The term psychotherapy typically elicits thoughts of treating a psychiatric disorder – such as depression, OCD, or social phobia, helping couples work through marital conflict, or helping individuals overcome grief or work through a major life challenge. In other words, the goal is to eliminate or reduce something negative.
Positive psychotherapy – often referred to as PPT for short – is a relatively new and unique therapeutic approach that moves away from focusing on what’s wrong or negative to what’s good and positive. It strives to help you explore, identify, and build up your strengths – and what’s going right in your life – rather than dissect and “fix” your weaknesses and whatever’s wrong or broken in your world. That’s not to say problems and weaknesses aren’t discussed and explored; rather, building upon your strengths and helping you experience happiness in the present are viewed as the key to improved well-being and psychological health.
Positive psychotherapy is based on the idea that people find happiness in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, many people are robbed from joy and well-being in the present moment because they see happy times only in retrospect. Positive psychotherapy helps them identify present moment happiness.
Positive psychotherapy was originally developed with the intent of promoting optimal functioning and a greater sense of well-being in people who were already psychologically healthy. However, it is now being used by many therapists – not as a replacement for traditional psychotherapy – but as a complementary adjunct to it. According to psychologist Martin Seligman – one of the leading authorities on positive psychology – PPT can enhance traditional therapy’s goal of fixing what’s wrong by also building what’s strong. This approach is highly beneficial to therapy clients in many ways.
Unfortunately, skeptics of positive psychology and PPT tend to disregard it. Focusing on positive, happy things may seem a bit too Pollyannaish rather than genuinely therapeutic. However, clinicians who implement PPT into their regular practice argue that it adds a healthy balance to the usual focus on psychological disorders and emotional suffering.
Brief History of Positive Psychotherapy
Positive psychotherapy is based on the tenets of positive psychology. Humanistic in nature, positive psychotherapy and psychology stem from the work of several prominent psychologists and psychoanalysts over the years. These include Carl Rogers (client-centered therapy), Abraham Maslow (self-actualization and the “hierarchy of needs”), Albert Bandura (social learning theory), Erich Fromm (author of The Art of Loving), Christopher Peterson (author of A Primer in Positive Psychology), and Martin Seligman (known for his work on learned optimism). Seligman and Peterson are frequently credited with co-founding the field of positive psychology. Another prominent figure in positive psychotherapy is University of Toronto psychologist Tayyab Rashid.
It should be noted that the positive psychotherapy being discussed here is not quite the same as European positive psychotherapy, which was developed in the late 1960s by psychiatrist Nossrat Peseschkian and his colleagues.
Three Key Assumptions of Positive Psychotherapy
According to Seligman and Rashid, there are three key assumptions that form the basis of PPT:
- People have an innate desire for happiness, fulfillment, and personal growth. They’re not just looking to avoid distress or negative feelings. Psychological problems develop when they’re unable to grow.
- A person’s strengths are just as real and valid as any symptoms they’re experiencing or disorders they may have.
- A beneficial therapeutic alliance doesn’t require a focus on weaknesses or psychopathology in order to develop; it can be formed by talking about a client’s strengths and resources as well.
Five Essentials of Happiness – Seligman’s PERMA Model
Throughout the course of his research on what makes people happy, Seligman identified 5 key elements which have come to be known as the PERMA model of well-being. This is based on the 5 things that play a key role in people’s happiness. They include:
- Positive emotion
People who feel fulfilled in each of these key areas of life are much less vulnerable to depression and experience a greater overall sense of well-being.
Positive emotions bring many benefits, including a more positive mood, increased creativity, greater willingness to take risks and try new things, better overall health, and happier relationships. They make it easier to let go of past regrets, appreciate and enjoy the present, and feel optimistic about what the future holds.
In PPT, therapists help you to develop more positive emotions. This helps you feel more hopeful (rather than expecting something bad to happen) and enables you to look at your life from a more positive perspective.
Engaging with life is essential to well-being. Sitting on the sidelines keeps you bored, depressed, and unmotivated – and reinforces the tendency to dwell on the past and fret about the future. When you engage in life, you gain momentum and are able to focus on – and enjoy – the moment.
As you identify your strengths in PPT, you can begin to find more ways to use them in meaningful and fulfilling ways – and in ways that bring value to others through your work, relationships, and other endeavors.
Relationships that are meaningful and happy bring great joy into our lives. They also helps us keep a more balanced and realistic perspective than we have when we’re isolated. Positive relationships with others also make us feel supported, loved, and valued. Positive psychotherapy helps you identify and nurture positive relationships in your life, and recognize those relationships that are unhealthy or even toxic.
Meaning and purpose in life make it rich and rewarding – and worth living. People find meaning in many different ways, including family, faith, a worthy cause, and their work.
Positive psychotherapy helps you identify the things that fulfill you and truly give your life meaning. Your therapist will encourage you to do things that align with your values and find others who care about the things that matter to you.
Accomplishing a goal or challenging task is very rewarding – whether it’s finishing college, mastering a skill like tennis or playing the piano, or shedding those unwanted pounds. People who are happy can look at their life and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment. This doesn’t mean they haven’t made mistakes or experienced failures along the way. Focusing on their successes – their accomplishments – inspires them to work towards future goals, and stick with them even when it’s tough to do so.
In PPT, your therapists will encourage you to define your goals and enhance the positive traits required to attain them. Your therapist will also help you stay focused on your goals and encourage you to celebrate all your successes – even if they’re small A strong sense of personal accomplishment boosts your resilience, and enables you to stay the course no matter how tedious or grueling – even when obstacles present themselves.
Values in Action Inventory
One of the key tools used in positive psychotherapy is the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS). This tool, developed by Seligman and Peterson, consists of a questionnaire that enables you to determine your five greatest strengths. Because it focuses on your strengths, it can help offset the stigma of a mental health diagnosis. The latter, by its very nature, emphasizes areas of weakness.
The VIA-IS can serve as a powerful reminder that you are not your depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, or any other derogatory diagnostic label. A perceived flaw, personal failure, or psychiatric disorder doesn’t define you. This is one of the most empowering aspects of positive psychotherapy. It enables you to see yourself as a whole person, rather than as a “broken” or “messed up” individual who needs to be “fixed”.
Identifying your key strengths can be incredibly empowering. It reinforces the shift from what’s wrong to what’s strong. Research has shown that people who are aware of their strengths and use them regularly have a greater sense of well-being and fewer depressive symptoms.
The VIA-IS is available online and is free to take.
Three Phases of Positive Psychotherapy
Positive psychotherapy can be divided into three distinct phases. The first phase is focused on helping therapy clients examine and identify their personal strengths.
The second phase of PPT is geared towards building and strengthening clients’ positive emotions, while helping them let go of negative thought patterns and emotions that have been causing problems in their life.
The third and last phase of PPT is focused on the positive relationships in clients’ lives, including ways in which those can be strengthened. This phase also focuses on helping clients gain a greater understanding of what gives their life purpose and meaning.
Therapists use various techniques to incorporate the tenets of positive psychology into their work with clients. These include helping clients to:
Encourage strength-based language – Most clients come to therapy expecting to talk about all the negative things – hurts, resentments, conflicts with others, sadness, and losses. As the saying goes, what you focus on expands. Shifting the language to incorporate more positive words helps shift the focus to more positive things in a person’s life. It can improve clients’ ability to recognize their strengths and identify what’s working in their lives.
Focus on the positive instead of the negative – In therapy (and often in life) people tend to focus on the negative rather than the positive. People who battle depression are especially prone to dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives, as well as all the negative things that have happened in their past. In PPT, the therapist strives to move the clients’ focus to the positive – e.g. the good things that happened during the day or week.
This shift helps clients develop a more balanced – and realistic – perspective (i.e., there’s almost always some good with the bad). It also enables them to become more adept at observing the positive things in the present, as well as identifying anything positive that came out of a difficult situation or experience in the past.
Reinforce feelings of hopefulness – Instilling a sense of hope is a common therapeutic goal. In PPT, therapists strive to find ways to build and strengthen their clients’ sense of hopefulness and optimism. Helping clients recognize their strengths can contribute to this goal, as it facilitates greater confidence in their ability to handle problems and challenges in the future.
Send reminders – Some therapists will use a pager, text message, or other means to send the client a reminder to record what they’re experiencing in that moment, with an emphasis on the positive. The idea is that these records (which the client can expand upon later in the day) provide a sample of sorts. At some point later on in therapy, these can be discussed to see how the client is progressing.
Positive Psychotherapy Exercises
One of the primary goals of positive psychotherapy is to help individuals identify and more fully develop positive emotions and personal strengths, in addition to gaining a better understand of what truly gives their life meaning. Accomplishing these goals also contributes to the reduction of clients’ negative symptoms as well.
Although the exercises listed below may seem benign at first glance, they often elicit unpleasant emotions in therapy clients. This isn’t a bad thing, as despite the name, positive psychotherapy isn’t designed to ignore or minimize negative or painful experiences – those are a normal part of life. Positive psychotherapy isn’t meant to sugarcoat the bad or promote a rose-colored perception of life. Not only would that be unrealistic, it wouldn’t be beneficial to clients.
Instead, therapists respond with empathy as they validate their clients’ experiences. They also encourage clients to look at how those negative experiences have impacted their life, and gently urge them to consider anything good that may have come from them. Of course, it goes without saying that therapists must use caution during this process. Clients are encouraged to look at both the good and the bad effects, rather than gloss over or ignore the negative.
As the name suggests, positive psychotherapy may have a more positive focus than many types of therapy, but the intent isn’t to turn therapy clients into superficial “positive thinkers”. Rather, it encourages clients to consider opportunities for growth that stem from trauma and other painful or difficult life experiences.
Positive psychotherapists use a variety of exercises to help their clients. These exercises can be used in group therapy sessions, as well as one-to-one sessions.
Using your primary strengths – As mentioned above, therapy clients are instructed to complete the VIA-IS strengths inventory to identify their 5 major strengths. The goal of this first exercise is to encourage you to consider different and new ways you can put your strengths to use each day.
Three good things – This exercise consists of taking time every night to write down three good things, or blessings, that occurred that day and consider why they happened. It helps you focus on the positive things in your life.
Writing your obituary – Many people go through life, only to feel deep regret when they get old and look back over the years. This exercise involves writing a lengthy obituary from the perspective that you’ve lived your life fully without any significant regrets. You’re to include the things for which you most want to be remembered.
One door closes, another door opens – As the name suggests, this exercise encourages you to see the positive outcomes (another door opening) that have been the result of something that initially seemed negative (one door closing). It not only helps you look for the silver lining during difficult times, but it also helps foster a greater sense of hopefulness and optimism in the face of disappointment.
Gratitude visit – This exercise involves thinking about someone for whom you feel gratitude. Express your gratitude in a letter and then either call or visit the person and read the letter to him or her.
Counting kindness – The counting kindness exercise involves writing down all the kind things you do in a given day. You can make entries in this log throughout the day or at the end of each day.
Savoring – If you’re like most people, you tend to rush through each day rather than stopping to “smell the roses” as you go. The savoring exercise requires you to pick something you tend to rush through (e.g. eating breakfast or driving to work) and make it a point to savor the activity. You follow this by writing down what you did differently and how the experience felt when you made a point of enjoying it.
Three funny things – This exercise involves writing down three funny things that happen each day, including why you think it happened (e.g. was it something someone else did, or something you did). Laughter is healthy and an important part of your overall well-being. This exercise helps you notice and more fully appreciate the fun, lighthearted moments in life.
Constructive responding – This exercise involves reacting to someone else’s happiness or good news in an active, positive way. The goal is to do it as least once every day.
Best possible self – This exercise consists of visualizing what your life would be like if you had achieved your goals and your dreams had come true. Once you have a vivid picture, write it down in detail.
The gift of time – Giving the gift of your time to others is a kind, generous act. It helps you feel better about yourself and makes you feel good by doing something good. The gift of your time may involve helping someone with a task (e.g. moving or watching their kids for a couple hours), or spending time with someone who’s housebound and alone. It’s important that this gift is not something that was already planned, but something you add to your normal schedule.
Disorders, Conditions and Problems That May Benefit From Positive Psychotherapy
Positive psychotherapy may be beneficial for a wide array of disorders and issues that cause individuals to seek professional help. The emphasis on identifying and nurturing strengths can be very empowering to just about anyone who’s struggling in some way or another. These include (but aren’t limited to):
- Social phobia
- PTSD and unresolved trauma
- Chronic or severe stress
- Relationship conflicts
- Addiction and recovery
- Grief and loss
- Handling a major life transition
- Parenting challenges
Positive psychology has been applied to variety of contexts in addition to mental health. These include businesses, rehab centers, and the military.
Advantages of Positive Psychotherapy
Although there are many critics of positive psychotherapy, this approach to therapy has many advantages that deserve consideration:
- Therapists who primarily use other types of psychotherapy can incorporate positive psychotherapy into their practice as a complementary approach to treating a variety of emotional problems and mental health disorders.
- Individuals can easily use online tools, such as the Values in Action Inventory and the various exercises, and apply them beneficially to their own lives. This can be a great way to help individuals who are often resistant to the idea of going to therapy.
- The principles, concepts, and exercises used in PPT are relatively easy to understand. People who may find it difficult to resonate with, for example, a more analytical approach to therapy may find PPT a more comfortable and enjoyable approach. This is important because they will be more inclined to stick with treatment rather than drop out prematurely due to an intellectual or emotional disconnect with the process.
- Unlike some types of psychotherapy and psychological interventions, there aren’t any major contraindications for positive psychotherapy. Almost anyone can experience at least some benefit from this approach.
- One of the criticisms of positive psychotherapy is that more research needs to be done regarding its effectiveness, particularly on individuals who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. However, until there is more evidence-based research, most agree that there are minimal risks to incorporating positive psychotherapy techniques into regular clinical practice.
Spending at least some time focusing on positive events, outcomes and emotions, as well as identifying, exploring and developing one’s strengths are generally considered worthwhile, psychologically healthy and beneficial endeavors. At the very least, doing so will likely instill a greater sense of confidence when it comes to handling adversity. The process can also help shift a negative or pessimistic outlook towards a more hopeful and positive one in most individuals.
Positive psychotherapy, although still relatively new compared to more traditional types of psychotherapy, shows a lot of promise. If you’re considering working with a therapist, it might be well worth it to consider looking for a psychologist or other mental health professional who incorporates PPT core concepts and exercises into his or her current practice.