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Positive psychology for growth and well-being.

In a time when we are bombarded by the media with the problems in the world and what is wrong with us, the field of positive psychology is taking a refreshingly different approach. "To increase the tonnage of happiness": this is what Martin Seligman, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania has described as the mission of positive psychology, an emerging branch of psychology. Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association, is considered the founder of the positive psychology movement. As Seligman notes, the "aim of positive psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life." (1)

The Unfolding of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology focuses on cultivating virtues and identifying and increasing strengths. Through research, it is developing techniques for supporting individuals and society in achieving optimal functioning. This is important because, as Ryff and Singer describe in their chapter in the Handbook of Positive Psychology, "to grapple with what constitutes optimal function is, at the most basic level, to broach the ultimate questions of why we are here and how we should live." (2)

The principles of positive psychology were born long ago and have been studied by philosophers and psychologists throughout history. In classical times, virtues were viewed as admirable human traits that one might aim to cultivate and thereby use as a foundation for one's actions in life. Examples of virtues are honesty, optimism, and generosity. Aristotle spoke of virtues and believed that the cultivation of virtues was the path to true happiness. Philosopher and psychologist William James, as far back as the 1800s, wrote of the benefits of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery. More contemporary psychologists, such as Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow, have also looked at aspects of healthy functioning and well-being. However, most of modern psychology has focused on fixing problems in individuals.

Seligman points out that before World War II, psychology had three goals. These included curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent. After World War II, in 1945, to assist veterans of the war, the Veterans Administration was created and psychologists turned their focus toward treating mental illness. In 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health was created and began offering grants for research on mental illness. As a result, the sole focus of psychology became curing of mental illness, anal the other two goals were forgotten. (1)

The clinical psychology focus on "fixing" has been very beneficial for society on many levels. As a result of research, mental illness, the terrible impact of depression, child abuse, and eating disorders are understood, and effective interventions for how to fix these maladies have been developed. Thousands of individuals have, as a result, experienced improved health and had their suffering alleviated. Out of the focus on relieving the suffering of mental illness, the various models of psychotherapy have utilized this same reference. As a result, most psychology theories and their models of psychotherapy address how to fix what is wrong with an individual, mentally. (3) There has been, up until the emergence of positive psychology, very little focus on strengthening traits in individuals, enhancing quality of life, and prevention.

Although positive psychology has developed out of an effort to reincorporate strengthening individuals through a focus on their strengths and positive qualities, it should be stressed that positive psychology is not advocating a "Pollyanna" approach to life. Nor does it suggest that negative emotions are "wrong" or "bad." Negative emotions are important because they can cause us to slow down, find a solution to what is troubling us, and find a way to deal with the present situation. Distress, regret and disappointment are a part of life and can bring a perspective to what is valued and positive be experiencing what is not desired. Out of setbacks and stress often comes positive growth.


Research supports the knowledge that optimism is a virtue that has an impact on emotional states that are supportive of the physiology of the body. Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower and Gruenewald found that HIV-seropositive gay men who were more optimistic about the progression of their illness were better adjusted and coped more actively with their situation than those who were less optimistic. (4) Optimism has also been found to be helpful in combating depression. Seligman found that the cultivation of optimism prevents depression and anxiety in children and adults and may half their incidence over the next two years." (2) Another virtue which has been highlighted in the media is gratitude. A Gallup poll found that ninety percent of American teens and adults stated that expressing gratitude makes them "extremely happy" or "somewhat happy." (5) Robert Emmons of the University of California assigned three groups of undergraduate students to focus on either on hassles, neutral events, or things they were grateful for. They were all asked to complete a weekly log of their emotional state, reaction to social support, exercise, physical symptoms, and an overall appraisal of their life. Of the three groups, the participants who recorded the grateful events felt better about their lives as a whole, anticipated a good upcoming week, and exercised more. Emmons suggests that this supports the idea that gratitude cultivates well-being and strength. (6) Similarly. in another study, after taking an assessment to identify their top five strengths, participants were asked to use each strength for one day, in a new and different way, for a week. This decreased depression and increased happiness, with continued results noted even six months later. (7) The good news is that positive moods can be actively enhanced. Early results from the Reflective Happiness website demonstrate that after taking the first Happiness Building Exercise, 94 percent of members had a decrease in depression (some greater than a fifty percent reduction) and 92 percent increased their happiness. (8) Another way to increase one's mood and well-being is through faith and community. Religious faith seems to genuinely lift the spirit, though it's tough to tell whether it's connection with God or with the community that is beneficial. Friends made through a connection with a community are very important. A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois by Diener and Seligman found that the most salient characteristics shared by the ten percent of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them. (7)

Research suggests that enhancing virtues and positive emotions can not only treat certain ailments, but also prevent illness from occurring in the first place. As a positive psychologist, what is often helpful is to help clients identify what is working in their lives, what is healthy, and what strengths the client possesses. This is a very empowering experience for the client. Ultimately, positive psychology is not just about helping individuals to get better, but to help them experience long-term flourishing.

Sometimes the concerns of the world and difficult situations can weigh us down and dampen our mood. However, it is important to make sure that being empathetic with the troubles of the world does not pull us into depression. We have to remember that we can't be sad enough or upset enough to change all of the problems in the world. In fact, in order to stay healthy, as the research shows, maintaining a positive state is necessary. Thus, practicing positive psychology can bring balance and happiness back into our lives and improve our health. Positive psychology is not interested in individuals and society as a whole just being disease and problem free. Nor is it about helping people just get by or successfully cope. Rather, positive psychology is about achieving the capacity for flourishing in life, following one's dreams, and experiencing the joy of thriving.

Suggestions for increasing your well-being

Here are some suggestions and simple exercises that may be supportive in enhancing your own well-being:

1. Practice expressing gratitude in a way that works for you. For example, keep a gratitude journal of what you are thankful.

2. Find the humor in events. Take yourself more lightly and laugh more often.

3. Take rime to participate in activities you enjoy. Research shows that being actively engaged in the world in an enjoyable way increases positive affect.

4. Engage in some form of physical exercise that is appropriate for you. James Blumenthal and his colleagues recently observed an acute antidepressant effect for regular aerobic exercise that was equivalent in efficacy to that of SSRI medication in a controlled randomized clinical trial. (9)

5. Practice forgiveness. Forgiveness has been shown to be extremely beneficial on one's well-being as demonstrated by Dr. Frederic Luskin in his book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. (10)



(1.) Seligman M. Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy. In: Synder CR, Lopez S, eds. Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2002:3-12.

(2.) Ryff CD, Singer B. From social structure to biology. In: Synder CR, Lopez S, eds. Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2002:541-555.

(3.) Ingram RE, Snyder CR. Blending the good with the bad: integrating positive psychology and cognitive psychotherapy. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2006; 20(2): 117-123.

(4.) Taylor SE, Kemeny ME, Reed GM, Bower JE, Gruenwald TL. Psychological resources, positive illusions, and health. American Psychologist. 2000;55(1):99-109.

(5.) Gallup GH. Thankfulness: America's saving grace. Paper presented at the National Day of Prayer Breakfast. Thanks-Giving Square, Dallas, TX: 1998.

(6.) Emmons RA, McCulough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;84(2):377-390

(7.) Seligman M, Steen T, Park N, Peterson C. Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of progress. American Psychologist. 2005;60(5):410-421.

(8.) Accessed August 26, 2006.

(9.) Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Moore KA, Craighead WE, Herman S, Khatri P, et al. Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Archives of Internal Medicine. 1999;159:2349-2356.

(10.) Luskin F. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollinsSanFrancisco; 2003.

Deborah Barnett, Ph.D. is a psychologist at HealingWorks in Asheville. She uses positive psychology in her integrative holistic practice.
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Author:Barnett, Deborah
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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