What is Positive Psychology?

During the last twenty years, there has been a movement among psychologists to study not only mental health disorders but also individual and group strengths. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), first published in 1952 and now in its fourth edition, is used by therapists to diagnose mental health disorders. More recently, psychologists Martin Seligman, Ph.D. and Christopher Peterson, Ph.D. wrote the classic handbook, Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), which includes a classification and measurement of positive individual traits and civic virtues that may benefit well-being. Twenty-four specific strengths are identified under six broad virtues:

  • Wisdom and knowledge virtue (traits include creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective)
  • Courage virtue (traits include bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality)
  • Humanity virtue (traits include love, kindness, and social intelligence)
  • Justice virtue (traits include citizenship, fairness, and leadership)
  • Temperance virtue (traits include forgiveness and mercy, humility and modesty, prudence, and self-regulation)
  • Transcendence virtue (traits include appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality)

Dr. Peterson shared with me the interview used by his research team at The University of Pennsylvania. You can identify your particular strengths by going online, and following the directions below for taking the Signature Strengths inventory:

  • Go to Questionnaires
  • Go to VIA signature Strengths Questionnaire
  • You must register by logging in and identifying a password

Positive and negative views of self and others

Positive psychology is helpful to a client who is maturing, and developing his or her sense of self esteem and identity since it provides a set of positive traits for viewing oneself and others. During transition periods in life, the particular individual traits and virtues with which my client identifies may help him or her to develop and expand on aspirations, and to achieve a new level of well-being.

However, positive psychology is also useful when identifying negative traits, vulnerabilities, out of control behaviors, and exploitation in oneself or others. The interpersonal context in which people spend time at home, work, school, and other settings is important to consider since certain "positive" individual traits such as forgiveness may be "positive" in one context, but "negative" in another. For example, even though our culture views forgiveness as beneficial, a more forgiving person may experience less self respect over time if he or she continues to "forgive" but interact with a threatening bully.

When is the expression of a particular trait or group of traits beneficial, and when is the expression of a particular trait or group of traits not beneficial to the individual client, and to the client's larger group? Many of my clients are managing in less than optimal circumstances, and interacting with people who do not display positive traits. This is apparent in a situation involving harassment or abuse, and may be more subtle as in the situation involving a fading friendship.

Combining positive psychology, cognitive therapy, and insight in treatment

Cognitive therapy, pioneered by Aaron Beck, Ph.D., helps the client to clarify the view of self and view of others, and to go a step further, and to identify the main beliefs and strategies employed in interacting with others. According to Beck, people may view themselves in a variety of ways such as being self-sufficient, needy, responsible, vulnerable, righteous, autonomous, special, powerless, impressive, or detached. They may view others as being receptive, untrustworthy, powerful, inferior, exploitative, malicious, competent, self-indulgent, controlling, nurturing, or critical. Given that they view themselves and others in positive and negative ways, they act on these views with certain beliefs and strategies.

My client and I work together to understand these complex interactions, gain greater insight, and develop a proactive approach to problems. I use my knowledge of mental health disorders when applying contemporary concepts from Seligman's positive psychology and Beck's cognitive therapy to help my clients understand themselves and others within the larger context, and to make positive changes.