Monday, February 23, 2009

Principals of Positive Psychotherapy

Western Psychology in general and psychotherapy in specific, have been around for only about 60 years. Growing out of the medical model, psychotherapy has focused almost exclusively on psychopathology, mental illness and the reduction of negative symptoms. Very little attention has been paid to fostering human flourishing, peak potential, positive emotions and happiness. It is refreshing to witness the emergence of Positive Psychology to meet these needs. While Indian yogic and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist psychologies have for centuries focused on the full range of human experience from misery to enlightenment, our own tradition is perhaps finally ready to consider how to optimally develop a human's being innate capacity for health and happiness.

The essential principals of Positive Psychotherapy summarized here are based on Seligman, Rashid, and Parks (2006), article entitled "Positive Psychotherapy", found in American Psychologist.

The authors describe 3 types of happiness and the 3 types of lives:

The Pleasant Life
• Hedonic approach to happiness, ie. to have as many pleasurable experiences as possible. Developing skills to amplify and intensify the experience and duration of pleasure.
• Positive emotions about past memories such as satisfaction, fulfillment, and pride are developed by gratitude and forgiveness exercises.
• Positive emotions about the future include hope, optimisms, faith, and trust, are developed through optimism exercises.
• Positive emotions about the present, include satisfaction derived from immediate pleasure, and are developed through savoring the present moment exercises such as mindfulness of eating.
• Studies indicate that positive emotions counteract the causal process of depression and contribute to resilience to crisis.

The Engaged Life
• Engagement, involvement or absorption in three realms of life: work, relationships and leisure.
• “Flow” is the subjective experience of engagement in which subject-object dualisms dissolves; time passes quickly; attention is concentrated on the activity; sense of self is lost.
• Engagement is enhanced by identifying core or “signature” strengths and then seeking opportunities to use them. (ie. client with creative talent is encouraged to take an art class).

The Meaningful Life
• Meaning is derived by using one’s signature strength or talent in the service of something bigger than one self (ie. altruistic activities in family, community, religion, society).
• Those who are able to use meaning to convert crisis or adversity into opportunity achieve the greatest benefits.
• Lack of meaning is not just a symptom, but a cause of depression, thus cultivating meaning will relieve depression.


Human beings are evolutionarily primed (biologically and genetically) to remember the negative, attend to the negative and expect the worst. This has ensured the survival of a species. Negative emotions are primarily driven by negative memories, negative expectations and depressed people exaggerate and generalize this natural tendency. Therefore, it is in one’s best interest to learn to override this automatic tendency towards the negative by cultivating positive emotions, realistic expectations, and to transform the traumas of the past into the fodder of meaning.

The three types of happiness and the three areas of life should all be valued and cultivated. The happiness of engadgement and the happiness of meaning are said to be foundational, while the happiness of pleasure is an added bonus. From the perspective of Positive Psychology the pursuit of pleasure, engagement and meaning form a coherent path of living that leads to lasting happiness.

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