Traditional psychotherapy focuses on helping clients through symptom reduction. This means that when the indicators for therapy fade away, the therapy is considered successful.
But there is a new perspective emerging as to what psychotherapy can offer. Positive psychotherapy (PPT) is a strengths-based approach that is directly aimed at offering a more comprehensive perspective of a client and his or her life circumstances. It is becoming known as an evidence-based standpoint that explores both strengths and weaknesses to achieve greater well-being and functioning.
We are moving from looking at what is wrong to looking at what is strong.
The emphasis on symptom reduction has dominated psychotherapeutic interventions and practice. The result is a deficit-oriented assessment, which asks: “What is wrong with you?”
What we are left with is a negative bias. We look at what is wrong and believe that treating it makes us well. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 due to be released this year, is a compendium of what is not okay with us. The manual will again only give us only half the picture and skews our thinking about human strengths.
This perspective is so embedded that in the DSM-IV that altruism is noted as a coping mechanism to deal with feelings of guilt — and traits such as anticipation, affiliation and humor are labeled as defense mechanisms (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 752).
The research showing that PPT may be an important new direction is mounting — and compelling. The emphasis is on using well-documented positive interventions. The shift is toward understanding what our strengths are, using them, and highlighting and valuing positive interactions.
The focus on strengths is key and serves as the foundation to initiating this shift. The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) is a free online questionnaire that will assesses your top five strengths. It was developed by two of the leading figures in positive psychology, Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, as a proposed complementary approach to the DSM and mental health that focuses on human strengths and potential.
Studies have shown that by understanding what your strengths are and using them more regularly in your daily life it will not only decrease your symptoms of depression, but improve your well-being. To learn more about the VIA-IS check out Ryan Niemiec’s blog on character strengths here at Psych Central. He is VIA’s director and you can tap into the latest research on using strengths.
The research on using PPT is gaining more attention in the clinical sector. Consider one of the studies in positive psychotherapy conducted in a group therapy format. Forty mild to moderately depressed University of Pennsylvania students were divided into a treatment and a non-treatment group. The treatment condition consisted of two groups of 8-11 participants seen for 6 weeks for two-hour sessions.
The session was comprised of half a discussion of the exercise assigned from the previous week, and an introduction to the new exercise. The participants carried out homework assignments and reported back each week on their progress.
The first week participants were asked to take the VIA-IS survey and use their top five strengths more often in their day-to-day lives. Week two involved writing down three good things that have happened during the day and why you think they occurred. The third week participants were asked to write a brief essay on what they want to be remembered for the most: A biography or obituary, if you will, of having lived a satisfying life. The next session involved composing a letter of gratitude to someone they may never have thanked adequately and reading that letter to them in person or by phone.
During the fifth session the members were asked to respond very positively and enthusiastically each day to good news received by someone else. The final session involved savoring daily events in our life that we normally do not take the time to enjoy, and journaling how this experience differed from our normally rushed occurrence. Time was also spent during this last session on tailoring the exercises for their use following the end of the study.
Six sessions: Twelve hours.
As you might expect the group PPT participants did better than the no-treatment group on assessments of depression and satisfaction with life.
But there is a powerful finding beyond this positive change. The gains made by the PPT groups were maintained with no other intervention by the researchers throughout a one-year follow-up, while the baseline levels of depression for the non-treatment group remained unchanged.
Six sessions and twelve hours: With no booster sessions during the year. This is very unusual in the study of depression and highlights how the use of these exercises involved self-maintaining features that served the participants beyond the intervention.
Positive psychology is a new direction that is generating a great deal of excellent research and PPT is emerging as one of the most important ways in which the findings from this new subfield can be applied.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV TR. American Psychiatric Association, Washington D.C., U.S.A. (2000).
Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive psychology in
clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1:629–651.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook
of classiﬁcation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rashid, T., & Ostermann, R. F. (2009). Strength-based assessment in clinical practice.
Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65:488–498.
Seligman MEP, Rashid T, Parks AC. Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist 2006;61:774–788.
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