What is positive psychotherapy?
As the name might suggest, positive psychotherapy focuses on improving wellbeing and functioning by building on positive emotions, relationships and strengths. The aim is to make people more resilient, thereby protecting them against future stressors. People can take part in positive psychotherapy individually or as a couple or family.
The approach differs from traditional talking therapies, which tend to focus on reducing distress and symptoms of mental health problems.
There are a number of streams of positive psychology therapy, but two are the most well-known. One relates to a field of psychology developed by Martin Seligman, called positive psychology. The second is a therapy developed by Nossrat Peseschkian. The approaches differ but have both been shown to be helpful types of therapy.
What can positive psychotherapy help with?
Positive psychotherapy has a wide range of applications which are not just restricted to helping with mental health challenges. People can benefit from positive psychology interventions for:
- Building resilience
- Improving overall psychological wellbeing
Does positive psychotherapy work?
There has been much research into the impacts of the various streams of positive psychology in therapy. Although there are some mixed results, positive psychology-oriented interventions appear promising. Research shows that they can help to reduce symptoms of depression, which can last over the long-term (1,2) and can also lead to higher rates of life satisfaction (2) and happiness (3).
As with all therapy types, positive psychotherapy has its limitations. The therapy is not thought to be a good fit for treating serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
How does positive psychotherapy work?
Positive psychology recognizes that mental health is more than just the absence of mental illness. It focuses instead on enhancing psychological wellbeing to help people to function optimally and feel as good as they can. The particular way this is applied in therapy depends on the specific approach. The two most well-known approaches are discussed below:
In Peseschkian’s model (4), elements of other types of therapy, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy, help people to focus on their strengths, abilities and potential. Stories and anecdotes are woven with practical strategies during therapy.
Positive psychotherapy is underpinned by three main principles in Peseschkian’s model:
- Hope: The therapist helps you to see mental health challenges in a more positive light by helping you to find meaning in difficult experiences. If you are experiencing insomnia and are feeling distressed; positive psychotherapy would help you to reinterpret the experience to see what an achievement it is that you are able to get by on so little sleep.
- Balance: Mental health challenges are seen as the result of an imbalanced focus on one area of life to the detriment of other areas. Positive psychotherapy helps you to achieve balance across four areas of life, which are:
- Body and health
- Achievement and work
- Contact and relationships
- Future and purpose
- Consultation: This principle relates to the process of therapy. The therapist works collaboratively with you, educating and problem-solving.
Positive psychotherapy based on Seligman’s work is also positively oriented and strengths-based. Therapy is focussed on building three aspects of happiness:
- Building positive emotions
- Using strengths to enhance engagement in life
- Developing purpose and building a sense of meaning in life
These aspects are thought to increase wellbeing. They can also help to reduce symptoms of mental health challenges by disrupting and diverting attention away from unhelpful thoughts.
Length of positive psychotherapy treatment
Positive psychotherapy tends to be shorter-term, typically taking around 12 to 16 sessions. You and your therapist will decide together when the appropriate time is to end therapy.
Alternatively, positive psychology techniques can be combined with other types of therapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness practices, or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
Structure of positive psychotherapy sessions
The structure of positive psychotherapy sessions depends on the approach of your therapist. The structure of the two most well-known approaches is described below.
Therapy in this model typically follows an ordered plan with corresponding homework tasks (2):
- The therapist introduces you to the positive psychotherapy approach.
- Identify strengths and discuss the three aspects of happiness.
- How to use strengths to build positive emotions. This might involve planning specific behaviors and setting goals.
- Discussion of good and bad memories, and how they affect you differently.
- Over three sessions or so, you might work on cultivating forgiveness and gratitude.
- The concept of ‘satisficing’ is introduced. You are encouraged to focus on ‘good enough’ rather than maximizing achievement all the time.
- Focus shifts to ways of building optimism and hope. For example, reflecting on past experiences of something positive coming from something that did not go well.
- Identifying the strengths of your family members. This might involve including them in therapy; asking them to identify their own strengths.
- The effect of ‘savoring’ or deliberately paying attention to pleasurable events and making the feelings last. You might plan pleasurable activities for your week and practice techniques for savoring them.
- Building meaning into life. You might schedule particular activities to practice this, like giving your time to others.
- A final discussion and integration of all three areas of happiness (pleasure, engagement and meaning) and how they can help you to lead a full life.
Therapy in this model typically moves through five stages, where the therapist both helps and teaches self-help (4):
- Observation: You’ll identify experiences that are negative or upsetting and differentiate them from those that are positive or pleasurable.
- Taking inventory: Reflecting on past events and exploring their relationship with the present.
- Situational support: Focusing on the strengths of family, friends, or other supportive relationships, learning self-help strategies. Using past successes to inform how to solve current and future problems.
- Communication: Expressing difficulties or imbalances in the four areas of life (health, achievement, relationships, purpose).
- Goals: Building goals for the future, and a style of thinking that is future-oriented.
What to look for in a therapist for positive psychotherapy
Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that all of our therapists have already been vetted.
Look for a therapist who has completed specialized training in positive psychotherapy. For example, the World Association for Positive and Transcultural Psychotherapy (WAPP) provides accredited training in the Peseschkian model. It can be helpful to take a look at therapists’ biographies. This is often where they note their experience and specializations.
Prioritize the potential for developing a strong working relationship you and your therapist. This trusting relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy. Therefore, it’s important to look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working.
Approach to therapy
Consider what kind of approach you feel most comfortable with. Do you like the feel of one of the two positive psychology therapy types discussed above? Or, would you prefer to have some positive psychology exercises built in to another type of therapy, such as CBT? Look for therapists who offer your preferred approach or discuss your preferences with potential therapists.
Talk in advance
The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:
- Qualifications and training
- Experience with positive psychotherapy
- Ask them to describe what kind of positive psychology interventions they use, and consider whether they will be a good personal fit for you
- What therapy with them will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
References and sources
- Positive Psychotherapy
- Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., and Parks, A.C., “Positive Psychotherapy” (PDF)
- A Comparative Study on the Effectiveness of Positive Psychotherapy and Group Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for the Patients Suffering From Major Depressive Disorder
- World Association for Positive and Transcultural Psychotherapy (WAPP)
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