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 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 as well as 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 could also 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 wellbeing.
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 (Psychotherapy.net, 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.
The Positive Diagnosis System helps therapists work more effectively with their clients. Biswas-Diener defined five axes to guide the therapist–client interaction.
- Capacities (strengths, interests, and resources)
- Future orientation
- Situational benefactors
- Sense of mission
In his book, Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching: Assessment, Activities, & Strategies for Success, Biswas-Diener (2010) outlines a variety of tools for each axis. For instance, he suggests the Satisfaction with Life Scale for assessing wellbeing. For the future orientation axis, Biswas-Diener recommends using the Adult Hope Scale.
Another area to explore is universal assessments (UAs). 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 movie Auntie Mame (DaCosta, 1958), 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 world? 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 20 years of exploration. Researchers study everything from how to increase wellbeing 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 if positive psychology works, they may be curious about 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?
One strong introduction to positive psychology research is Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (Compton & Hoffman, 2013), which discusses a wide range of topics, including:
- Introduction to positive psychology (dimensions, scope, themes, history)
- Foundations: Emotion, motivation, and the nature of wellbeing
- Subjective wellbeing
- Leisure, flow, mindfulness, and peak performance
- Love and wellbeing
- Positive health
- Excellence, aesthetics, creativity, and genius
- Wellbeing across the lifespan
- Optimal wellbeing
- Religion, spirituality, and wellbeing
- Positive institutions and cultural wellbeing
- The future of positive psychology
In Positive Neuropsychology: Evidenced-Based Perspectives on Promoting Cognitive Health, Randolph (2013) covers:
- What positive neuropsychology is
- Coping in neurological disorders
- Promoting executive functions
- Modifiable lifestyle factors
- Technologies for assessment
In Positive Psychology as Social Change, Biswas-Diener’s (2011) 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
- Changing the world
In Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-being, Kashdan and Ciarrochi (2013) share the knowledge of several thought leaders in this arena.
- Kristen Neff discusses self-compassion and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
- Eric Garland and Barbara Fredrickson explain how mindfulness affects meaning.
- Ian Stewart enlightens readers about perspective taking.
- Lance McCracken explains 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 with an interest in mindfulness and acceptance.
In The Positive Organization: Breaking Free from Conventional Cultures, Constraints, and Beliefs, Quinn (2015) gives practical advice about how to build and sustain a positive culture. He discusses the conventional mental map that hinders progress and change.
To Quinn (2015), an organization that believes hierarchy and control are the keys to success creates more constraints. The goal is to build positive mental maps.
By this, Quinn (2015) 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 insights that allow readers to internalize the material better.
For practitioners, there also is Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual by Tayyab Rashid and Martin Seligman (2018). The first part of the book covers what positive psychotherapy is and is not. Readers can 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 (2018) is a fabulous resource.
Filled with a variety of research-backed activities, you are sure to find something that meets your needs.
Niemiec invites readers to reproduce the tools for personal or client use. Here is 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, boosting happiness and wellbeing (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.
Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) found that doing this once per week makes a person happier than doing it three times per week, perhaps because the activity stays fresh and engaging. The point is: 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 nonthreatening and easy to understand (Gable, Gonzaga, & Strachman, 2006; Gable & Reis, 2010; Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004).
This activity gives participants time to hone their new skills in a group setting. Divide the group into interviewers and 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; minimizing the importance of the event
- Passive constructive – Little to no engagement; reacting positively but not very interested; low enthusiasm; no elaboration on the person’s statements
- Passive destructive – Orienting body away from the person slightly; showing little to no interest; breaking eye contact; changing the subject; talking about yourself
This exercise is part of our Positive Psychology Toolkit. 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, Owens, and Conoley (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, and positive family intervention.
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-play, games, cartoons, and stories. PRP uses Ellis’s 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
- Reduced symptoms of depression
Their review also includes the effects of several specific interventions, including:
- “Mighty Me” — This technique teaches children to externalize their concern. Doing this allows the child to gain control over their concern because they see it 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 wellbeing.
- Drawing pictures of their best possible selves increased global self-esteem.
Covitality is a “model and measure of positive mental health for children and adolescents” (Magyar-Moe et al., 2015) and functions as 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
- Belief in self
- Belief in other
Here is an introduction to the covitality framework.
Boman, Mergler, and Pennell (2017) found that covitality is a strong predictor of wellbeing 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.
A gratitude jar is a fun way to track the experiences about which we are grateful. This can be a useful project for anyone. 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 (2018) 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:
- Feelings like sadness, joy, or anxiousness
- Specific sounds like drumming
- Specific instruments
- A word that’s repeated
This teaches children to focus and 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 (2018) 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 (as cited in Froh & Parks, 2013) created a thought-provoking activity using interviews as a jumping-off point. The Brief Purpose Interview includes 10 questions:
- 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 your 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 this goal or value, and for how long?
- How does your 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 (2018) 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 can also 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 those between 10 and 17 years old. 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 five to seven strengths they see in the person.
After receiving the feedback, 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 wellbeing. It can also provide insights into how a person’s wellbeing changes over time. The Likert-type 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, and 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 your client to identify areas of growth. Biswas-Diener (2010) offers several suggestions, including:
- How have your ideals changed?
- Which areas of your life are going well?
- What are the things you’ve gotten that you value most?
The Scale of Positive and Negative Experience — This scale is a way to gauge a person’s emotional state. It can be a standalone activity or something employed at various points in the therapeutic relationship to see how your client is functioning in the moment (Biswas-Diener, 2010).
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 the following:
Self-Eulogy 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 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. 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 might choose growth as the theme. Next, the person reflects on whether the theme of 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 this exercise.
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 engage with this person directly and indirectly.
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 about 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 wellbeing.
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 decide 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 can also 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 if you later decide to 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 can benefit from the variety of evidence-based resources available.
It is never too late to experience an increase in your sense of wellbeing, 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.
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- Biswas-Diener, R. (2011). Positive psychology as social change. Springer.
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