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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 such as fear, anxiety, and pessimism, in favor of positives emotions happiness, engagement, and intimacy. While negative emotions serve a purpose in terms of survival, they tend not to be what gives people meaning.
Typically PPT pursues these positive objectives with 3 broad approaches.
Before you start reading this article, I recommend you to download these 3 Free Positive CBT exercises. With these exercises, you will understand positive CBT on a theoretical level, and have the tools to apply it in your work with clients or students.
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Each of these objectives offers a platform in CBT that many practitioners user with their clients, and with great success.
The first objective is to build engagement by identifying client strengths. A great way to do this is by using the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. The VIA Institute on Character uses these strengths, combined with scientifically-backed “strength surveys,” as a gateway for people to realize their skills.
Once someone knows their skills, they are more apt to use them and reap the self-confidence and efficacy that follows.
Biswas-Diener et.al. (2010) refer to this approach as “identify and use,” although this may be an oversimplification. Tayyab Rashid (2015) has recently described more extensive uses for client strengths such as how to use them using them to embrace a challenge.
The second objective involves building positive emotions, for example with gratitude exercises that clients can practice in between sessions. Even having the language for how to describe and work towards certain emotions is—in itself—a tool.
What positive emotions come to mind for you, when you think about it? Happiness? Joy? Love?
While those emotions are positive, and a great platform to work towards, there are a wealth of other emotions that are often overlooked. These include feelings of inspiration, relief, eagerness, and surprise.
The third area involves working on other parts of the PERMA model, particularly relationship skills and exploring meaning (Parks & Seligman, 2007).
For those less familiar with it, the PERMA model is built upon Martin Seligman’s scientific studies on happiness. It is a well-respected tool to work towards well-being.
A distinguishing feature of PPT is how it treats the negative experiences clients typically bring to therapy.
It should be emphasized that PPT does not ignore negative experiences. In maintaining a strengths-based approach, PPT addresses negative experiences by building additional positive experiences.
This is not to avoid thinking about painful moments, but instead, over clients a way to see challenges in balance with other meaningful and rewarding parts of their experiences.
PPT often encourages clients to keep a gratitude journal as one way to decrease anxiety and rumination on what has gone wrong is countered (Rashid, 2015).
A client’s deeper negative experiences are given time for “standard clinical protocols,” which further establishes how PPT does not ignore those painful feelings (Rashid 2015).
Still, this is where I propose PPT can go one giant leap further.
When working directly with negative experiences, I suggest PPT should not defer to “standard clinical protocols.” Instead, PPT should influence and improve those less-effective protocols.
Here’s how we can work towards that, and why it matters.
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.
Anyone dealing with anxiety and depression, or helping someone who suffers from these, can use CBT to build a toolkit for when negative and persistent thoughts arise.
For example, when therapists give clients the awareness of “thought distortions,” clients can then recognize when they are experiencing black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing potential outcomes, or holding themselves to perfectionism.
Each time I catch myself thinking I am worthless, I dispute those thoughts by “fact-checking,” such as recounting the family and friends who appreciate me, or moments when I did something that did have worth.
When I detect negative thoughts I marshall the evidence against them. That is CBT at work.
But what if we enlist the client’s top strength(s) and dispute negating thoughts? Lately, in my own client work, I have been (almost inadvertently) using my knowledge of the client’s top VIA strength(s) to introduce these strengths.
The next step? I encourage clients to use them.
This opens up countless new ways (24 to be exact) to expand how disputation skills can be tailored to clients.
I have suggested some examples below that combine CBT thought-distortion exercises with the VIA strength-based approach. Each section offers multiple tools:
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. 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 distance. For example, if feeling a negative emotion such as sadness, ask yourself, ‘what is this experience digging up for me, in memory or current events?…”
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) counselors spent a few minutes prior to each counseling 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. It did not use the VIA Strengths Approach that I would suggest. I wonder how different the impact could have been with that additional toolset for clients.
If nothing else, in the tradition of the legendary Carl Rogers, we are even more person-centered in both of these therapeutical approaches. Both CBT and PPT offer a stronger therapeutic alliance that enables people to trust and receive the help they so deserve.
Still, I find myself wondering about the potential impact if CBT, PPT, and strength-based approaches were common practice among therapists and others in the field.
Combined Approach is the Best Approach
A combined and inclusive approach is perhaps the best link to these three wonderful traditions.
The more humanistic and person-centered the field of therapy continues to grow towards, the more people may find relief—maybe even happiness—with our service.
Do you have any ideas on which approach (or combination) are most effective? Please share your experience and thoughts in our comments section.
We would love to hear from you.
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.