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.