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Positive Psychology: applied to clinical populations

"Build what is strong rather than fix what is wrong"





History of Positive Psychology Interventions

Clinical Application - Are there any?

Practical Exercises

Cultural origins

General criticisms of Positive psychology

Uplifting music to increase positive feelings


Positive psychology is a newly founded branch which aims at raising positivity above baseline mental well-being. It has been mainly applied to non-clinical populations, but recently it has also been applied to clinical populations. As such, it is being debated whether it should remain an independent branch or be integrated into mainstream psychology. Results suggest that overall Positive Psychology Interventions are successful in achieving this goal in relation to several clinical populations including depression and anxiety disorders. However, there are many methodological issues that need be addressed, and these interventions should also be tested independently of the usual treatments (e.g. CBT), thus clarifying their individual effects.


Positive psychology is applied in clinical settings through a strengths-based approach: it encourages an equal focus on both negative and positive aspects when dealing with clinical disorders, and especially in treating distress (Duckworth, Steen & Seligman, 2005). It is believed that developing interventions which promote one’s inner strengths, positive emotions and behaviours – not dwelling on the adverse effects of the disorder, such as dysfunctional behaviours – can be equally effective as other approaches commonly used in traditional psychology such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) (Seligman, Steen & Peterson, 2005; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009).

Positive interventions used to treat clinical symptoms usually consist of brief, self-administered exercises intended to enhance positive cognitions and behaviours (Krentzman, 2012), by targeting feelings of well-being, happiness, optimism, and quality of life; all of these emotions combined give us a sense of purpose and life satisfaction. Techniques, which involve the mindfulness component of meditation, are aimed at bringing attention to the here-and-now in a non-judgemental manner, which allows the individual to identify and accept emotions and circumstances, which cannot be changed. The aim of positive interventions is not just to change people's emotional state so as to reach the non-negative baseline, but to over-exceed this ‘average’ level altogether.

‘’Building a strength, in this case, optimism, and teaching people when to use it, rather than repairing damage, effectively prevents depression and anxiety…If we wish to prevent schizophrenia in a young person at genetic risk, I would propose that the repairing of damage is not going to work. Rather, I suggest that a young person who learns effective interpersonal skills, who has a strong work ethic, and who has learned persistence under adversity is at lessened risk for schizophrenia.’’

(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

If positive psychology is indeed more focused on preventing rather than repairing what is broken, then why are positive psychology based interventions even used in clinical populations? Maybe it should only focus on non-clinical populations?

Other interventions, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), psychoanalysis and medication, have been shown to be efficient in clinical populations. However, research suggests that a successful outcome of the intervention is more dependent on the therapist, and the client-therapist relationship, than the chosen therapy (reference). If this is the case, then why is it important at all to examine the efficacy of positive psychology interventions in clinical populations?

If optimism and happiness are traits that are beneficial to have, it is important to understand if these mental states can even be acquired or if our internal programming (genetic happiness and optimism levels) constrict the extent to which our mental well-being can be modified. A few studies suggest that some change is possible (Segerstrom, 2006), but this change is limited and it is still questionable how permanent it is. Thus, the potential inability to permanently change our mental states challenges the entire notion of positive psychology interventions being applied in clinical settings.

After reading everything, reflect on the information and take a few minutes to think about this quote of Seligman:

Food for thought:

’I predict that in this new century positive psychology will come to understand and build those factors that allow individuals, communities, and societies to flourish’’ (Seligman, 2002).

a. Based on what you have now learned, do you agree with Seligman’s quote?

b. After reading about all these positive psychology-based interventions, think about which ones do you think would be more effective on you and why? Do you think they are all equally effective?

Summary points

  • Positive psychology focuses on positive emotions and personal strengths.
  • It can complement rather than replace traditional psychotherapy.
  • Studies evaluating outcomes of interventions using positive psychology have mostly been small and short term.
  • If I only had to read 4 papers, which ones would they be?


2. (for a general introduction to the topic)



Clinical Application - Are there any?

Practical Exercises

Criticisms of Positive Psychology - In General


  • Beck, A. (1971). Cognition, affect & psychopathology, Archives of General Psychiatry, 24:6, 495-500.
  • Burton, C. M. & King, L A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences, Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 150-163
  • Burton, C. M. & King, L. A. (2008). Effects of (very) brief writing on health: the two-minute miracle, British Journal of Health Psychology, 13:1, 9-14.
  • Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice, Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 629-651.
  • Fava, G. A. (2009). Well‐being therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 510-519.
  • Grinde, B. (2002). Happiness in the perspective of evolutionary psychology, Journal of Happiness Studies, 34, 331-354.
  • Grossman, P., Tiefenthaler-Gilmer, U., Raysz, A., & Kesper, U. (2007). Mindfulness training as an intervention for fibromyalgia: evidence of postintervention and 3-year follow-up benefits in well-being. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 76(4), 226-233.
  • Hales, D. (2010). An invitation to health, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA.
  • Hills, P., & Argyle, M. (2002). The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: a compact scale for the measurement of psychological well-being.
  • Hofmann and Smits, 2008). "Cognitive-behavioral therapy for adult anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials". Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 69 (4): 621–632
  • Johnson, D. P., Penn, D. L., Fredrickson, B. L., Meyer, P. S., Kring, A. M., & Brantley, M. (2009). Loving‐kindness meditation to enhance recovery from negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 499-509.
  • Kauffman, C., & Silberman, J. (2009). Finding and fostering the positive in relationships: Positive interventions in couples therapy. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 520-531.
  • Lazarus, R. S. (2003). Does the positive psychology movement have legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14:2, 93-109.
  • Lewis, C. A, & Cruise, S. M. (2006). ‘Religion and happiness: Consensus, contradictions, comments and concerns’. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 9(3), 213- 225.
  • Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M. & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: the architecture of sustainable change, Review of General Psychology, 9:2, 111-131.
  • Marlatt, G. A. (2002). Buddhist philosophy and the treatment of addictive behavior. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 9, 4449.
  • Masuda, T. & Nisbett, R. E. (2006). Culture and change blindness. Rosinski, P., & Abbott, G. N. (2006). Coaching from a Cultural Perspective. In D. R. Stober & A. M. Grant (Eds.), Evidence Based Coaching Handbook: Putting Best Practices to Work for Your Clients (pp. 255-277). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  • Schkade, D. A.; Kahneman, D. (1998). "Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction". Psychological Science 9 (5): 340–346.
  • Segerstrom, S. C. (2006). Dispositional Optimism and Coping: A Meta-Analytic Review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 10 (3), pp. 235-251.
  • Selgman, M. E. P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: an introduction, The American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive interventions. Paper presented at the 4thnternational positive psychology summit, Washington, DC.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T. & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy, The American Psychologist, 61, 774-788.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions, The American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
  • Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (2002). Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Wampold, B. E. (2007). Psychotherapy: the humanistic (and effective) treatment, The American Psychologist, 62, 857-873.
  • Wood, A. M. & Joseph, S. (2010). The absence of positive psychological (eudemonic) well-being as a risk factor for depression: a ten year cohort study, Journal of Affective Disorders, 122, 213-217. Cognitive Science, 30, 381-396.
  • Zautra, A. J., Davis, M. C., Reich, J. W., Nicassario, P., Tennen, H., Finan, P., ... & Irwin, M. R. (2008). Comparison of cognitive behavioral and mindfulness meditation interventions on adaptation to rheumatoid arthritis for patients with and without history of recurrent depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 76(3), 408.

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