You are living in most troubling times. On the economic level, worldwide market crises threaten your way of life and governments across the globe are incapable of quick fixes. At the political level, various regions are marked by discord and by wars large and small. At the climate and geographical levels, catastrophes surge and the struggle for daily survival is a constant theme for many. In your neighborhood, the elderly fall sick, people lose their jobs, marriages cannot hold, children suffer in silence or they act out, and the school system might be overwhelmed. However, there are not enough medical and social services to help them out.

Psychology offers approaches and therapies that might be beneficial for helping society as a whole. The stresses that are all around us affect your sense of well-being and might worsen psychological tensions, vulnerabilities, and disorders that you might be experiencing. You are not immune from societal and global pressures and tragedies, and cannot insulate from them. They add to your daily dealings with work, family, social institutions, and other people. However, when you are in distress and need to consult psychological supports, such as self-help books or even counselors, the science of psychology has developed a range of effective ways of helping. Moreover, they might help you deal with outside pressures for which you have little control. Further, I am proposing that approaches and techniques that help individuals and their families can be useful in helping society as a whole to improve.

Psychotherapy

In a 2008 article, I reviewed the major approaches to individual psychotherapy, and emphasized that we should be treating the whole person in context. The problems that you might have are not just on the "inside" but also reflect your relationships in the world, from work to family to society. In individual psychotherapy, psychologists use the cognitive behavioral and interpersonal approaches, in particular, and increasingly are using approaches such as positive psychology and narrative psychology. The classic approaches of psychodynamic and learning theories also have their role to play. As well, I had argued that the biopsychosocial approach is a good one to keep in mind.


In addition, psychotherapists need to be aware of the person's developmental level, family or partner, gender, culture, and groups with which he or she might identify. At its most basic level, individual psychotherapy attempts to replace bad habits, thoughts, and attitudes with good ones, to increase one's sense of well-being and relations with others, and to assure that means are in place to keep the gains made. My own contributions to understanding psychotherapy have been to call it transition therapy and activation/ coordination therapy, partly because you are always in transition no matter what your age and therapy is about activating good habits and stopping bad ones.

Further, an essential component of successful individual psychotherapy is that the therapist establishes rapport with the patient and a supportive environment to facilitate positive change. This allows the therapist to deal with the darkest problems and moods of patients and even confront them about their failed solutions to their problems in an effort to establish new ways of being, relating, thinking, and feeling.

Society

The same principles that I have described for individual psychotherapy also should apply to societies and how they can improve. We have multiple mechanisms already in place to try to improve society, such as creating policies, consulting universities and experts, and contributing to newspapers and others media that provide good outlets for analysis of our ills and the presentation of alternate solutions.

Nevertheless, our society needs to take a better look at itself from the perspective of facilitating positive change. Just as with individuals, each society is in transition and can be qualified for its developmental level, openness to positive change, good habits activated and bad habits inhibited, positive thinking and feelings, how it copes with stress and tragedies, and how it deals with others. 

I am proposing the societies can profit from analyses of their strengths and weaknesses in terms of psychological processes that influence them and that can be improved by timely and effective strategies. Societies are governed by political processes, and they reflect social and economic forces, as well as adaptation to calamities related to the climate and geography. They consult specialists in all sorts of disciplines, but generally do not consider psychology as a key discipline that can help implement positive change. Positive psychology is beginning to have an impact this way, but not at the level of working with society itself as the unit that can be improved.


Typically, psychology has dealt with normal and abnormal behavior experimentally but just abnormal behavior clinically. Positive psychology is a new psychological approach that studies and promotes optimal psychological well-being in all individuals. Martin Seligman is its principal founder, and has developed a website that includes an educational component on positive psychology for the public, eg. for use in schools. Recently, Seligman has written a book entitled "Flourish" that presents some conceptual innovations and clarifications, such as explaining the critical components in the field. These include positive relationships and emotions, finding meaning, accomplishment, and many others. Moreover, he has developed a program called Flourish 2051 that is aimed at improving well-being through schools, business, and government. Also, he has developed a program to help soldiers develop resilience. Ed Diener is among other key contributors to the approach of positive psychology, through his work on subjective well-being. He and colleagues have argued for national measures or accounts of well-being that could be tracked to inform policies. However, I am proposing a new way for positive psychology to help people.

Societies work to create better laws and opportunities for the disadvantaged and disabled and to improve the physical and mental health of its members. However, do they consider frankly the best interests for its members at all levels? For example, for any one issue, are there self-serving interests in decisions arrived at, does one group (or groups) in society profit at the great expense of another, and so on? Sometimes the conservative tendencies in a society have the best solutions and sometimes the more liberal ones, but can they genuinely cooperate to find the best answers possible to problems that they face? Positive psychology might be able to help with this because of its emphasis on developing optimally, promoting strength and resilience, and encouraging thriving. Perhaps working groups can be formed that lead to policy recommendations that are above the political fray and that aim toward the best for society in terms of psychological processes of its members and of the society as a whole.

You might consider me too idealistic, and believe that our society is not ready for this added layer either in monitoring the government or in its governance. However, think tanks, watchdogs, ombudsman, and review panels exist at multiple levels both in government and outside it. Why not consider one more group of this type that has the best interests of society at heart in an impartial way? Psychology has much to offer the individual, and also to government policies related to people needing its services. Why can't it contribute to positive changes in society as whole, as well, for example, through what might be called "positive society psychology?"

About the Author

Gerald Young, Ph.D.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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