Updated: Aug 12, 2021
Positive Psychology focuses on character strengths and virtues, which constitute positive growth, much of which is lacking in contemporary psychology. It has helped move mental health from an emphasis that mainly focused on pathology to emphasize purpose, well-being, and flourishing as a person. It has also "introduced to modern psychology the beginning of a normative understanding of how the person must live to flourish" (Nordling, Titus, Vitz, 2020).
Many people believe that therapy is for those who are mentally ill. This viewpoint is not baseless because this is how it has existed for decades and still, for the most part today, and for good reason. Part of being a mental health therapist is identifying, diagnosing, and helping those with mental illness. Licensed Mental Health Counselors go to school predominantly to learn psychopathology and how to treat psychological illnesses. You learn to work within the disease model. This model has gone a long way in identifying and successfully treating disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. The drawback to embracing the disease model is that therapists and psychologists have been viewed negatively as pathologizers. So, people think therapy is for only those with mental disorders. That something must be wrong in order to seek therapy.
As a result, we have neglected those who are not mentally ill but are not mentally flourishing either.
Individuals may simply be confused about their circumstances in life, how to approach difficult people. They may be apathetic or desire to be a better spouse, a better friend, a better overall person, and live the good life. What will help these people thrive? How do they find clarity, strength, and happiness?
This is exactly what positive psychology studies and applies in therapy. All of the positive aspects of our development, including happiness, well-being, and flourishing. Founded by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor out of the University of Pennsylvania. In his own words, positive psychology is "The scientific study of optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive" (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
You do not have to have an eating problem to want to eat healthier. Similarly, you do not have to be mentally ill to want to improve your mental health. You can be a normal person who wishes to thrive mentally and emotionally.
The therapist working from a positive psychology background wishes to help clients achieve their full potential by going beyond simply surviving and coping with problems to positively flourishing. They make use of what has been proven to work for other people and positive psychology techniques.
I would argue positive psychology puts the science behind what philosophers, sages, and theologians have been discussing for thousands of years, "Is there meaning to life?" "Does fate exist?" What does it mean to live a good life?" "What is freedom?" "What does it mean to be happy?" It is in discussing these things that we learn how and what it is we want to achieve.
Who do you want to be in the next 10-20 years? What sort of person would you like to be? What would you like to have accomplished? What values do you admire in others that you would like to incorporate for yourself? I often bring up what do you want to be written on your gravestone? By the way, do you ever notice gravestones don't mention how much money you made or how big your house was, or the car you drove? No, you usually see great father, beloved mother, and spouse. You want to know what is important in life see what loved ones you leave behind put on your gravestone.
Also, when watching documentaries such as Band of Brothers or Miracle on Ice, do you ever stick around for the credits at the end? What will you notice they say about these WWII veterans and famous hockey players? They go on to mention their families and carriers. Some things are more important than war and hockey. These warriors (the greatest generation) and sports stars knew it, though they might not have known it then, and many of us fail to see it now.
A good therapist will help you determine your values and maybe even consider values you are inherently drawn to but have not yet examined closely and how to take the next practical steps to achieve these values.
Finding character strengths (such as courage, wisdom, prudence, fortitude, creativity, integrity, gratitude, appreciation for beauty, and self-mastery, to name a few) is an essential first step in living a good and fulfilling life. We are all drawn to these strengths in one shape or form. And "It is natural, that is in accordance with nature, for a reasonable being such as man to desire and strive for that which reason recognizes as good" (Wotyla, 1960, p. 168).
In positive psychology, the therapist helps the client find the happiness and flourishing they desire by implementing their reasoning capabilities and their natural inclinations to the good. Helping the client use their capacity to reason will help them order their lives to these goods which are needed to go beyond merely surviving to living a life of fulfillment and flourishing.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist
VItz, P.C, Nordling, W.J, Nordling, Titus, C.S (2020) A catholic christian meta-model of the person: Integration with psychology & mental health practice Sterling, VA: Divine Mercy University
Wojtyla, K. (1960). Love and responsibility. London: William Collins Sons & Co.