Positive Psychology and Mental Health

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positive psychology and mental health

Sometimes, in the world of psychology, it is easy to get carried away with one perspective. Within the umbrella term that is psychology, there is an array of different topics that can be researched. Some scientists think that neuropathways are the most important topic to study; however, others psychologists base their careers on uncovering disabling psychological trauma from the subconscious. This does not mean that one perspective is more important than the other; each branch, or perspective, is important in their own right, and each branch continues to uncover answers to human behavior and thought patterns.

Unfortunately, there are times when some people view the differences between two branches of psychology, usually in an attempt to explain all of psychology’s problems,  and totally ignore the similarities. This is a potentially damaging idea. The study of psychology is about many different parts working together, not one perspective to rule them all. As a field, it’s counterproductive to compartmentalize into the point of unfounded argumentation.

It is with that in mind that I would like to draw your attention to two areas of psychology: Positive psychology, the branch that deals with positive emotion, behaviors, and attitudes; and Clinical psychology, the branch that is associated with a person’s mental health status, psychological trauma, and overall mental well-being. The connections that exist between these two branches are numerous; however, this article will explore the connections between mental health and positive psychology in regards to overall mental health, mental disorders, and stress management.

Overall Mental Health

Positive psychology shares a strong connection clinical psychology with overall mental health. This is because one of positive psychology’s goals is to focus on what is right about a person and how those traits can be increased. The desired result being a happier, more fulfilled life.  Similarly, clinical psychology also tries to increase positive traits to help people deal with mental disorders. Here the end goal is to help people function in everyday life and lead a normal life. As they are the not the same thing, their goals will not be identical, but they are remarkably similar!

Some of the methodology, the devices that help psychologist (positive or not) achieve their goals, are shared between the two genres of psychology.

One tool that a positive psychologist might use is something called Learned Optimism. This technique was pioneered by Martin Seligman in the 1990’s. Learned Optimism targets a person’s negative cognitions and systematically replaces them with more positive affirmations. Eventually, the person will be thinking more optimistically than they had before. Clinicians use techniques based on cognition in therapy to combat conditions. From the clinicians’ standpoint, they try to heighten a client’s coping skills to decease helplessness. The difference here is that the coping is the key focus and the life fulfillment is secondary.

Secondly, there is positive psychotherapy, which combines positive behavioral approaches with the world of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy seeks to reduce the negative functioning of a client. Positive Psychotherapy adds one step onto the process. Instead of just reducing symptoms, positive psychotherapy works on increasing a person’s positive emotions and behaviors.

Third, there is another concept that draws upon similarities. Positive Psychology and Clinical Psychology encourage people to engage in states of flow. According to research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading positive psychologist, flow is unique to each person; however, the people who experience flow report similar characteristics.

Flow is a higher state of consciousness. It is said to be achieved when you’re super focused on an activity. A loss of temporal awareness is also reported when in the flow state. People have said they felt perfectly challenged–not bored or overwhelmed. Those who regularly experience flow report that it is extremely intrinsically rewarding. As such, people who experience flow on a regular basis tend to have more stable mental health (as they are self-actualizing and reaching fulfilment).

Both positive and clinical psychologists use states of flow to help their patients. Positive psychology uses flow to enrich people’s lives. They use flow to encourage positive emotions, which can broaden and build a person’s mind, and help to attain long standing life goals. Clinical psychologist use the flow state in slightly different, but still effective ways. Clinical psychologists may engage their patients in flow to distract them from things that might trigger their negative thoughts. If used correctly, it can boost self esteem and if endured regularly it can help battle symptoms of depression.

Mental Disorders (and other psychological problems)

As reported from people with mental illness, positive psychology has also been linked to the prevention and aid in treatment of mental disorders.

Note: Not all psychological disorders are best treated with psychotherapy. Some conditions, like bipolar and schizophrenia, are better managed with a combination of methods including medication.

A study was carried out at the University of Pennsylvania on the topic of positive psychology and mental health. The researchers were testing the validity of learned optimism. Specifically, they looked at rates of depression within two groups. First, the study sorted the students randomly into the two groups the experimental group and the control group. The experiment group was taught methods of learned optimism. The control group, was told to carry on with their lives as normal. After approximately 18 months, the groups were followed up on. The results from the study are impressive.

MentalHealthDepressionControl group: in the control group, 32 percent of the people suffered from moderate or severe depression. Additionally, 15 percent of the students in that group experienced anxiety issues with similar severity. It is important to note that the results that are readily available do not detail any past mental health, genetic predisposition, or adverse environmental factors. This means throughout the 18 month period, the students who were not taught learned optimistic techniques developed depression, or depressive symptoms.

Experimental Group:  The results reported from the experimental group saw less frequency and severity of anxiety and depression. In this group, only 22 percent of the students developed depression or depressive symptoms.  Similarly, anxiety rates were only 7 percent rather than 15 in the control.

Stress Management

Positive-psychology-and-mental-health-stress-managemetStress is nicknamed the silent killer by many professionals today. Stress can wreak havoc on our bodies. What’s more is that we are usually largely unaware of this, mainly because we don’t have direct control of the parts affected due to the autonomic nervous system. Then, when we do feel it, the problem has usually progressed into something more serious and often it is too late. So, what does this have to do with positive psychology and mental health?

One of the themes of positive psychology is to find what is right with a person. This means not only encouraging coping skills, but developing positive emotions and behaviors that can improve overall happiness, too. This largely important because moods that correspond with negative emotions bring about negative feedback for the body.

While it’s pretty much impossible to avoid these ALL the time, it is possible to maximize your good emotions and mood. Remember that concept called flow? That is a great way to manage stress. The super focus on your task at hand serves as a great distraction to alleviate stress. As a bonus, increased productivity and better skill mastery are also the side effects.

Additionally, positive psychology encourages a phenomenon called engagement. Academics are famous for taking words that seem simple and defining them as something different, but this one is just as it seems. Engagement is engaging in socialization. It is one of the pillars upon which Dr. Seligman based positive psychology on.

In continuing the theme of similarity, clinical practitioners also seek to reduce stress levels. For many disorders stress will aggravate, and sometimes even cause people to develop, mental disorders. They use a variety of methods, many stated above, to reduce stress in everyday life. In fact, though it might not be named specifically, many techniques that clinicians use, form the pillars of positive psychology as to why they’re effective. The more research that comes out, the more that the two fields seem to merge.

To summarize

Mental Health and Positive Psychology complement each other greatly. The two together are the perfect definition of synergy, both of these fields have interests in enriching people’s live. Yes, they focus on different things as they should but these two branches of psychology are not the same, nor should they be. They both bring forth much needed information to the table.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear about your views on this matter.

About the Author
  1. Joshua Reply

    I enjoyed this, it was refreshing and helped widened my scope on the matter. I noticed the writing “flowed” nicely. Ha, get it? Flowed?

    All in all, you’re doing a great job.

  2. Paul Wierzbicki Reply

    Thank you! I’m glad you appreciate my work. I’m super thankful to have the chance to display my writing on PositivePsychologyProgram.

    I think that this article is extremely important. One of it’s purposes, other than to inform, is to build solidarity within the psychological community between positive psychologist and clinical psychologists. Sometimes it can be easy to become seriously biased to one view, and forget that there are similarities. It is brilliant that the field of psychology is able to diversify itself into so many different sections of human life. We cannot forget that we are one community working for the betterment of the field as a whole.

    If I could probe further, what part did you find the most beneficial when increasing your knowledge?

  3. Joshua Reply

    I’d definitely have to say the part about the experiment done on the effects of learned optimism. It demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy rather than just state it. Also, the effects that stress has on the body you mentioned are important because people don’t often consider them

  4. Paul Wierzbicki Reply

    The part about learned optimism is pretty great. Linked above is an article that explains it more detail, if you’re curious about it. In regards to the effectiveness in the article, it is impressive. Wouldn’t it be great if somewhere in educational institutions, they implemented policies or classes that taught the strategies or principles of such great coping techniques?

    I think it would be powerful if we could incorporate this on a large scale, such as a societal level.

    As to stress, unfortunately many don’t realize its effects. The scary part about stress is that it is both mental and physical. There is no telling what stress is doing until people are suffering because of it.

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