Positive Psychology is a growing independent field in the psychology and counseling world. It is based on the premise that people need to have a positive reason to live. It involves examining one’s positive character traits, positive experiences and civic virtues. Once upon a time when I was a new counselor working with the SC Dept. of Mental Health I saw lots of kids of all ages with their parents. It was frustrating to me when the parents didn’t want to talk about the good things about their child. Many times after 30 minutes of hearing what was wrong with Johnny, I would ask, “Tell me what Johnny does well.” or “What do you appreciate about Johnny.” More often than not I would get responses such as blank stares or, “That’s not what we’re here to talk about.” I found it sad and skewed that we were only focusing on part of the client – the negative part. I realized at that point that I needed to find a way to bring more focus to the positive aspects of my clients. Once I started researching, I learned about Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology doesn’t in any way ignore or dismiss what is wrong or the reasons for coming to counseling but allows for equal time to focus on the positive as a way of expanding on it to increase desired behaviors. Simply put, if you only see the negative, that’s all you’re ever going to see.
The three key tenets of Positive Psychology I mentioned earlier are Valued Experiences, Positive Individual Traits, and Civic Virtues.
- Valued Experiences involves the past, present, and future. Identifying times in the past when the client felt a sense of contentment, satisfaction and well-being. Present feelings of flow (being immersed in a project completely) and happiness. Lastly, future feelings of hope and optimism.
- Positive Individual Traits encompasses being able to identify one’s positive traits which could include such things as forgiveness, courage, originality, open-mindedness, perseverance, etc.
- Civic Virtues includes evaluating one’s sense of work ethics, nurturance, altruism, responsibility, tolerance, etc.
Scott Barry Kaufman identified four guiding principles of Positive Psychology.
- Change the negative focus to a positive one.
- Encourage the use of a language of strength.
- Balance the positive and negative.
- Develop hope-building strategies.
Some Positive Psychology techniques:
- Gratitude visits – visit a person from your past and thank them for something they did for you. It could be something small that they don’t even realize they did. The key is that it needs to be a personal visit as opposed to a letter or phone call or it loses its impact. This is actually more powerful and therapeutic for the person extending the gratitude than the person receiving. I have had a personal experience with a gratitude visit however I won’t bore you with the details but I can attest to the fact that it very much impacted my life (as evidenced by my inability to share the story without tearing up).
- Three good things in life – ask your client to tell you three good things that happened today, or three things they’re grateful for, or three people who have had a positive impact on them…you get the point.
- You at your best. Helping the client explore the time in their life when they were at their best and what is different now, how they could get back to that, etc.
- Identifying signature strengths – however instead of focusing on ways we have used those strengths in our life to date, we explore new ways we can use those strengths to change our life in the future.
How do we know what our signature strengths are? I’m glad you asked!! (I love this topic in case you haven’t figured that out already). Martin Seligman is widely known as the Father of Positive Psychology. He works at the University of Pennsylvania and has devoted much of his life to research on Positive Psychology. He has written such books as Learned Optimism, Flourish, and Authentic Happiness (and more). If you go to the website authentichappiness.org you can read about his research, learn more about Positive Psychology, and complete surveys that will give you insight into your own character strengths (the VIA survey of character strengths), feelings of hope, optimism, future mindedness, PERMA, and many more things.
Have fun exploring!