Positive Psychology: How to Use it Wisely

In the final post in the series, learn how to tailor positive psychology to your needs

Now we know that positive thoughts don't always boost self-esteem, that fighting negative thoughts with positive ones makes some people more depressed, and that music doesn't always make our spirits soar. Is there any, uh, positive news?

Yes, there is. The message? Positive psychology may work better for some than for others, and individual interventions may have to be tailored to the needs of different personality styles, says Mongrain.

For example, although people with low self-esteem did not benefit from positive affirmations in University of Waterloo psychologist Joanne Wood’s study, Mongrain is preparing a paper that reports an intervention involving acts of kindness. “This exercise did wonders for people with low self-esteem. They went from being clinically depressed to nondepressed,” she says. “This shows we need to be mindful of how we tailor our interventions and base our exercises on the dynamics of the individual. Most people could profit from self-help with the right type of approach.”

Here are five more important lessons that Mongrain and psychologist Gerald Haeffel of the University of Notre Dame imparted about positive psychology:

1. Positive thinking alone works for some. “For those who are generally well-adjusted (i.e., good self-esteem, not overly needy or caught in the throes of rumination), brief positive exercises can make a significant difference in raising levels of happiness and decreasing depressive symptoms,” says Mongrain.

2. Some people shouldn’t go it alone. Both Mongrain and Haeffel say that working with a psychologist can make self-administered positive psychology more effective. “Those who are most impaired by a mood disorder or other form of mental illness should not rely solely on these self-help techniques,” says Mongrain. “They require an intervention with a skilled therapist to truly improve. I don’t believe that the adverse effects of some self-help techniques are long lasting. However, they may leave the person more discouraged than not.” A good therapist can suggest an appropriate positive psychology intervention for you, monitor your self-help techniques and provide extra mental energy, which can be worn down with positive thinking. “It takes a lot of mental energy to try to think differently about your self-worth,” Haeffel explains.

3. Not all therapists are trained in positive psychology treatments. “Look for therapists who use interventions supported by scientific data,” Haeffel says. “Unfortunately, many psychologists do not use empirically supported treatments, and thus you need to be a smart consumer.” Ask if your therapist has received training in positive psychology treatments that have been scientifically shown to work, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

4. One size does not fit all when it comes to positive thinking. As Mongrain observed, needy participants failed to benefit from self-help exercises, such as keeping a gratitude journal, that are traditionally very effective in the overall population. Meanwhile, “self-critics who are vulnerable to depression did quite well with gratitude intervention,” she says. “This was expected, as gratefulness is an underdeveloped skill in this group.” The takeaway may be that you should keep an eye on whether you’re feeling better or worse (or just the same) after practicing positive psychology techniques. If it’s not working, ditch it -- and look for something that fits better with your personality.

5. “Realistic” thinking is more effective than “positive” thinking. “A common assumption is that in order to be happy, you must turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts (in other words, turn lemons into lemonade),” Haeffel explains “However, the focus of the most effective interventions is simply to teach people to not think overly negatively about things. That kind of intervention recognizes that bad things do happen, and that it’s unrealistic to ask people to think that these bad events were actually good. The patient simply wouldn’t believe it.”

Part 1: Can Positive Thinking Backfire?

Part 2: Fighting Negative Thoughts? Thinking Positively? How Depressing!

Part 3: Needy and Depressed? Music Probably Won't Help

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