In describing Positive Psychotherapy (PPT) Seligman, Rashid and Parks (2006) posed the following question.
“What kind of brain survived the ice ages? The one that assumed the good weather would last, or the one that was strongly biased toward anticipating disaster?”
PPT is intended to counter our ‘default setting’ toward negative emotions– survival based fear, anxiety and pessimism – in favor of building the positives that make life more worthwhile –happiness, engagement, meaning and intimacy.
Typically PPT pursues these positive objectives with 3 broad approaches.
The first is building engagement through identifying client strengths, for example with the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, and exploring more ways to use them. Biswas-Diener et.al. (2010) refer to this approach as “identify and use”; although this may be an oversimplification as Tayyab Rashid (2015) has recently described more extensive uses for client strengths such as using them to master problems that are maintaining symptoms.
The second objective involves building positive emotions, for example with gratitude exercises that clients can practice in between sessions.
The third area involves working on other parts of the PERMA model, particularly relationship skills and exploring meaning (Parks & Seligman, 2007).
A distinguishing feature of PPT is how it treats the negative experiences clients typically bring to therapy. It should be emphasised that PPT does not ignore negative experiences.
However, in maintaining a strengths-based approach, PPT is more likely to address negative experiences not by focusing on them directly but by building mutually exclusive positive experiences- as if to push the negatives out of the frame. For example, when clients keep a gratitude journal their bias towards ruminating on what has gone wrong is countered (Rashid, 2015).
Beyond this indirect approach, the client’s further negative experiences are left, according to Rashid (2015) “to standard clinical protocols.”
This is where I propose PPT can go one giant leap further.
When working directly with negative experiences I suggest PPT should not stand aside for, or defer to “standard clinical protocols.” PPT should instead be influencing and improving those protocols.
Involving VIA strengths in CBT
As many are aware Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) works by helping clients to understand the link between negative thinking and problems (e.g. anxiety and depression), to learn how to detect negative thoughts as they arise, and to practice disputation skills to counter them.
For example, each time I catch myself thinking I am worthless I dispute those thoughts by recounting the family and friends who appreciate me. That is, when I detect negative thoughts I marshal the evidence against them.
But what if we enlist the client’s top strength (s) in the work of disputing negating thoughts?
Most CBT protocols provide fairly standardised approaches to introducing these skills to clients. However, lately in my own client work, I have been (almost inadvertently) using my knowledge of the client’s top VIA strength (s) to modify how I introduce these skills and encourage clients to use them.
This opens up countless new ways (well, 24 to be exact) to expand how disputation skills can be tailored to clients and I have suggested some examples below:
Judgment/critical thinking: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions.
“As we have been discussing, our beliefs are like statements that can either be true or untrue. With your talent for critical thinking you could pretend to be a judge in a courtroom examining the evidence for each belief from all sides. If the belief stands up to the evidence, then fine. If not, then it’s time to modify what you are telling yourself…”
Humor/ playfulness: Liking to laugh and tease.
“The next time you notice the unpleasant thoughts we have been discussing I want you to pretend the words are being provided by a grumpy cartoon character with a silly voice. With your talent for humour you could have some fun telling it ‘nice try, now get lost’…”
Love of Learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
“One of the most worthwhile and proven skills anyone can learn is the ability to defeat their own unhelpful thoughts. As you practice you will be learning more about yourself, and mastering a new skill that will serve you for the rest of your life…”
Justice/fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
“You’re so good at standing up for other people. If your best friend was putting herself down you would be the first to challenge her thinking. Deep down you know everyone deserves to be treated the same way, even you. Let’s bring your sense of justice into this and make a stand against the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that have bullied you for so long…”
Perseverance: finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles
“You won’t be successful each and every time. Sometimes it’s a case of three steps forward, two steps back. But with your strength of perseverance I want you to keep trying and catch as many negative thoughts as you can. You could even try to set a record by seeing how many unhelpful thoughts you can counter in a week…”
Curiosity: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake
“The next time you notice the negative thoughts we have been discussing, I want you to study them with complete detachment. I want you to just witness them in a neutral way without judging them as good or bad. Just be curious about their ongoing presence, and notice how long they stay or go in their own time. Remain neutral and curious while keeping them at arm’s length…”
Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things
“If you were free to invent your own, novel way of combating negative thoughts what would that look like? You could create your own affirmations to counter unhelpful thoughts. You could use all kinds of visual images like ‘returning serve’ in a tennis match or pretending the messages are being provided by your worst enemy. You could even invent different techniques for different situations. You are limited only by your own imagination …”
In an innovative study by Swiss researchers (Flückiger & Grosse-Holtforth, 2008) counsellors spent a few minutes prior to each counselling session reviewing the client’s particular strengths and their desired outcomes. This pre-session activity helped strengthen the therapeutic alliance compared to the control group.
While this study did not use the VIA I would suggest when we involve the client’s strengths, however measured, we extend ourselves as therapists. Moreover, if nothing else in the tradition of the legendary Carl Rogers we are even more person-centred – a quality further linked to stronger therapeutic alliance.
Such a combined or inclusive approach would perhaps link three wonderful traditions; PPT, CBT, and the humanistic/person-centred tradition to which positive psychology pays so much homage.
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T., Minhasa, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Vol. 6, No. 2, 106–118. Flückiger C.
Grosse Holtforth M. (2008). Focusing the therapist's attention on the patient's strengths: a preliminary study to foster a mechanism of change in outpatient psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology Jul; 64(7): 876-90.
Parks, A., & Seligman, M. (2007). 8-Week Group Positive Psychotherapy (PPT) Manual. Version 2. University of Pennsylvania.
Rashid, T. (2015). Positive psychotherapy: A strength-based approach. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(1), 25-40.
Seligman, M., Rashid, T., & Parks. A. (2006). Positive Psychotherapy. American Psychologist. Vol 61(8). 774-788.