What is Positive Psychology?

The Psyche
What is Positive Psychology? Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Positive psychology offers an alternative to the mental illness model.

Traditional mental health services focus on a deficit model. Initially, only two categories of mental illness were identified. Over time additional “mental illnesses” have been identified and described. Today the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual fifth edition) lists over four hundred separate recognized mental illnesses. It also provides for at least another four hundred possible conditions that can be diagnosed.

There are many counseling theories that seek to explain what causes these mental illnesses and how they can be treated. With all this focus on what’s wrong with people, there has been very little focus on the positive end of the spectrum until recently. Not enough attention has been paid to what people should do to have a happy, contented, or flourishing life.

Physical health and mental health are organized differently.

Increasingly physical health systems are recognizing the importance of treating chronic illnesses. Preventative care has become a significant part of physical health programs. Mental health continues to be provided only to severely ill clients. With very few exceptions, you will need to be extremely “mentally ill” for insurance companies to pay for treatment. The primary focus is on treating mental illness rather than promoting mental health.

Positive psychology examines positive experiences.

Positive psychology is a separate branch of psychology that began about twenty years ago when Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association and chose positive psychology as his presidency’s theme. The new positive psychology movement builds on numerous past philosophers and psychotherapists. What was new and novel about this movement was its emphasis on identifying ways to increase positive functioning rather than focusing on negative impairments.

Positive psychology emphasizes having a good life.

The “good life,” which is the focus of positive psychology, involves a great deal more than merely increasing temporary “happiness” or pleasure. I should mention here that “anhedonia or loss of pleasure” is one of the primary symptoms for the diagnosis of depression. What we do know about treating depression is that merely adding short bursts of pleasure does not cure depression. I want to talk more about pleasure, happiness, and the many pathways for reaching a good life in future posts.

How many strengths do you have?

One of the things many counselors and therapists are told to do is identify the client’s strengths and encourage people to use those strengths to improve their mental health. What is often missing from that training is any comprehensive list of strengths or ways to identify the client’s strengths. My experience has been that people who have severe mental illness, anxiety, and depression often have difficulty identifying any strengths they may have.

In 2004 Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman wrote a book which, at over 700 pages, is a very comprehensive compilation of characteristics that are pretty much universally accepted as desirable personality traits. The title of the book was Character Strengths and Virtues. Much of the research in the field of positive psychology is based on this classification system. Unfortunately, defining universal characteristics using words can lead to a lot of misunderstandings.

I remember a very long time ago in elementary school when we were taught how to have “good character.” Those values primarily involved being honest, truthful, and compliant with rules. People who disagreed with authority were thought of as having “bad character.” Virtues, of course, at least back then, took on the connotation of being morally right or wrong.

Neither of those interpretations appears to me to be the things Peterson and Seligman meant by using the words strengths and virtues. Their usage describes characteristics of people’s personalities that were both useful and beneficial to that person.

The book lists twenty-four character-strengths divided into six general categories of “virtues.” For example, the virtue of “wisdom” consists of the character strengths of creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective. I have spent the last few weeks reading research articles on a couple of these character strengths. As I’m able to digest this information, I plan to write some additional blog posts this year about what’s been learned about these character strengths and how you might utilize and cultivate those strengths.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seems like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

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