Defining Positive Psychology

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

This issue is the first article in a series of articles that will introduce parents to positive psychology. Positive psychology is a new and powerful science focused on discovering how and why things go RIGHT in our lives. Positive psychology is a refocusing of psychology in order to improve the human condition, not just eliminate mental problems and control human behavior.

Happiness and Success

Put simply, happiness and success is something we experience when we live a meaningful, engaging and stimulating life. Research has demonstrated that this life often leads to many riches including positive relationships, rewarding work, and even health. Happiness and success is not just the result of financial wealth or endless pleasure.

Positive psychology explains why and how people can live happier and more successful lives. Success in life is not merely the avoidance of failure. There is more to life than playing it safe. In fact, a meaningful life may require some degree of risk. An engaging life will require choices and opportunities. And a stimulating life requires restraint.

Most children are focused on finding success and happiness. But as we know, life can be rough. So by adulthood, many of us become more focused on avoiding failure, punishment or pain. Small children don’t need or want alcohol or drugs. Yet adults seek alcohol and other drugs when they face pain, or lose their ability to live a truly happy and successful life.

We can’t always eliminate problems and bad things that happen in life. But we can live our life in a way that we can become happier and more successful. Positive psychology is about living our life and raising children to their fullest potential. Living a happier and more successful life can ease suffering. It can insulate and buffer children from future anxiety, depression and the consequences of stress.

People are happier and more successful when they recognize, use and share their character strengths and virtues. Meaning, engagement and stimulation are always part of the formula.

A Few Principle of Positive Psychology

In positive psychology, there are a number of practical and common sense principles.

1.  People can be happier and more successful if they are fully engaged, in the flow of activities where they are making a difference, or living a life that is meaningful to them.

2.  The complete pursuit of stimulation and pleasure requires more frequent and greater intensity of stimulation and pleasure (i.e. addiction).

3.  The effective use of our character strengths can insulate and buffer us against depression, anxiety and other consequences of stress.

4.  People experience positive emotions when they recognize, use and share their character strengths and virtues.

5.  Happiness and success is not achieved by the elimination of stress or mental health symptoms alone.

A Simple Example of Positive Family Therapy

Mellissa is a 16 years old. Her mother brought her to see me because she has been oppositional and defiant, she sneaks out at night and she has been using alcohol. Her mother said Mellissa won’t listen. Mellissa and her mother recently started screaming at each other. Mellissa recently threatened to leave during an argument and her mother tried to restrain her. Her mother called the police. Her mother told me that she wanted Mellissa to stop arguing, drinking and running off. Her mother told me that she had taken all of Mellissa’s belongings away and she even removed the door to her room. Nothing was working.

I then met with both Mellissa and her Mother. Mellissa was very polite and was very open with me about her behavior and her feelings. She admitted to everything her mother told me. She told me that she called her mother to come get her if she drank too much or if she did not want to drive home with other people who had been drinking. She also told me that she only snuck out to be with people that her mother thought were responsible people. She went to late movies or a party with kids her age. She said she drank only a little because she did not want to get drunk.

I then used a strength assessment approach and asked Mellissa’s mother to Tell Me A Story about a time when Mellissa did something that was good and something to be proud of. Her mother could not think of anything. I gave her some time. Mellissa started to cry. I then asked Mellissa to tell me about a time in her life when she was proud of herself. She cried and told me stories about times when she helped people and how her friends come to her for advice. She told me that she was most proud of a time when she volunteered and worked as reading partner for a child with a reading disability.

At this point I asked Mellissa if she would mind if I told her something that I liked and respected about her. She looked up, wiped her eyes, and said “Yes.” I then explained why I felt she was Honest, Open, Kind and Sensible in her Thinking. I explained what these strengths were and described how they were part of the virtues of Courage, Wisdom, Humanity and Temperance. Mellissa cried and then said, “Why doesn’t my mother ever see that I am good kid?” Her mother then said, “Because I’m always worried that you will get in trouble or be hurt.” Mellissa said, “Yeah, but you never say anything good about me. You’re always critical. You say I’m pretty and smart but you don’t treat me that way.”

So I asked Mellissa, “Do you want to be in charge of your life?” She said, “No. I just don’t trust my mother. I don’t listen to you because I’m never good enough. All you care about is what’s wrong. That’s why Dad left.”

Now this is pretty powerful stuff. Obviously Mellissa was breaking some important rules and her mother is right to be concerned and to set limits. Children need choices and consequences for wrong behavior. But the heart of this problem was that Mellissa stopped caring about what her mother wanted because her mother did not see, express or share what was good about her daughter. Mellissa’s mother was very clear about what was wrong with Mellissa but she was vague about what was RIGHT with Mellissa.

Positive Psychology is more than praise or a complement. Positive psychology is NOT about spoiling children or being permissive. The What is Right approach is about accurately recognizing what is RIGHT and good in each other. This is often enough to help someone listen, keep an open mind and even change their mind. After 6 more sessions, Mellissa and her mother were getting along much better. It turns out that Mellissa’s mother did not know what was RIGHT with her either. Things got better and better once they discovered and began to share their strengths. Mellissa became more sensible. Sometimes we need to hear what is right and good from someone who is independent and objective. That was my job.

We will explore positive psychology as an effective treatment for depression in the next article.

Dr. Conner is a psychologist who completed a research and training fellowship in graduate medical education and health education. He provides training, evaluation and intervention services for adults, families and youth. Dr. Conner's practice includes clinical, medical and family psychology. He is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, Emergency Crisis Intervention, and Emergency School Response. This article is also available at www.CrisisCounseling.Com. Dr. Conner’s practice is located in Bend Oregon and he can be reached at 541 388-5660

Copyright 2008, Michael G. Conner