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Positive Psychology

Unlike traditional psychology that focuses more on the causes and symptoms of mental illnesses and emotional disturbances, positive psychology emphasizes traits, thinking patterns, behaviors, and experiences that are forward-thinking and can help improve the quality of a person’s day-to-day life. These may include optimism, spirituality, hopefulness, happiness, creativity, perseverance, justice, and the practice of free will. It is an exploration of one’s strengths, rather than one’s weaknesses. The goal of positive psychology is not to replace those traditional forms of therapy that center on negative experiences, but instead to expand and give more balance to the therapeutic process.

When It's Used

Positive psychology can be applied to children and adults in educational settings and mental health facilities, as well as in private counseling practices. There is also a place for positive psychology outside the realm of therapeutic practice, such as in human resource management and business administration.

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What to Expect

Positive psychology is sometimes referred to as “the science of happiness.” One of the questions positive psychologists try to address is: “Can a person be happy and realistic at the same time?” While acknowledging the problems of the world and of the individual, positive psychologists believe one can still lead a productive, meaningful, and satisfying life. The goal is to minimize negativity in one’s thinking and behavior, to develop a more optimistic attitude that will enhance, rather than disrupt one’s social, professional, and spiritual life. Positive therapists and counselors use a variety of exercises and interventions to help their clients become more self-aware and identify their own positive traits and strengths.

How It Works

To a large degree, the positive psychology movement began back in the 1950s and ’60s, with the introduction of a humanistic approach to therapy. Soon afterwards, psychologists began to realize that looking only at the damage already done to adults was not helping to prevent mental health problems that often begin in childhood. In the late 1990s, psychologist Martin Seligman recognized that, for the sake of prevention, researchers and practitioners had to start looking more closely at human strengths and virtues, not just weaknesses, and figure out how to instill positive traits in younger people who may be at risk of developing the unhealthy emotions and behaviors that signal mental illness. Seligman proposed that successful psychotherapy in the future would not only be a process wherein people talk about their troubles, but also where people examine and learn to use their strengths. He suggested that exercises in happiness can be used to make lasting differences in those who are depressed, anxious, or conflicted.

What to Look for in Positive Psychology

The science of positive psychology can be incorporated into all levels of coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy. Look for a licensed, experienced professional with training in positive psychology. In addition to finding someone with the appropriate educational background, experience, and positive approach, look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable discussing personal issues.

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Seligman MEP and Csikzentmihalyi M. Positive Psychology. An Introduction. American Psychologist. 2000. 55(1):5-14.
Seligman MEP, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C. Positive Psychology Progress, Empirical Validation of Interventions. Positive Psychology Progress. 2005;42:874-884.