What is Positive Psychology?

Positive Psychology is a theory of wellbeing and focus of research spearheaded by Dr. Martin Seligman. The theory proposes that positive experiences, positive individual traits and positive institutions reduce suffering and allow people to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. Common positive experiences and individual traits include feeling good, engaging fully in goals and activities, doing good, feeling and expressing gratitude, savoring pleasure, being mindful, and nurturing yourself through self-compassion (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Resiliency is another strong focus of study in Positive Psychology due to its role in allowing people to “bounce back” or adapt well in the face of negative experiences, such as trauma and adversity. While Positive Psychology can be applied in the clinical setting, it is important to note that it is a theory and research topic rather than a treatment itself. Because of this, it is not only used clinically, but also in business and organizational settings as well.

Whether it is being applied to the clinical or business setting, the PERMA model is the most widely recognized application of positive psychology. PERMA is an acronym meant to simply explain and define well-being as it is understood in Positive Psychology. It includes a focus on Positive emotions, Engagement in activities at which we excel, positive Relationships, Meaning making, and Accomplishment / Achievement.

What Positive Psychology is Not?

Positive psychology is not the same as simply striving to just feel “happy,” which might better be understood as a collection of experiences rather than an emotion in and of itself. When people state that they feel “happy,” they are often describing feelings of joy, gratitude, hope, interest, peace and serenity. The detail and nuance of positive experience is critical in Positive Psychology, because striving towards simply being happy is vague and consequently becomes unattainable. In other words, it’s much more feasible to explore moments of feeling hopeful and noticing spontaneous feelings of joy rather than expecting ourselves to feel happy all the time. For the same reason that negative experiences don’t last forever, positive experiences are also fleeting. As such, Positive Psychology studies how our experiences of positive emotions can mitigate and soften the inevitable presence of pain and difficult emotions, such as sadness, despair, and so on.

Happy Teens

It is critical to note that positive psychology is not a replacement of psychological theories that examine negative experiences. Positive psychology looks at the enlivening emotions and the meaning one makes of those experiences. In the traditional disease model of psychology, patients were often asked, “What’s going wrong?” to look for solutions and help a Patient understand their difficulty. Positive Psychology studies the impact of asking “What is going right?” to explore how a therapist can build on one’s strengths to support healing. Both questions are critical and necessary, and Positive Psychology proposes that negative experiences without the positive is incomplete. It is important to note that positive psychology is not a therapeutic modality. It is a field of theory and research that supports the use of positive emotions into already existing therapeutic modalities.

Many different therapeutic modalities draw from the research Positive Psychology has produced. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) places strong emphasis on both/and thinking rather than focusing solely on emotions or logic. DBT uses the term wise mind to help Clients honor both their feelings about a situation as well as their logical, cognitive understanding of it. Strengths Based approaches to therapy also use the theory of Positive Psychology to support cognitive approaches in retelling one’s narrative with a focus on resources and abilities rather than helplessness. The most notable use of Positive Psychological theories in clinical practice is Solution Focused Therapy, which focuses on how one deals with an issue rather than past’s influence of the issue itself. Mindfulness based therapies, which includes DBT, but also Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindful Self-Compassion, apply the theory of Positive Psychology in supporting individuals to notice and remain present to positive experiences and exploring how doing so can change their relationship to their thoughts which can result in a shift in behavior.

How Positive Psychology Addresses the Negativity Bias:

Humans naturally orient to negative experiences rather than positive, and frequently give negative experiences more weight than positive ones. This phenomenon is referred to in psychology as the negativity bias. While this bias is important -it helps us focus on threat and danger- it becomes a barrier to wellness when we miss positive experiences that occur in our daily lives. Again, just like positive experiences, negative experiences are fleeting.

Because positive experiences are softer and more subtle than negative ones, they are easy to miss. Positive Psychology proposes that focusing on positive experiences can buffer the negativity bias. Some research even suggests a 3 to 1 ratio, wherein for every one negative experience, we need at least three positive ones to counter it. It’s especially important to note here that this ratio is not three to zero. We need negative experiences, in the same way that we need positive ones. This ratio is meant to highlight that we need both, and that there is natural upward spiral that organically springs from noticing and savoring positive emotions (Garland, et al., 2010). We do not want to erase, deny, or be falsely insincere when we experience negative emotions. From the perspective of Positive Psychology, we want to notice both positive and negative feelings and be able to remain present to them so that our feelings can mobilize us towards specific action tendencies. Mobilization, action and response are in part what emotions are designed to do.

Positive Psychology, Somatic Experiencing, and Trauma Resolution

As the name of our Center suggests, the NC Center for Resiliency applies a Positive Psychology orientation to its clinical work due to the role positive emotions can play in buffering the overwhelming affect, memories, and bodily experiences that emerge during the resolution of traumatic experiences.

In the Somatic Experiencing modality, one of the most prominently used somatic approaches at the Center, positive experiences are referred to as “resources” due to their function for the individual to allow Clients a place to “land” and recharge when feeling overwhelmed. An example of resourcing is when a therapist invites her Client to notice positive experiences, such as memories with a beloved pet, a moment when the Client felt hopeful or a sense of efficacy and mastery. In Somatic Experiencing, the focus tends to highlight the sensory experience of such memories -not just the thought or feeling associated with it. Sensations related to positive experiences can include warmth, an ease in one’s muscles, and the ability to take a deep belly breath. In fact, early in treatment at the NC Center for Resiliency our Client’s are often supported in breath retraining so that they are better able to notice positive experiences in the body on a somatic level, not just a cognitive one. Once a Client is able to notice sensations in the body associated with positive experiences, Clients are then supported to notice feelings and images associated with those bodily experiences. Throughout this process, the Client is developing internal, somatic “resources” to buffer and tolerate painful and overwhelming affect associated with trauma reprocessing and integration.

This stage of treatment is especially relevant to Positive Psychology which researches the ways in which positive emotions mobilize humans to instigate action tendencies. Action tendencies are the behaviors that follow certain feelings. For example, when one feels anxious they might feel compelled to move or have a hard time slowing down their thinking. If someone is depressed they might feel sluggish and have a difficulty moving or taking care of daily tasks, such as work or school. Positive emotions also have action tendencies. However, they are subtle, and we tend to focus on the impact and experience of negative emotions more than positive one’s due to the negativity bias.

Beautiful Tree

In trauma treatment, positive experiences and associated action tendencies are especially critical because they support trauma survivors to experience mobilization and responses that may not have been available to them during traumatic events. For example, a common action tendency when we feel joyful, amused, or loving is to engage in play and social engagement. In order to feel empowered following a trauma, a survivor would need to begin to notice moments when they are able to connect with others and the associated feelings in order to reconnect with themselves and their community. One way to support survivors in doing so is through noticing joy and love in real time to support action tendencies towards social engagement. Another positive emotion that might be highlighted in treatment would be the feeling of gratitude which can also increase social engagement and reduce the social isolation commonly resulting from trauma.

Positive emotions have physiological underpinnings and positive results as well. When we feel serenity or peaceful, a natural action tendency is to rest. As the term “rest and digest” suggests, the ability to access a state of serenity can facilitate resting and subsequent physiological integration that is essential for many trauma survivors who often feel “on edge”, suffer from digestive issues, or difficulty sleeping.  

Positive Psychology Summary

As you can see, while a theory of wellness, Positive Psychology can have a deeply resonant application to trauma recovery and healing work emphasized at the NC Center for Resiliency. Positive experiences such as hope, inspiration and awe are common outcomes to successful therapy and somatic therapists. These feelings are particularly adept at supporting Clients to notice the positives experiences that enable us to see ourselves as more than the past and their associated negative emotions.  In connecting to these experiences, Clients are better equipped to feel a sense of choice and agency in their lives which is one of the core aspects of resiliency and the upward spiral associated with positive emotions highlighted through Positive Psychology.   

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