Positive psychology continues to grow in size, scope, and widespread public interest since its inception nearly 20 years ago. Positive psychology principles and ideas can be applied to a wide range of spheres, including schools, relationships, the workplace, the family home, and even the military (Cornum, Matthews, & Seligman, 2011; Matthews, 2008).
Some psychologists seemed to have had an obsession with the worst parts of life, and the state of the literature reflected this disproportionate focus. Journals were saturated with articles on topics like depression, abnormal personalities, psychological disorders, and learned helplessness.
This overwhelming tendency towards the negative aspects of life spurred some psychologists to create a movement intended to swing the pendulum back, if not all the way to the positive pole, then at least towards the middle of the spectrum. In fact, Martin Seligman, who discovered the phenomenon of learned helplessness was one of the original founders of the Positive Psychology movement (Handler, 2015; Peterson & Seligman, 1983).
With such clear intentions by positive psychologists to shed light on what makes humans thrive as opposed to makes us deprived, it may seem counterintuitive that this branch of psychology would delve into mental illness. However, there is a surprising amount of research that has been undertaken in the pursuit of positive psychological treatment for mental health problems.
A +5 On The Scale: How Does Positive Psychology Contribute to The Treatment of Depression?
Although positive psychology tends to – unsurprisingly – lean towards the positive, it does not intend to lose sight of the “negative” and “neutral.” The subfield was created to correct an imbalance in psychology, not to replace the field altogether.
To understand what positive psychology has to offer in the area of depression, it helps to understand how psychologists tend to understand affect or mood.
Much of what we know and believe about affect comes from groundbreaking work of Watson and Tellegen, who stated that positive and negative affect are not two sides of the same coin, but two different coins entirely (1985).
In other words, if an individual is high in positive affect, that does not mean they are necessarily, low in negative affect. The two are independent constructs that can vary in level and intensity, regardless of the level or intensity of the other.
As some researchers have put it, positive psychology treatment attempts to bring a depressed person from a -5 up to a +5 on the scale of well-being, instead of just up to neutral 0 (Sin, Della Porta, & Lyubomirsky, 2011).
Types of Positive Psychology Interventions for Depression
There are several intervention strategies used by positive psychology programs to bring a depressed person up to +5. Some of the most popular positive psychology interventions include:
1)Increasing Positive Emotions
Several studies have shown that increased positive emotions are a promising way of fighting depressive symptoms. Lightsey (1994) showed that positive cognition could predict future happiness and depression, and Wood and colleagues (2008) found that practicing gratitude improved well-being and prevented individuals from experiencing depression.
Similarly, increasing positive emotions and engagement resulted in higher remission rates for depressed people than treatment as usual or even treatment as usual plus medication (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006). Positive interventions aimed at increasing hope and gratitude have also proven effective in enhancing life satisfaction and reducing symptoms (Kwok, Gu, & Kit, 2016).
While increasing positive emotions may not necessarily reduce negative emotions, it does to have a positive impact on affect and reducing depressive symptoms. This may be due, at least in part, to enhanced coping and resilience.
2) Enhancing Coping Skills and Building Resilience
A popular type of positive psychological intervention, so there is a lot of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of developing coping skills in the fight against depression. Santos and colleagues (2013) conducted a systematic review of the literature on positive psychological interventions for depression and found that increasing resilience and coping resources was a common theme and that these interventions caused significantly reduced remissions in depressive symptoms.
Burckhardt and colleagues (2016) tested an intervention aimed at helping students regulate their emotions and deal with life’s stressors more effectively. They found that their program Strong Minds (a combination of acceptance and commitment therapy) aided their participants by significantly reducing their symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress through the development of coping skills.
3) Finding Purpose
Meaning and purpose are also constructs utilized in positive psychological interventions. A meaningful life is considered an important component of a positive life and a pathway to greater well-being (Seligman, 2002).
One intervention that included a meaning component showed that this construct may most effectively improve well-being and relieve depression in older adults (Ho, Yeung, & Kwok, 2014). While another study found that encouraging meaning-making in patients with breast cancer can promote a positive way of dealing with the experience (Casellas-Grau, Font, & Vives, 2014).
Overall it appears that interventions aimed at meaning making can help individuals with or at risk of developing depression achieve increased well-being and reduced their depressive symptoms (Gander, Proyer, & Ruch, 2016).
4) Building Social Support
It’s no surprise that social support is an important factor in dealing with depression and promoting well-being. Several positive interventions target improved social support as a tool for ameliorating depressive symptoms.
For example, research from McWhirter, Nelson, and Waldo (2014) discovered that community-based groups improve social support for those with depression, which in turn decreases symptoms of depression and enhances life satisfaction. While Sin and colleagues (2014) also state the importance of social support in their exploration of positive interventions, finding that social support can help increase well-being for depressed individuals in a sustainable way.
The Structure of Positive Interventions
Interventions based on positive psychology take many forms, but typically they are composed of several short sessions spaced out over weeks or even months. Courses are a popular positive intervention, in part because it is easy to include several short exercises and allow time and space for participants to try out the new techniques they are learning and apply new skills.
Researchers have also used college courses to deliver positive preventative interventions, with sessions spread out over the semester (Goodmon, Middleditch, Childs, & Pietrasiuk, 2016).
The Say ‘Yes’ to Life (SYTL) program, an intervention designed to build the capacity to cope with depressive symptoms through factors such as personal strengths, humor, and forgiveness, is offered as a four-stage program involving twenty 2-hour sessions over several weeks (Carr & Finnegan, 2015).
On the other hand, some interventions are simple, one-time exercises with follow-ups to check on how participants’ measures have changed since the intervention (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).
Who Benefits The Most From Positive Interventions For Depression?
While many enthusiastic, positive psychologists will recommend positive interventions for any person diagnosed with depression who is adventurous enough to try them, there is evidence that they work best for specific groups.
Several researchers found a greater effect for those who are suffering from mild to moderate depression rather than intermittent bouts of depressive symptoms or more severe depression (Celano et al., 2016)
There is also evidence that those who seek out positive interventions and the participants who are highly motivated to complete the program reap the greatest rewards (Sin et al., 2011; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009).
Finally, participants in individual-focused positive interventions may fare better than those in a group or self-administered interventions, a finding that fits with research on therapy and mental health interventions in general (Sin et al., 2011).
Can a Positive Intervention for Depression Help You?
There’s only one way to find out.
Whether you’re interested in a self-administered intervention for depressive symptoms or a guided course on positive psychology, these interventions hold promise for helping you to cope, creating a buffer of positive emotions, and building valuable skills.
You may find varying degrees of effectiveness with different interventions, but there’s no downside to giving them a try.
Need some Inspiration?
We don’t often share motivational videos however it is that time of the year when loneliness, seasonal dysthymic disorder, and depression rise to the surface. If you are looking for a shift, change or a just a space for acceptance check out this short but inspirational video:
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