to the traditional comorbidity approach. Developed by researchers at The University of California Santa Barbara, the model is strengths-based. It comprises four self-schema:
- Emotional competence
- Engaged living
Here is an introduction to the CoVitality framework.
A study by Boman and colleagues (2017) found that CoVitality is a strong predictor of well-being and depression. They also noted that focusing on one or two of the constructs is not as effective as the four combined. They suggest that high school interventions should focus on all four constructs.
4 Positive Psychology Based Activities for Children
Some activities are more effective with children and adolescents than others.
This is because of their age and development. With this in mind, here are a few to consider using.
A gratitude jar is a fun way to track the experiences about which we are grateful. This is a useful project for young or old. You will need a jar or canister, supplies to decorate it, and blank slips of paper. At the end of each day, write down three things or experiences on three separate slips of paper. Be sure to include why you feel grateful for each one and then place it inside the jar. If you want, read these once per week alone or with your child.
Author and mindfulness expert, Chris Bergstrom and his young son created a fun activity involving music. Select a series of songs that your child or students like. Decide which sounds, emotions, or other cues you want them to pay attention to. Only pick one or two. Every time they hear the cue, they give a thumbs up and get a point. For example, you can have them look out for:
- a feeling like sadness, joy, or anxiousness
- a specific sound like drumming
- a specific instrument
- a word that’s repeated
This teaches children to focus, be mindful of sounds and heightens their sensory awareness.
Use the Take 5 exercise to teach emotion regulation and learn how to measure it here. Instruct the child to place one hand on their lap, table, or another surface with fingers spread apart. Use the pointer finger of the other hand to trace each digit of the resting hand. As their pointer finger moves up the outside of the thumb, the child inhales. As the finger runs down the inside of the thumb, the child exhales.
Repeat this pattern with each finger. When the child finishes one cycle, ask how they feel compared to before they started. A modified version of this for teens and adults is to form a fist. Extend one finger at a time. Complete one full breath cycle (inhaling/exhaling) and then extend another finger. Do this until you release each finger.
Bergstrom has 147 other ideas for you to try in his book, The Ultimate Mindfulness Activity Book.
Understanding one’s purpose can begin in adolescence. Researchers Timothy Reilly and William Damon (Froh & Parks, 2013) created a thought-provoking activity using interviews as a jumping-off point. The Brief Purpose Interview includes ten questions. They are:
- What is important to you? What do you care about? What matters to you?
- How do you spend your time?
- What do you want to be different about the world?
- What could you do to make the world like that?
- Can you rank the different values and goals you have talked about in order of importance?
- Why is one value or goal more important than others?
- How do you show that (goal or value) is important?
- How long has this (goal or value) been important to you?
- How do you plan on continuing to be involved in (goal or value), and for how long?
- How does (goal or value) influence your life?
The first six questions help the interviewee identify things that are important to them. The last four questions focus on the values or goals the interviewee shared in the beginning. Use the latter questions for each goal or value identified by the interviewee. While the interview happens, the interviewer creates a mind map for the interviewee. This is shared with the interviewee so that adjustments can be made if needed.
5 Useful Assessments, Tests and Questionnaires
The first suggestions are from Ryan Niemiec’s book, Character Strengths Interventions: A field guide for practitioners.
The VIA Character Strengths Survey is the go-to survey to assess character. Each question reveals the strengths a person uses most often, when necessary, and not as often. The beauty of this assessment is its recognition that everyone has the 24-character strengths in varying degrees. We can choose to “flex” some and not others. We also can choose to develop our top five or our bottom five further.
Created by leading researchers, the survey is suitable for youth and adults and is available in many languages. Several populations report enjoying the strengths-focus of the VIA survey, including veterans and people with mental illness (Niemiec, 2018).
The youth version of the VIA Character Strengths survey is appropriate for youth aged 10 -17. It consists of a series of questions to help the young person discover their top five strengths. Those who are under the age of 13 need parental consent.
Character Strengths 360 is like the more traditional 360-degree feedback. The client gives a list, including descriptions, of the 24 strengths to 10 or more people who know them. The people do not need to know the person well. They complete the form by selecting 5-7 strengths they see in the client.
After receiving the feedbacks, the client compares the observations with their VIA results. At this point, the person looks for three things:
- Strong signature strengths – What strengths match your survey results?
- Possible blind spots – What did others see that you did not?
- Potential opportunities – What did you see about yourself that others did not?
The Satisfaction with Life Scale – This widely used tool helps a person establish a baseline of well-being. It also can provide insights into how a person’s well-being changes over time. The Likert-type scale is from 1-7 with 1 being ” strongly disagree,” and 7 the opposite extreme. Scoring ranges from 7 for “strongly agree” to 1 for “strongly disagree.” The scale is brief and only includes the following five statements:
- In most ways, my life is close to ideal.
- The conditions of my life are excellent.
- I am satisfied with my life.
- So far, I have gotten the things I want in life.
- If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
Sum the scores. A score of 20 is neutral, so anything above this indicates more satisfaction. “Normal” scores are from 21 to 25 (Biswas-Diener, 2010).
As a clinician or coach, you can use follow-up questions to assist the person to identify areas of growth. Biswas-Diener offers several suggestions like:
- How have your ideals changed?
- Which areas of your life are going well?
- What are the things you’ve gotten that you most value?
The Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (SPANE) – Using this scale is a way to gauge a person’s emotional state. This can be a “one and done” activity or something employed at various points in the relationship. Ed and Robert Biswas-Diener (2010) created it as a basic way to see how your client is functioning in the moment.
It measures positive, negative, and affect balance. On a scale of 1 (very rarely or never) to 5 (very often or always), the person assesses their feelings as:
Scores for positive or negative feelings can range from 6 to 30. For positive feelings, add the scores for the following items: positive, good, pleasant, happy, joyful, and contented.
Do the same for the negative feelings: negative, bad, unpleasant, sad, afraid, and angry. To arrive at an affect balance score, subtract the negative feelings score from the positive feelings score. This can range from -24 to 24.
There are many different assessments, tests, and questionnaires available to therapists and others. The books referenced throughout this article are a great starting point for identifying the best ones.
4 Positive Psychology Worksheets Every Helping Professional Needs
Many of the assessments mentioned above are available in worksheet format.
In fact, Biswas-Diener (2010) and Niemiec (2018) encourage reprinting their material for use with your clients.
Some of the more popular worksheets include:
Self-eulogy created by Lucinda Poole and Hugo Alberts. This exercise asks you to consider your values from the perspective of others. How would they speak about you at your funeral? What values surface? Next, you assess how well you are living a life consistent with your values.
Choice Point, an activity created by Lucinda Poole, teaches how to gain more freedom in the behaviors we choose.
First, name the challenge.
Second, identify the hooks (thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations related to the situation.)
Third, what strengths or skills can help you stay true to your values?
Fourth, what behaviors move you away from your goal?
Fifth, what behaviors move you closer to your goal?
The last step is to make a choice. This is your choice point.
A creative and fun way to think about values is through the Value-Tattoo activity. Developed by Hugo Alberts, clients consider what tattoo (or piece of artwork) they would get and why. From this, the person analyzes their response to identify a central theme.
For example, a sunflower might represent happiness, positivity, or growth in life. We will choose growth as the theme. Next, the person reflects on whether the theme (growth) connects to a life value. If it does, then maybe the person values learning. If this is true, how is the person currently living that value?
Sometimes we allow people into our inner circle whose influence is almost always bad. They are a giant wave slamming into us, knocking us down, pulling us under, and dragging us farther from our goals. It can be challenging to manage these relationships. What if the person is a parent, sibling, or spouse? Learning how to manage toxic relationships is the focus of an exercise created by Lucinda Poole and Hugo Alberts.
There are seven steps. The first is simple. Make a list of up to five relationships you find challenging. List the person’s name and their relationship to you. Next, explain why the relationship is toxic. The exercise includes several examples like:
- The person makes me feel unsafe.
- I feel nervous and on guard around the person.
- The person is manipulative or conniving.
List all that apply. After you define what makes the relationships polluted, choose the one that is causing you the most stress. Write their name down and then list all the ways you, directly and indirectly, engage with this person.
Examples of direct engagement are, emailing, talking on the phone, texting, physical contact, etc. Examples of indirect time devoted to the person are thoughts about and feeling upset over the person/relationship.
After compiling a list of all the behaviors that connect you with that person, determine what it costs you. Are you losing sleep? Is it interfering with work or family life? Is it interrupting your studies? Does it cost you money? Identify all the costs. It is important to know exactly how much this relationship messes with your well-being.
Now that you have a clear picture of the costs, you need to decide the best way to manage the relationship. You could do nothing, take a step back, or leave it. You are the only person who can decide which option is most workable for you.
The last step is to take action. If you decided to end the relationship, then review the direct and indirect ways you devote energy to it. Write down all the possible things you could do to support your decision to end it. You also can do this if you decide to take a step back.
If you choose to do nothing, it is still useful to review your reasons for why the relationship is toxic and how you are devoting time to it. Doing so can help you in the event you decide to either take a step back or leave it.
The Positive Psychology Toolkit includes many more exercises you could find useful for you or your clients. They have been researched and created by experts in the field of psychology.
Have you explored the toolkit? If so, which exercises do you recommend?
A Take-Home Message
Positive psychology is a growing field garnering attention from therapists worldwide.
Many of the tools and practices influence the actions of leaders within organizations large and small. Anyone, from 4-years-old to 100+-years-old can benefit from the variety of evidenced-based resources available.
It is never too late to experience an increase in one’s sense of well-being, to become more resilient, or experience flow. These are just three benefits of infusing positive psychology practices into a therapeutic relationship.
How are you using positive psychology to inform your practice? If you are not a mental health provider, how are positive psychology practices helping you? Let us know in the comments. We enjoy hearing from you! Thank you for reading.
- Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Practicing positive psychology coaching: Assessment, activities, and strategies for success. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons
- Biswas-Diener, R. (2011). Positive psychology as social change. New York NY: Springer
- Bergstrom, C. (2018). Ultimate mindfulness activity book: 150 playful mindfulness activities for kids and teens (and grown-ups too). Blissful Consulting.
- Boman, P., Mergler, A. & Pennell, C. (2017). The effects of Covitality on well-being and depression in Australian high school adolescents. Clinical Psychiatry, 3(2), 15.
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- PsychotherapyNet (2009 May 6). Martin Seligman’s positive psychology video. Retrieved November 12, 2019, from https://youtu.be/X-hL52sdqmY
- Quinn, R. E. (2015). The positive organization: Breaking free from conventional cultures, constraints, and beliefs. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publications, Inc.
- Randolph, J.J. (2013). Positive neuropsychology: Evidenced-based perspectives on promoting cognitive health. New York, NY: Springer
- Rashid, T. & Seligman, M. (2018). Positive psychotherapy: Clinician manual. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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