Positive psychology focuses on increasing strengths rather than fixing deficits, and thus there is something for everyone to gain from it.
The group setting is an optimal environment to teach and practice positive psychology as it inherently fulfills aspects of known foundations of well-being within the PERMA model such as engagement and relationships.
In the realm of personal coaching and therapy, there is ample opportunity to assess individual needs and apply positive psychology, however in a group, the larger hurdle is presenting information in such a way that each individual member gets something out of the experience whilst creating a positive group experience which cues broader transformation.
The following are several Do’s that you may choose to include as you impart your wisdom of positive psychology to the teams, groups, departments, etc with whom you work.
Teach the Big Picture
Principles of positive psychology often do not come across as earth shattering, they are principles which often appear to be “common sense” on the surface level. Positive psychology naturally sounds warm and fuzzy, and we do it a disservice if we only leave it at that.
The key is to teach intentional application.
Participants may state, “well that makes sense,” or even “I already knew that.” and as a facilitator, I often respond, “great, but how often have you mindfully or intentionally sought to do so prior to this moment?”
At this point, the attention and attitude of the group tends to change. People start making the connection that having a knowledge of a principle or concept is one thing, but actually choosing to use it is a different story.
In order to help people see the role of positive psychology in their own lives, I encourage group members to consider ways it may affect them and discuss it as a group.
After doing so, firsthand experience with positive psychology is essential in order to internalize concepts, rather than solely learning about them from an educational perspective.
Whether positive psychology is used in a one-on-one setting or in a group, it is essential to help the participants find a relatable and meaningful application of the concepts and interventions introduced. When teaching groups about PERMA or character strengths, I often choose to share my personal story, the ways in which these concepts have enriched my own life and how I purposefully apply them as often as possible.
At this point, participants need to experience firsthand how positive psychology can be effective and beneficial in their lives. The best way I know how to teach is through experience.
Experience and Practice
What interventions can be used in a group setting? Most well-known interventions have been tested repeatedly in the group setting and focus on building character strengths. The most commonly used ones include the following:
Three good things (also known as “what went well”)
This is an intervention shown to increase levels of happiness by the man himself Martin Seligman (Seligman, 2005). It involves journaling at the end of each day, writing down 3 specific good things or 3 things that went well.
It does not matter if the 3 things are “big” or “small,” only that the person writing about them considers them to be positive. Then he or she must write down what caused the 3 things to go well. This is a great intro exercise in the group setting because everyone who has 5 minutes and a pen and paper can participate.
After doing so, there is the space to discuss points of interest with the group, and how they may apply this exercise or adjust it to fit in their own life.
Another great option for first timers in the group setting is the gratitude letter.
Group members are prompted to think of a person who has “deeply impacted [their] life or did something for [them] for which they were never properly thanked.”
In a short letter, participants write a gratitude letter to that person, expressing their thanks and why that particular moment or event was so important and meaningful to them. The second part of this exercise involves reading the letter to said person.
As a practitioner, if you are able to follow up on the second half of this exercise, the results can be impressively impactful for those who share their letter.
Practicing learned optimism using the ABCDE method
This exercise can be led as a group discussion, using your own adversity or a group member’s adversity as a catalyst for conversation. The ABCDE model is ideal for helping group members learn optimism and build resilience.
Fun versus Philanthropy
A more experiential option is to get the group participants to experience building meaning in their life and how it can increase their well-being or life satisfaction more than doing something that is purely “fun.” This may take multiple sessions or more time than some of the above options.
This may take multiple sessions or more time than some of the above options as it is a more committed long-term intervention.
Service work for others or focusing on a particular person’s identified values are a good start. Give the group an opportunity to get involved in either a broad/generic service opportunity or allow them to choose for themselves.
Contrast this with another experience spent “playing” or doing something that is for “fun.” and then follow up with the group after both experiences to find our what they have gained from the intervention.
From personal experience, the effects of positive psychology are most profound as people experience various interventions and then find their own ways to apply the practices into their lives.
Positive psychology can become a lifestyle that leads to increased well-being, something that people constantly use on a daily basis, rather than just interventions implemented in the presence of a therapist or a practitioner.
As professionals, we instill a sense of understanding, reflection, and autonomy for the people we work with, and through the group process we ensure a sense of engagement and belonging thus ensuring they will be able to continually reap the benefits that positive psychology has to offer.
Take Home Message
The information presented from positive psychology may or may not sound life-changing, depending on your audience. However, as practitioners, we know the true value and impact that it can have on people’s lives. In order to better communicate this message to your audience, give them as much opportunity and time as possible to experience its benefits firsthand.
The power of positive psychology comes in the personal application of the concepts and the repetition of the practices over time whilst experiencing autonomy and awareness and groups provide an ideal platform for learning from the shared experiences and growth.
About the Author
Aaron Simon is a recreation therapist who strives to apply ideas from positive psychology in his daily personal and professional life, and sees great opportunities to help lift other up from whatever challenges they may face.
His professional interests include helping those with substance abuse problems, mental health, and physical disabilities. You can find out more about Aaron on LinkedIn.
Rashid, T. (2014). Positive psychotherapy: A strength-based approach. The Journal of Positive Psychology,10(1), 25-40. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.920411
Ahuvia, A., Thin, N., Haybron, D. M., Biswas-Diener, R., Ricard, M., & Timsit, J. (2015). Happiness: An interactionist perspective. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(1), 1-18. doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i1.1
Seligman, M. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410