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Day 14: James Maddux on Positive Clinical Psychology

The future of mental health interview series, day 14

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with James Maddux

One trend in professional psychology in recent years is the movement away from a focus on abnormality and disorder toward a focus on strength, health, and wellness. “Positive psychology” is an iteration of this movement and “positive clinical psychology” represents the suggestion to clinicians that they think about helping their clients achieve wellness in addition to, or rather than, focusing on the mere “elimination of the symptoms of mental disorders.” Here is James Maddux on this subject.

EM: Many of our readers will have heard of positive psychology. What’s your understanding of what positive psychology is and does?

JM: For me, positive psychology is not a new kind of psychology involving new theories and methodologies but simply a shift in emphasis (although an important one) from mainly studying and trying to understand human problems (depression, anxiety, aggression violence, prejudice) with the goal of reducing them to studying and trying to understand the positive and healthy things that make life worth living (love, friendship, striving, gratitude, resilience) with the goal of trying to increase them. One could say that positive psychology is concerned with not just helping people survive but helping them flourish.

EM: You write about something you call “positive clinical psychology.” How does that differ from positive psychology and what’s your intention in championing the phrase “positive clinical psychology”?

JM: The term "positive clinical psychology" is simply the extension of the concept of positive psychology in the sub-field of psychology that has been historically the one most concerned with human suffering. My attempt is using this term is to encourage clinical psychologists to define their field and their mission as not just alleviating suffering but also helping people move from suffering to flourishing or from reasonably good psychological health to flourishing. I think this can increase greatly our opportunities for having a positive impact on society.

EM: Your interests are in social psychology, clinical psychology, and health psychology. Can you briefly tell us what each one of those “is”?

JM: Briefly, clinical psychology, as noted above, has historically been concerned with understanding and alleviating psychological disorders or "psychopathology" as traditionally defined (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia). Social psychology has historically been concerned with understanding so-called "normal" human social and interpersonal behavior. However, because much of what "normal" humans do as they go about their daily lives is not always adaptive, social psychology has also come to focus more and more on so-called "problems in living" that easily shade into more serious psychological problems. For me, the major concept that links the two fields is the assumption of continuity between behaviors and emotions that are, for social and cultural reasons, arbitrarily classified as problems in living and those that are arbitrarily classified as psychological disorders.

Health psychology is concerned with understanding the psychological and behavioral influences on physical health rather than mental health--with the caution that the physical and mental aspects of human functioning cannot really be separated. Health psychologists study such issues as obesity, smoking, sedentary behavior, unsafe sex, and helping people with diseases and injuries cope with and overcome their conditions. The vast majority of theories and concepts used in health psychology come from social psychology.

EM: In what ways does “academic psychology” help actual sufferers?

JM: Academic psychologists—those who work in colleges and universities--contribute to the alleviation of suffering in two ways. First, most of them teach, and I think that a better understanding of human suffering, including one's own problems in living, is an important step toward successful coping. So teaching can make an important contribution. Second, depending on the university, most academic psychologists are involved in basic and applied research. Basic research is concerned with understanding fundamental principles of human behavior, while applied research attempts to solve practical problems, often by applying the results of basic research. Most of what are referred to as evidence-based (or research-based) interventions in clinical and counseling psychology (such as cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy) are the result of many years of accumulated results from both basic and applied research.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she try or do?

JM: This is not a hypothetical question for me, because it comes up several times a year from various people in my life. Briefly, I try to get a general sense of the problem he or she is struggling with and then help that person find a psychotherapist who is experienced with that particular kind of problem. There is now so much information about psychotherapists on the internet (e.g., on the websites of Psychology Today, the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy, etc.), that consumers are now in a much better position to make an informed choice about with whom they want to work. There are now even therapists who will do therapy by telephone or by Skype, which can greatly reduce the barriers of time and inconvenience.


James E. Maddux, Ph.D., is University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University (Fairfax, VA). He is the former Editor of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology and former director of the clinical psychology doctoral program at George Mason University. Maddux is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association’s Divisions of General, Clinical, and Health Psychology and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. His recent activities have included extensive international travel that has involved giving lectures, teaching graduate students, and organizing workshops on evidence-based clinical interventions and related topics.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

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