Various approaches aim to shift attention away from pathology.
Positive psychology is sometimes dismissed as so much happy talk. But practitioners say that their techniques provide a much-needed balance to psychiatry’s traditional focus on psychic pain and pathology.
The term “positive psychology” is a broad one, encompassing a variety of techniques that encourage people to identify and further develop their own positive emotions, experiences, and character traits. In many ways, positive psychology builds on key tenets of humanistic psychology. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy, for example, was based on the theory that people could improve their lives by expressing their authentic selves. And Abraham Maslow identified traits of self-actualized people that are similar to the character strengths identified and used in some positive psychology interventions.
Although initially developed as a way to advance well-being and optimal functioning in healthy people, positive psychology techniques are now being promoted as a complement to more traditional forms of therapy. For example, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, a well-known advocate of positive psychology, has described its core philosophy as a “build what’s strong” approach that can augment the “fix what’s wrong” approach of more traditional psychotherapy.
Another pioneer in the field, Harvard psychiatrist George E. Vaillant, sees positive psychology as a way to encourage patients to focus on positive emotions and build strengths, supplementing psychotherapy that focuses on negative emotions, like anger and sorrow. In a talk about positive psychology, Dr. Vaillant cited the example of a standard psychiatric textbook used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. The textbook, he says, contains roughly a million lines of text, with thousands of lines devoted to anxiety and depression, and hundreds discussing terror, shame, guilt, anger, and fear. But only five lines in the textbook discuss hope, only one mentions joy, and not a single line mentions compassion or love.
To counter the traditional focus on pathology, Seligman and another psychologist, Christopher Peterson, have formalized the tenets of positive psychology in a book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV), which they created as a counterpoint to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Just as the DSM-IV classifies a range of psychiatric disorders, the CSV provides details and classifications for various strengths that enable people to thrive. The book identifies 24 character strengths, like curiosity and zest, organized according to six overarching virtues, such as wisdom and courage.
A number of different counseling and coaching strategies rely on aspects of positive psychology. Although it’s impossible to review all of them in a single article, a few examples can help to provide a taste of how they may complement more traditional therapies.
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