Positive Psychology: Moving Beyond “Look on the Bright Side”
Author: Taryn Konevich, LCSW, Associate Director of Adolescent After School IOP
“Look on the bright side!” “Think positive!” “View the glass as half full.”
One of the most invalidating, unhelpful experiences you can have when sharing about depression, anxiety, or even a bad day is being told by someone else that you should find a way to dance in the rain. Adolescents are quick to point this out to their therapists when we so much as tip toe around the idea of a silver lining. “If there was anything ‘good’ about being told we can’t go out with our friends, we’d have found it already,” they say. It’s a fair point. We all know how frustrating it is to be met with a happiness cliché when all we want is to commiserate and have our pain and discomfort acknowledged by our support system. So do these well-known expressions only exist to decorate bathroom walls and beach houses? Why do we insist on telling each other to turn our frowns upside down? (Last one, I promise).
I was fortunate enough during my time as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan to take a positive psychology class taught by Professor Christopher Peterson, who along with Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman in 1998 initiated the birth of what they deemed “a new domain of psychology” focused on “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Positive Psychology Center). To justify their study on the ingredients of a meaningful life, Professor Peterson explained that to fully understand the human brain and experience, it is equally important to “be concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst…the value of positive psychology is to complement and extend the problem-focused psychology that has been dominant for many decades”(What is Positive Psychology and What is it Not?). Professor Peterson was also quick to distinguish his work from “self-help” guides that are not backed by scientific research. The foundation of positive psychology is evidence based and entirely reflective of carefully conducted empirical research (What is Positive Psychology and What is it Not?).
When I moved on to graduate school for clinical social work, I learned about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (“DBT”), which is one of two primary modalities used at Compass Health Center. In those DBT lectures, I heard many of Professor Peterson’s messages about the importance of value based living and fulfillment through a purposeful life echoed in discussions we had about the ways DBT skills contribute to mood disorder recovery. I began to recognize the ways in which positive psychology further advances the theoretical foundation of DBT: “successful” therapy does not eliminate our struggles, but helps us effectively manage them while making choices that allow us to live a life we find meaningful and fulfilling. The overlap of positive psychology and the DBT skills we were already teaching at Compass led me to create a skills group for adolescents that would teach them the value of paying an equal amount of attention to the aspects of the human experience, and the aspects of their own unique experience, that produce emotions such as joy, satisfaction, contentment, gratitude, humor, and pleasure.
As with many of the skills groups adolescent therapists facilitate at Compass, my positive psychology group is regularly met with a healthy amount of skepticism from our participants. When we introduce the topic of positive psychology, I can almost feel some teenagers bracing themselves for what they assume will be a conversation about the benefits of being an optimist. Others have their defenses and arguments ready, and are more than willing to tell me why a focus on the positive is not only unhelpful for someone with depression or anxiety, but is also impossible. After hearing out their entirely valid concerns, I begin to explain what it is exactly we’re going to do together:
- First, we discuss the fact that it is part of the human condition to be better at paying attention to the negative. Our brains are hardwired that way to protect us from danger and to keep us alive. You know that highlight reel of your day that passes through your mind at the end of the day? Is it almost always entirely comprised of “negative” experiences? Yep, mine too. It’s not our fault, it’s the way we’re designed; it’s more important to notice the poison berry than the tasty one.
- Next, we discuss how it makes sense that because we as humans are especially adept at noticing the negative, we assess our day to day lives as being full of more negative emotions, thoughts, and experiences than positive. But is that actually the objective truth?
- Here comes the fun part: I challenge the group to think about how many things had to go “right” in their day for them to have ended up sitting in their seats at this very moment, wearing clothes, having food in their bellies, and feeling relatively okay (save for being bored). Almost always, the group agrees that they woke up on time, experienced their bodies as free of aches and pains, had a decent, if not delicious, breakfast, had a smooth ride to program, heard great music on their commute, and had at least one conversation/interaction that they would classify as “pleasant” or “positive.” Even if one or two of the things on that list was problematic, it’s usually true that more things went right than wrong. And almost always, the group agrees that none of them paid the slightest bit of attention to that rightness.
- By this point I typically have the group’s attention. They’re on the ride with me, and are at least slightly curious where we’re going next. This is different from most of the groups they’ve experienced thus far, because I haven’t asked them to tell me about their unsafe urges, concerns for the weekend, or unhealthy coping skills they’ve been tempted to use in the last 24 hours.
- I’ve told them that human beings are designed to notice the negative, and now I tell them that the research shows that if we practice noticing the positive, we can get better at it, just like playing a sport or an instrument. The more frequently and regularly we practice, the more effective we are at recognizing and subsequently appreciating everything that went right for us in our day. So how do we “practice”?
- Fortunately for us, Professor Peterson came up with an answer that is evidence based. It’s called “The Three Good Things” exercise (Peterson, 2006). The exercise is designed to help us habituate our brains to focusing attention on the things in life that bring about positive emotions. Here is how it works:
- Think about anything good that happened to you today. It can be anything at all that seems positive, and it doesn’t need to be something “big” or super important. For example, you might think about how you enjoyed your breakfast this morning. Anything from the most boring to the most exciting works, as long as it seems like a good, positive, happy thing. Be as specific as possible.
- Write down three of these positive experiences or events from the day.
- Reflect on why each good thing happened. For example, you might say that your breakfast was really good this morning because your mom took the time to buy you your favorite bagels. You get to decide reasons for each event that make sense to you (Peterson, 2006).
As with any new skill, Three Good Things is most effective at producing increase sense of well-being and life satisfaction when practiced regularly. I suggest replacing your nightly review of mishaps, mistakes, and disappointments with this exercise for a week, and see what happens. You can also do this together as a family activity. It is effective verbally or in writing, however I prefer writing, because then you can reflect on your past week and see 21 “good things”!
- For the grand finale, I pass out copies of Neil Pasricha’s “1000 Awesome Things” list. This list was created to produce positive emotions first in the writer himself, when he was coping with a divorce and the sudden death of a close friend, but eventually in thousands of readers by bringing their attention to simple, everyday sensations, experiences, and objects that are pleasure inducing. A few examples: “sleeping in new bed sheets”, “building a stack of pancakes that looks just like the front of the box”, “the sound of scissors cutting construction paper”, or “getting piggy-backed anywhere” (Pasricha, 2017). The group is tasked with highlighting items from the list that make them smile, laugh, feel gratitude for, or inspire them. We then go around the room and share, which inevitably leads to collective entertainment, laughter, and connection.
The beauty of this list, and this entire exercise, is in its simplicity and relatability. It crosses all barriers: gender, socioeconomic status, age, geographic region, intellectual ability, mental status. It’s an incredible tool, and the group’s reaction to it has taught me a lot about the power of attention. When we make the conscious choice to notice, to become aware of the sources of happiness, contentment, excitement, and satisfaction that naturally exist in even the most mundane situations (example – the bounce of the brand new keyboard I’m typing on to write this article is very satisfying) we can experience positivity and improved mood without changing a thing. I encourage you to give it a try – it requires nothing except purposeful awareness, the intention to look for the naturally existing goodness in your world. That glass of day old water on your bedside table? Maybe it is half full.
“What Is Positive Psychology, and What Is It Not?” Christopher Peterson, May 16, 2008 via The Good Life blog on www.psychologytoday.com
Positive Psychology Center https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu (for information on founders of positive psychology) 2018
A Primer in Positive Psychology by Christopher Peterson, 2006
1000 Awesome Things Blog www.1000awesomethings.com Neil Pasricha, 2017