Positive psychology - the Pollyanna of psych?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
I'm a positive psychologist...in both the adjective and the noun. I always love it when those I coach, train, or join for interviews come away saying "I feel really great since talking with you", and I would say that I try to be the proverbial "happy bunny" in general. But I'm also a firm believer in the Positive Psychology school of thought.
What is positive psychology?
Martin Seligman, known as the "father of positive psychology" was chair of the American Psychological Association when he surmised that psychology was "half baked". The field focused so greatly on psychopathology with the idea that psychology was there to reduce symptoms or restore "normality" and that missed out on the potential that psychology could offer the human mind. Seligman wanted to look at happiness and contentment. Not only would this allow individuals to go beyond "normal" and thrive but it would also prevent and protect as well as potentially cure.
As such positive psychology - the "science of happiness" - was born and currently sits hand in hand with traditional mental health interventions. It has three key streams:
- Generation of short and long term healthy pleasures
- Joy through connection with others
- Happiness from a meaningful life.
The plasticity of the brain
The power of positive psychology rests in neuroscience research which demonstrates the plasticity of the brain. While psychopathology meant certain pathways within the brain were firing, it was possible, with practices such as gratitude, mindfulness and physical activity, to change them - along with one's reported mood. Research has shown that repetitive negative thinking causes one pattern of brain activity, yet positive thoughts can produce another. It can even be physically seen in the brain when someone's trust is broken - so dynamic can our thoughts be.
Medication also has the effect of stimulating or supressing brain activity, and Seligman (2006) found that patients who chose a combined treatment plan of medication and therapy recovered sooner - the latter ensuring that the somatic approach is not simply providing a mask while it is in use. In 2012 Schneider et al added "happiness" as a treatment goal which in turn was the catalyst for psychometrics such as the "Wellbeing Scale".
Positive Psychology Strategies
The strategies commonly used within positive psychology and its approach to treatment focus on four key areas:
- STRENGTHS - ie. finding and unlocking one's inner strength and resilience, which can also include family counselling.
- QUALITY OF LIFE - the basis of this being finding both meaning and purpose as the foundation for life goals and achievements.
- HOPE - ensuring that the client can generate a positive (hopeful) attitude when faced with life's roller-coaster and know that they have the resources (usually established in areas 1 and 2) in order to cope.
- WELLBEING - a sense of environmental mastery (that one has an effect), full engagement with the world, and personal satisfaction.
Intervention techniques - many of which are given in the practical part of all the articles on this page - include classic therapeutic approaches such as:
- reflective journaling and narratives (reflecting on perspectives such as one's description of events and that of others to deepen understanding of the self and those around us)
- mindfulness and gratitude
- identification and balancing of negative thoughts
- accepting and managing emotions - including mood tracking for patterns
- forming healthy interpersonal relationships including forgiveness
The idea is not simply to help the client feel better - but encourage them beyond "normal" to thriving; and the techniques can be learned, practised and applied before the point of crisis as a precaution and preventative measure.
Criticisms of positive psychology
Positive psychology - like most interventions, is not always enough on its own - and positive psychologists do not tend to say that...although this is sometimes a critique. Further it can be felt by some that if there is no condition to treat - why does one need an intervention? The positive psychologist gives equal importance to overall physical, mental and social wellness of the individual. It can also work as an interim intervention for those on the waiting list for therapy. Positive psychology is not positioned as an alternative, but as a bolt on.
Research has shown that people with a positive outlook have lower blood pressure, fewer illnesses, faster healing times and higher recovery rates. Again those who practice positive psychology interventions will not necessarily prevent illness, but their approach in handling it can be beneficial. It may also be that because positivity makes them more likely to show empathy and compassion which can give rise to stronger social relationships, their personal support network can also play a huge part in helping them recover.
The story of Pollyanna is a great example of how positive psychology works, and also of the critique. Pollyanna had an unhappy upbringing but remained upbeat and cheerful to all. Unfortunately - in the same way as positive psychology won't prevent life's curveballs - not only did she have a tough time, but she was also in an accident and lost the ability to walk. It was this which which changed her outlook and she fell into a depression. However, because she had always been so nice and kind to others, they rallied round boosting her mood - and aiding in her recovery, finally cheering her on when she was able to walk again. People (me included) are sometimes called "Pollyanna" as a criticism for being so cheerful as to be irritating...yet it is that very nature that lays the foundations which means that while a glitch may occur, resetting is possible, and for those who welcome the bubble and fizz, they'll be there to offer it back when you need it.
Quick positive psychology tips
Elevate your happiness
- Make a list of the things that make you happy - you might take photos of them, or even write them down on post its to remind you when you need a lift.
(If you have longer you can take this a little further and think about what your life would be like without those things...and make a conscious effort to engage in them more in the future.)
Don't "repress" - learn
- Rather than burying a painful experience, ask yourself what can you learn from it. If you had responsibility, welcome it - it isn't blame, it's the chance to take some power back as that is something you can control for next time.
Do something daily to boost your overall health
- Whether that's practicing gratitude - go on, right now, give yourself a stretch and think about something you're looking forward to today - easy right?; or exercising; or simply taking the time to enjoy a cup of tea - do something which makes you smile.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt