Welcome to my series of blogs addressing the practice, application and efficacy of Positive Psychology. I am a huge advocate of this branch of psychology and provide its application to my clients. Contact me today to discuss how PP could start to work for you!
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Startling statistics suggest that up to 50 percent of us will experience a mental disorder of some sort in our lifetime (Michalec, Keyes, & Nalkur, 2009). Furthermore, once we have experienced a mental disorder such as depression, we are far more likely to experience another again in the future. The rise in documented occurrences may be due to the reduced stigma involved in seeking help for depression, in addition to an increase in public awareness of mental health issues and mental disorders. Nevertheless, case numbers are rising.
‘Psychology as usual’ can be defined as the cognitive or interpersonal therapy or pharmacotherapy available to people experiencing mild to major depression or other mental disorders (Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011). The word ‘usual’ here indicates what is the normal approach or most commonly available treatments for the general public.
An important implication for the place of positive psychology interventions (PPIs) in relation to ‘psychology as usual’ is whether these interventions could help to alleviate this rise in the frequency of reported cases of mental illness and disorder. This essay will critically discuss the place for PPIs in the prevailing paradigm of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy, which are both currently available to a population who face an increasing likelihood of suffering from mild to major depression or other mental disorder.
This essay will consider five main issues that illuminate the place of PPIs in relation to ‘psychology as usual’. These can be split into two themes: efficacy and legacy. As this essay introduces the definition of positive psychology and PPIs, it will note the rapidity of effect in patients treated with PPIs compared to more traditionally practised approaches such as pharmacotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Continuing with the theme of efficacy, it will next examine Positive Psychology’s (PP) response to the limitations of ‘psychology as usual’, which can be seen to leave patients in a languishing state and are therefore do not provide a true fulfilment of psychological health.
This feeds into this essay’s exploration of PPIs’ ability to both promote mental health as well as reduce mental illness. This will be critically examined and discussed, recognising the powerful growth impact of the critiquing process. This critical discussion and the critiquing of the core themes and research of PP can only make the discipline more robust and help to refine its direction as it evolves.
This essay will then move on to the theme of legacy, by first considering the debate surrounding positive psychology as potentially separate and distinct to ‘psychology as usual’, and following this with the debate surrounding PPIs’ place in history and whether the use of PPIs could, in fact be seen as a return to a fuller, more accessible psychology. The essay’s conclusion will summarise these points, and revisit the possibility of PPIs as having an impact on the rising frequency of reported cases of depression.
Introducing PP and PPIs
The pioneers of positive psychology, Seligman and Csikszentmihaly, presented a movement away from a focus solely on curing mental illness and towards the principles of fostering mental health in the article ‘Positive Psychology: An introduction’ (American Psychologist, 2000). They made an argument against what they saw as a negative bias in what had become ‘psychology as usual’, which focused on negative affect and the singular treatment of mental illness or the curing of mental disorders (Seligman, 2001).
Since the publication of this seminal article, the study of concepts such as well-being, flow, happiness and flourishing have moved forward in leaps and bounds. A movement spreading through an ever-expanding global network of researchers has fixated firmly on the lack of evidence-based interventions that could promote positive effect while simultaneously decreasing negative affect. This re-balancing of psychology to encompass a focus on satisfaction with life, subjective wellbeing and the promotion of positive affect, while not forgetting the prevention or treatment of negative affect and mental illness, could be seen as return to a pre-World War Two approach (Linley, Maltby, & Wood et al., 2009).
Positive psychology is mounting evidence of both theories and applications in both non-clinical and clinical settings. This can already be seen in the use of positive psychology interventions and assessments in organisations (Fredrickson, 2003), clinical psychotherapy (Joseph & Linley, 2006) and coaching (Biswas-Diener, 2009), all of which will be discussed later.