Positive psychology has powerful effects. Yes, the field has the potential to improve our health at a psychological level, but there is much evidence that therapies can influence our physical health, too. It’s really true that it can make you and your body better!
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What is Positive Psychotherapy?
Take, for example, positive psychotherapy – a psychological treatment that reduces symptoms of negative functioning, in addition to developing a person’s engagement and positive emotions. It’s unlike standard interventions for depression, because positive emotions and engagement are a key focus, instead of depressive symptoms themselves (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006).
Positive psychotherapy is rooted in Chris Peterson’s work on character strengths , as it integrates clinical symptoms with character strengths, resources with risky behaviors, hopes and regret, and values with rash behavior. This type of therapy sees the individual as more balanced than the more usual “deficit-oriented approach to psychotherapy.”
How does positive psychotherapy relate to positive psychology?
Martin Seligman, the father of modern positive psychology, has described some key points in interviews and instructional DVDs (Seligman & Wyatt, 2008). He says that positive psychotherapy involves a person discovering insight, and going beyond the pain and suffering of the process. Other therapy (especially when talking about incidents of childhood trauma) can be especially painful, and testifying can initially be as painful as “rip[ping] off nature’s scabs” (Seligman & Wyatt, 2008).
Acknowledging pain is still a part of the therapy, and it is not necessary to deny the suffering a person might be experiencing. However, positive psychotherapy does involve more positive emotions, gratitude, and meaning – a much more positive focus.
Although forms of positive psychotherapy have developed since the 1970s, figures like Martin Seligman have been influential in the therapy’s development and testing. Below you’ll find an interview during which he introduces this field.
Seligman has published earlier work showing the effects of positive psychotherapy. By delivering individual and group therapy to students, Seligman and his colleagues showed significant, long-lasting decreases in depression (Seligman et al., 2006).
More recent reviews have combined the data from many smaller studies to conclude that positive psychotherapy can have significant positive effect, even though the size of this benefit has been questioned (Bolier et al., 2013). As part of a broad range of positive psychological interventions, psychological and subjective well-being can be enhanced.
Other emerging studies have shown various positive effects, even on the body. In one study, researchers have investigated cardiac vagal tone – a good measure of how strong a part of the nervous system is, and a potential measure of stress (Lü, Wang, & Liu, 2013).
The tone influences heart rate level at the end of breathing cycles, and is a good way to measure the body’s functional flexibility, as well as estimate how often a person gets sick. Past studies have shown how cardiac vagal tone is related to a person’s positive affect, so Wei Lü and colleagues ran a positive psychotherapy intervention for participants with low positive affect.
70 participants from a Chinese college were scored as having either high or low trait positivity, and then half of the 34 that scored low then attended group psychotherapy for 16 weeks. Physiological data was obtained with electrodes and software, and although the low-scoring group had lower tone levels, these levels improved significantly after psychotherapy. Increasing positive affect and vagal tone can then have broader health effects for individuals, and is even associated with lower risk of illness in the longer term (eg. Thayer & Lane, 2007).
Treatment and the Future
Current research is adapting models of positive psychotherapy for specific populations – researchers in the UK are currently comparing the therapy with usual measures in people with psychosis (Schrank et al., 2014). It remains a promising, positive intervention strategy!
The impact of positive psychological therapy continues to be powerful – improved feelings can have greater effects, and be beneficial for the body.
Further Reading (PDF’s)
Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G.J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 119.
Lu, W., Wang, Z. & Liu, Y. (2013). A pilot study on changes of cardiac vagal tone in individuals with low trait positive affect: The effect of positive psychotherapy. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 88, 213-217.
Porges, S.W. (1995). Cardiac vagal tone: A physiological index of stress. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 19, 225-233.
Schrank, B., Riches, S., Coggins, T., Rashid, T., Tylee, A., & Slade, M. (2014). Wellfocus PPT – modified positive psychotherapy to improve well-being in psychosis: study protocol for a pilot randomised controlled trial. Trials, 15, 203. doi: 10.1186/1745-6215-15-203
Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A.C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61, 774-788.
Seligman, M.E.P., & Wyatt, R. C. (2008). Positive psychology and psychotherapy [DVD]. Available from http://www.psychotherapy.net
Thayer, J.F., & Lane, R.D. (2007). The role of vagal function in the risk for cardiovascular disease and mortality. Biological Psychology, 74, 224–242.