Since the emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline in the late 19th century, its primary focus has been on what goes “wrong” with a person. This focus laid the foundation for a long-held, but unfounded assumption that the process of talking about what’s wrong day after week after month will mysteriously result in recovery and healing.Then came the Positive Psychology movement at the turn of the century, an approach that forever shifted the landscape with one simple question: “what if we focused on what goes right instead?” Positive Psychology flipped the old model on its head by shifting the focus from identifying, exploring, and repairing human weaknesses to identifying, exploring, and cultivating human strengths.
Why is this subtle shift in thinking so important? The answer can be found in the goal of therapy, and its underlying assumptions. The goal of traditional therapy is to “fix” the client, an approach that assumes the client is in some way “broken.” Positive Psychology, on the other hand, strives to activate and cultivate a client’s existing strengths to enhance well-being, an approach that assumes the solution to a client’s problem is tucked inside themselves.
Here’s the best part: the process of enhancing well-being acts as a natural therapeutic counter to all manner of distressing symptoms. In that way, Positive Psychology’s goal is not to replace traditional therapy so much as it is to bring a much-needed balance to the healing process.
Not only that, but this approach also assumes that your strengths form the foundation of your identity as a human being. In other words, you are not a collection of symptoms or problems. You are not a diagnosis. You are you, pre-packaged from birth with inherent value and a host of unique and enduring strengths!
So, let’s say you buy into the Positive Psychology pitch. What now? What does this look like in the room? What can you expect? More specifically, what does Positive Psychology have to say about one of the most common experiences known to the human condition: depression?
Let’s dive in!
Below is a list of the most common symptoms of depression:
- Feeling sad, “empty,” or hopeless
- Persistent irritability, agitation, or restlessness
- Uncharacteristic loss of interest or pleasure
- Significant weight loss or weight gain
- Significant increase in appetite or decrease in appetite
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much (i.e., insomnia or hypersomnia)
- Persistent low energy and fatigue
- Uncharacteristic slowing of your physical movements and/or speech
- Persistent feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Difficulty focusing, concentrating, or making decisions
- Persistent thoughts of death or suicide and/or suicidal actions
- Socially isolating oneself
- Persistent feelings of being a burden to others
- Persistent feelings of purposelessness
- Persistent feelings of anger
The symptoms of depression range from mildly to extremely distressing, and often impair your ability to fully engage in nearly every area of your life. Depression is often described as a fog descending upon your life and hindering your ability to see, think, feel, and even move with clarity, focus, and purpose. This metaphorical fog keeps you rooted in place, paralyzed by indecision and helplessness.
Positive Psychotherapy can help with overcoming depression by activating (or as is more often the case, reactivating) your strengths, which serve as natural buffers against life events that can trigger symptoms of depression.
Activating your strengths in an intentional, therapeutic setting automatically addresses the symptoms of depression without focusing unnecessary time and energy on the symptoms themselves. In other words, this approach doesn’t rely on the fog to lift. Rather, it gently nudges you forward until you walk out of the fog and into the daylight on your own two feet!
So, where do we begin?
We kick things off by identifying your strengths with the same urgency and seriousness as we explore the symptoms that likely brought you to counseling in the first place. Since we are in the business of cultivating well-being as the primary means of alleviating those distressing symptoms of depression, we focus on your strengths more than your symptoms.
Identifying strengths can be an eye-opening experience, especially if you have never considered personal character traits such as creativity, curiosity, humor, open-mindedness, bravery, gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, humility, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence as strengths!
The first step in the strength-identification process involves selecting the top five strengths that best represent you from the list below:
- Love of Learning
- Vitality and Zest
- Social intelligence
- Citizenship and Teamwork
- Forgiveness and Mercy
- Humility and Modesty
- Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
- Hope and Optimism
- Humor and Playfulness
The next step involves recruiting a family member and a friend to identify the strengths that they believe best represent you from the same list. Then, you complete the Signature Strengths Questionnaire (SSQ-72), an objective measure that identifies your top five strengths based on the answers you provide.
When the dust settles, you begin the process of exploring your signature strengths in collaboration with your therapist. Maybe you acknowledge your strengths without a moment’s hesitation. Maybe you don’t really buy the report from family and friends, or even the results from the questionnaire, but upon further examination, you begin to see how these strengths play out in your past and present.
You also can identify those strengths that are 1) currently underdeveloped or lacking in your life, and 2) potentially helpful when it comes to addressing symptoms of depression.
Then, things get active. It’s not enough to know how awesome you are. You must learn to develop and apply your strengths in everyday life. The more we tap into this superpower, the more we learn to overcome the most distressing symptoms of depression. Put another way, your strengths function as a detailed roadmap for overcoming depression.
The process of converting strength-knowing into strength-doing involves 1) learning “practical wisdom” strategies for applying relevant strengths in real-life situations, and 2) developing a written plan of action specifically designed to fuse your signature strengths into every facet of your life.
I’m talking concrete, measurable, achievable goals, whether that looks like maintaining one outdoor activity a week (vitality and zest, self-regulation), attending more social events (social intelligence, courage), or doing a good deed for your neighbor (kindness, love).
One of the hallmarks of depression is that sometimes, the last thing you want to do is go outside, much less talk to people while you’re at it! I hear you. I get it. Yet, something magical happens when you get up and go (whether you feel like it or not). The sun starts to cut through that fog of depression. Things start to get better – not all at once, but things do get better.
The real question is, how? What is the active ingredient of Positive Psychotherapy? This approach works because the act of intentionally cultivating the positive elements in a person’s life (e.g., strengths, aspirations, interests, hopes, talents, assets, relationships, values, feelings, skills) addresses the whole person rather than the symptoms, issues, or problems that person happens to be experiencing at the time. Not only that, but the process also stimulates and fosters the universal human desire for a meaningful and purposeful life.
The process of identifying, owning, and activating your strengths can be equal parts challenging, empowering, and most importantly, fun! If this approach to therapy seems like a good fit, give me a call. My door is always open!
Note: Identifying and applying your strengths is a major component of Positive Psychotherapy, but not the only focus. Other areas of focus include recalling positive memories, cultivating gratitude and forgiveness, making positive choices, promoting hope and optimism, exploring traumatic memories, fostering positive relationships, encouraging altruism, and pursuing meaning and purpose.
“Fog”, Courtesy of Hamish Weir, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Foggy Lake”, Courtesy of Jorgen Haland, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Foggy Road”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Foggy Forest”, Courtesy of Shapelined, Unsplash.com, CC0 License