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Positive Psychology Versus Traditional Psychology 20-905954 1 Hour Back to Course Index


Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. Mental health professionals are actively involved in studying and understanding an individual, group, or activity’s mental processes, brain functions, and behavioral characteristics. It is a multifaceted discipline and includes many sub-fields of study such as human development, sports, health, clinical, social behavior, and cognitive processes. Over the years, not entirely, but in general practice, the focus has concentrated on naming and ‘fixing’ disorders.  Scientific funding has always been associated with healing. Consequently, the proactive aspect of psychology has sometimes gotten lost, again not entirely, but you must have a diagnosis of a disorder to get reimbursed. 

Psychology is a new science, with most advances happening over the past 150 years or so.  Theories develop and become popular, and theorists move away from them, but the threads of the theories sometimes get woven into the next.  Psychology’s origins can be traced back to ancient Greece, 400 – 500 years BC. 

The four main goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict and change the behavior and mental processes of others.

Describing a behavior or cognition is the first goal of psychology. This can enable researchers to develop general laws of human behavior.

For example, by describing the response of dogs to various stimuli, Ivan Pavlov helped develop laws of learning known as classical conditioning theory.

Once researchers have described general laws behavior, the next step is to explain how or why this trend occurs. Psychologists will propose theories that can explain behavior.

Psychology aims to be able to predict future behavior from the conclusion of researching behavior. If a prediction is not confirmed, then the explanation it is based on might need to be revised.  We continue to learn.

For example, classical conditioning predicts that people may develop a phobia or aversion to stimuli if they associate a negative outcome with stimuli.

Once psychology has described, explained, and made predictions about behavior, changing or controlling behavior can be facilitated.

For example, interventions based on classical conditioning, such as systematic desensitization, have been used to treat people with anxiety disorders, including phobias.

Psychology has fought the “soft science” label.  Laypeople and academicians alike tend to judge fields such as sociology, psychology, and political science as “soft” because they are presumed to be understandable, devoid of mathematical rigor, and concerned with everyday concepts such as interpersonal relationships.  Hard science is said to have facts, and psychology has a theory. However, the scientific method is designed in such a way that one can never prove anything; we can only disprove something. In every way, psychological science adheres to the scientific method as much as any other science.  Nonetheless, it interprets human behavior, institutions, and society, based on scientific investigations for which it may be difficult to establish strictly measurable criteria.  There has been a drive to put solid “science” and measurable criteria into a field where we focus on understanding behavior, which is unpredictable and relies heavily on subjective experience.  We must be more like the real sciences.  We want a seat at the table.  Search psychology has adopted a disease model in pursuit of measurable criteria. 



Contemporary psychology of today differs significantly from its roots but looking at how it developed gives us perspective as to what it is and how it got that way. 

During the 17th century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the idea of dualism, which asserted that the mind and body were two entities that interact to form the human experience.  This is the first step in separating philosophy from physiology. 

During the mid-1800s, the field moved from philosophy to psychology with a German physiologist, Wilhelm Wundt, who was using scientific research methods to investigate reaction times. He later opened a psychology lab at the University of Leipzig, considered the start of psychology as a separate and distinct scientific discipline.  Wundt studied human consciousness and sought to apply experimental methods to studying internal mental processes. 

Edward B. Titchener, one of Wundt’s students, founded Structuralism, which is psychology’s first major school of thought.  According to structuralists, human consciousness could be broken down into smaller parts. Using a process known as introspection, subjects would attempt to break down their responses and reactions to the most basic sensation and perceptions.

Up to this point, early psychology stressed conscious human experience.
Sigmund Freud, an Austrian physician,  changed the face of psychology, proposing a theory of personality that emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind.  Freud’s clinical work with patients suffering from hysteria and other ailments led him to believe that early childhood experiences and unconscious impulses contributed to the development of adult personality and behavior.  He saw people with problems, and the work to “fix” these issues was born.  According to Freud, psychological disorders are the result of these unconscious conflicts becoming extreme or unbalanced.  While many of his ideas are viewed with skepticism today, his influence on psychology is undeniable.

Behaviorism, which was developed in the early 20th century, was a major shift from previous theoretical perspectives, rejecting the emphasis on both the conscious and unconscious mind. Instead, behaviorism focused purely on observable behavior.  Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s research on dogs’ digestive systems led to his discovery of the classical conditioning process, which proposed that behaviors could be learned via conditioned associations.  Pavlov demonstrated that this learning process could be used to make an association between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.  Behaviorism expanded with John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner.  Some of the concepts, such as behavioral modification and token economies, are still used today.

Humanistic psychology, emerging in the last half of the 20th century, is grounded in the belief that people are innately good. This type of psychology holds that morality, ethical values, and good intentions are the driving forces of behavior, while adverse social or psychological experiences can be attributed to deviations from natural tendencies.  Humanistic psychology emphasizes conscious experiences.

Carl Rogers held a strong belief in the power of free will and self-determination.  Abraham Maslow contributed to the hierarchy of needs theory of human motivation.

We will explore Humanistic Psychology (Humanism) a bit further as it plays into the history of Positive Psychology, as we will see further in the course.

In 1957 and 1958, Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas met with psychologists who shared their goal of establishing a professional association that emphasized a more positive and humanistic approach. The discussions revolved around the topics they believed would become the core tenets of this new approach to psychology: Self-actualization, creativity, health, individuality, intrinsic nature, self, being, becoming, and meaning.

After receiving sponsorship from Brandeis University, The American Association for Humanistic Psychology was founded in 1961. Other major contributors to the development of humanistic psychology were Carl Rogers, Gordon Allport, James Bugental, Charlotte Buhler, Rollo May, Gardner Murphy, Henry Murray, Fritz Perls, Kirk Schneider, Louis Hoffman, and Paul Wong.

Some fundamental assumptions of humanistic psychology include: 

  • Experiencing (thinking, sensing, perceiving, feeling, remembering, and so on) is central.
  • The subjective experience of the individual is the primary indicator of behavior.
  • An accurate understanding of human behavior cannot be achieved by studying animals.
  • Free will exists, and individuals should take personal responsibility for self-growth and fulfillment. Not all behavior is determined.
  • Self-actualization (the need for a person to reach maximum potential) is natural.
  • People are inherently good and will experience growth if provided with suitable conditions, especially during childhood.
  • Each person and each experience is unique, so psychologists should treat each case individually rather than rely on averages from group studies.

Humanistic psychology integrates multiple therapeutic techniques, such as Carl Rogers’s person-centered therapy, which is also known as “Rogerian therapy.” Humanism suggests that a person is created with a distinct priority of needs and drives and that each person must rely on a personal sense of inner wisdom and healing. Psychologists who practice this therapy method take a non-pathological approach, targeting an individual’s productive, adaptive, and beneficial traits and behaviors in treatment.

The humanistic approach has made several significant contributions to the field of psychology. It presented a new approach to understanding human nature, new methods of data collection in human behavioral studies, and a broad range of effective psychotherapy techniques. Some of the major concepts and ideas that emerged from the humanistic movement include:

  • Hierarchy of needs
  • Person-centered therapy
  • Unconditional positive regard
  • Free will
  • Self-concept
  • Self-actualization
  • Peak experiences
  • Fully-functioning person

Humanism’s reliance on the subjective experiences of individuals may make it difficult to objectively measure, record, and study humanistic variables and features. The emphasis on gathering qualitative data makes it almost impossible to measure and verify any observations made in therapy. Not only might it be challenging to compare one set of qualitative data with another, the overall lack of quantitative data means that key theories cannot be supported by empirical evidence.  This possible limitation is important to note for our exploration of Positive Psychology.

Moving past Humanistic Psychology, the 50s and 60s brought Cognitive Psychology, where psychologists were still interested in looking at observable behaviors, but they were also concerned with what was going on inside the mind.  This remains a dominant area of psychology as researchers continue to study things such as perception, memory, decision-making, problem-solving, intelligence, and language. The introduction of brain imaging tools such as MRI and PET scans have helped improve the ability of researchers to closely study the inner workings of the human brain.

The primary mission of psychology focuses on treating abnormal behavior and mental illness.  A disease model helped to identify and repair psychological damage.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) is a diagnostic manual created and updated by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Almost every mental health practitioner in the world uses it.  Its purpose is to help healthcare providers diagnose a patient with a mental disorder by providing a list of common signs and symptoms that occur. 

Contemporary, traditional psychology is interested in an enormous range of topics, looking at human behavior and mental process from the neural level to the cultural level.  It is fundamentally a disease model approach that defines the problem and then finds ways to treat the problem using various techniques. Often looking at the individual’s past, present, and future behaviors focus more on any traumatic events that may have occurred during the individual’s life and how these events have contributed to the individual’s overall functioning.


Notable Pioneers of Traditional Psychology (this list is not exhaustive)

Wilhelm Wundt

German scientist, physician, and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt. He founded the first psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1879. Wundt conducted many of the first experiments on human behavior. This marks the official start of psychology as an independent science of individual human behavior and the mind.

Psychologist and philosopher William James is often referred to as the father of American psychology. His teachings and writings helped establish psychology as a science. Among his many accomplishments was the publication of the 1,200-page text, “The Principles of Psychology,” which quickly became a classic in the field.

Sigmund Freud

When people think of psychology, many tend to think of Sigmund Freud. His work supported the belief that not all mental illnesses have physiological causes. He also offered evidence that cultural differences have an impact on psychology and behavior. His work contributed to our understanding of human development, personality, clinical psychology, and abnormal psychology.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner is an American psychologist who is best known for his work on operant conditioning, a form of behavior modification that helps explain and alter behaviors. He called his form of behaviorism “radical behaviorism.” He received his doctorate from Harvard in 1931, where he spent most of his professional career.

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose research on conditioned reflexes and classical conditioning influenced the rise of behaviorism in psychology. Pavlov’s experimental methods helped move psychology away from introspection and subjective assessments to the objective measurement of behavior.

Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger developed the theories of cognitive dissonance and social comparison to explain how social conditions influence human behavior. Cognitive dissonance is the state of discomfort you feel when you hold two conflicting beliefs. You may smoke even though you know it is bad for your health.

His social comparison theory says that you evaluate your ideas by comparing them with what other people believe. You are also more likely to seek out other people who share your beliefs and values.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers emphasized human potential, which enormously influenced both psychology and education. He became one of the major humanist thinkers and an eponymous influence in therapy with his client-centered therapy. 


Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura’s work is considered part of the cognitive revolution in psychology that began in the late 1960s. Bandura’s social learning theory stresses the importance of observational learning, imitation, and modeling.




Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that highlights the importance of focusing on well-being, happiness, and wellness.  Both Traditional Psychology and Positive Psychology want to help people live better lives. Positive psychology was born out of the need to scientifically study the positive aspects of life. It emerged in 1998 coined by Martin E.P. Seligman, the former president of the American Psychological Association,  in his APA Presidential Address.  Its roots go back farther, though.  In the 1950s, Abraham Maslow spoke of psychology in which attention should be given to what is and what could be. 

Many psychologists, unhappy with the disease model of traditional psychology, maintain that all people have an innate tendency to strive for perpetual growth and development. They feel that the central concerns of psychology should include positive phenomena, such as love, courage, and happiness.

These beliefs led them to turn away from traditional psychology and toward existentialism and phenomenology for a more comprehensive understanding of human development and existence.  

Abraham Maslow believed that humanistic psychology, introduced above, should be based on the study of healthy, creative individuals and attempted to investigate empirically the lives and patterns of self-actualized persons. The term “positive psychology” first appeared in the last chapter of Maslow’s book Motivation and
Personality (1954), the title of which was “Toward a Positive Psychology.” In this chapter, Maslow maintains that psychology itself does not have an accurate understanding of the human potential and that the field tends not to raise the proverbial bar high enough concerning maximum attainment. He wrote: The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction and the darker, meaner half (Maslow, 1954, p. 354).

Humanistic psychology is largely concerned with the quality of human experience and can be defined as “…primarily an orientation toward the whole of psychology rather than a distinct area or school…concerned with topics having little place in existing theories and systems: e.g., love, creativity, growth, self-actualization, peak experience, courage, and related topics”.   These points share similarities with what Seligman refers to as signature strengths and virtues, as you will see as we delve into Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology distanced itself from humanistic psychology because of what it calls its use of unscientific methodologies and its inadequate empirical foundation. Many have disputed the suggestion that humanistic psychology ignores rigorous research.  


Notable Pioneers of Positive Psychology

Abraham Maslow

First, to coin the term positive psychology, Maslow emphasized the growth and development of a person and introduced the concept of self-actualization. He did not like the fact that psychology catered only to mental disorders and ignored the importance of human potential.


Carl Rogers

Along with Abraham Maslow, Rogers was one of the founding fathers of the humanistic school of psychology. He gave the concept of ideal self and real self and stated that the congruency between the two depended on the status of the person’s positive regard.


Martin Seligman

Known as the father of positive psychology, Seligman conducted major work related to positive psychology, once elected as the President of the American Psychological Association. He presented a positive face to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Later, he developed a theory of well-being in which he listed 5 elements of a happy life, PERMA, an acronym for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishments.


Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi 

Csikszentmihalyi was noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic.  Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, described Csikszentmihalyi as the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology.  


Ed Diener

In 1984, Diener created a model of subjective well-being. According to him, subjective well-being is “based on the idea that how each person thinks and feels about his or her life is important.”


Albert Bandura

Praised for his work in social cognition and modeling theory, Bandura presented a Self-Efficacy theory which is based on how a person perceives himself of the belief in their ability and performance to reach a goal.

Without a doubt, Seligman and his colleagues have worked hard to further the study of human excellence and optimal functioning. As a result of their efforts and influence, several relevant projects have been started to help us understand what makes the lives of all people more satisfying and to know what areas need improvement.  We will explore the Telos Taxonomy Project later in the course and the Human Strengths: A Classification Manual.



Positive psychology is becoming a more commonly used approach to research in the field. It is the scientific study of what makes life worth living, focusing on individual and societal well-being. 

It studies:

  • Positive subjective experience
  • Positive individual traits
  • Positive institutions

Positive Psychology is a reaction against past practices that focus on mental illness and emphasize maladaptive behavior and negative thinking. It builds on the humanistic movement, which emphasizes happiness, well-being, and positivity.

Positive psychology focuses on eudaimonia, an Ancient Greek term for “the good life,” and the concept of reflection on the factors that contribute the most to a well-lived and fulfilling life. Positive psychologists often use the terms subjective well-being and happiness interchangeably.

Positive psychologists have suggested several factors that may contribute to happiness and subjective well-being. For example, social ties with a spouse, family, friends, colleagues, and wider networks; membership in clubs or social organizations; physical exercise; and the practice of meditation.  Spirituality can also be considered a factor that leads to increased individual happiness and well-being. Spiritual practice and religious commitment are topics researchers have been studying as another possible source of increased well-being and an added part of positive psychology.  

An interesting point to note is that theorists have discovered through research on happiness and Positive Psychology that although less money is associated with emotional pain, more money does not necessarily buy more happiness. To be precise, $75,000 is the threshold beyond which any further increase in an individual’s income makes no difference to their levels of happiness.  (Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A. 2010)  Accounting for inflation, this equates to about 90,000 in 2022.  The research cannot account for an individual’s happiness quotient for what they do with the money over 90,000, though.  For example, if an individual earns 200,000 and gives 100,000 to feed the homeless and save animals, they might reap more benefits from the 110,000 over the 90,000.  Other factors are also involved, but the data hold in general terms. 


Three Levels of Positive Psychology

The science of positive psychology operates on three different levels – the subjective level, the individual level, and the group level.

  1. The subjective level includes the study of positive experiences such as joy, well-being, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, optimism, and flow. This level is about feeling good rather than doing good or being a good person.

  2. At the next level, the aim is to identify the constituents of the ‘good life’ and the personal qualities that are necessary for being a ‘good person, through studying human strengths and virtues, future-mindedness, capacity for love, courage, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, wisdom, interpersonal skills and giftedness.

  3. Finally, at the group or community level, the emphasis is on civic virtues, social responsibilities, nurturance, altruism, civility, tolerance, work ethics, positive institutions, and other factors that contribute to the development of citizenship and communities.

Positive Psychology focuses on finding the potential of people, and as positive thinking has been shown to have a positive effect on recovery, it could be useful for people to incorporate to speed the recovery process. 

Through his work in Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman found that the extent to which people were aware of and using their signature strengths, for example, courage, persistence, and wisdom, there was a positive influence on the quality of their lives.   

He spent years developing a theory of well-being called the PERMA model. The model comprises five elements that create the foundation of a flourishing life:

Positive Emotions
Positive emotions can build our physical, intellectual, and social abilities.

The experience of optimal psychological functioning, where we are completely absorbed in a task that slightly exceeds our skill level, requires us to stretch to a new level of performance.

Humans need connection, love, and physical and emotional proximity to others.

Martin Seligman defines meaning as “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are” 

People who feel personally involved in achieving their goals indicate higher levels of well-being and are in better health than people who lack a sense of direction in their lives.

Each of these elements has three properties:

  1. It contributes to the well-being
  2. People pursue it for their sakes, not just to attain the other elements
  3. It’s measured and defined independently from the other elements

Positive psychology devised measures such as the Psychological Wellbeing Scale or the Happiness Scale that could objectively measure how satisfied a person is from the inside. With the advent of these psychological well-being measures, mental health professionals found a solid reason to shift their focus from the problems to the solutions.



While there is plenty of overlap, positive psychology has been described as different from other areas of psychology due to its primary interest in identifying and building mental assets instead of addressing weaknesses and problems. 

The traditional Psychology approach defines the problem and then finds ways to treat the problem using various techniques. Often looking at the individual’s past, present, and future behaviors focus more on any traumatic events that may have occurred during the individual’s life and how these events have contributed to the individual’s overall functioning. It has more often than not emphasized the shortcomings of individuals as compared with their potential. Positive Psychology is not targeted at fixing problems but focuses on researching things that make life worth living. In short, positive psychology is concerned not with how to transform, for example, from -8 to -2 but with how to bring +2 to +8.

Prior to the Second World War, psychology had three tasks, which were to:

  1. Cure mental illness
  2. Improve normal lives
  3. Identify and nurture high talent

However, after the war, the last two tasks somehow got lost, leaving the field to concentrate predominantly on the first one.

Understandably, after WWII, facing a human crisis on such an enormous scale, all available resources were poured into learning about and the treatment of psychological illness and psychopathology.

This is how psychology, as a field, learned to operate within a disease model. This model has proven very useful. Through the disease model, 14 previously incurable mental illnesses such as depression, personality disorder, or anxiety attacks can now be successfully treated.

However, the costs of adopting this disease model included the failure to address the improvement of normal lives and the identification and nurturance of strengths.  

In the field of psychology, as noted, the humanist perspective focused on the health and development of individuals. It emphasizes the strength and importance of empathy and good-natured behavior. Absolutely OK to work from the perspective of the individual.  After all, communities are made up of individuals.  In the political landscape, the humanist perspective takes an approach that encourages human rights and equality. When there is equality, more people can flourish. According to positive psychology, human flourishing is integral to happiness and well-being.  These concepts work together. However, Positive Psychology focuses on both individual and societal well-being. It studies positive subjective experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. 

Among the critiques of positive psychology are that it has focused on positive experiences at the expense of essential “negative” ones and that certain concepts (such as character strengths) may insufficiently well define or re-describe existing scientific concepts.

If we see positive psychology as a contender against traditional psychology, it would mean that diagnosis and research would mostly have to carry out qualitatively as each case of how a human can do better in society would be completely different. 

Traditional Psychology
Goal:  To reduce symptoms, alleviate negative feelings, and prevent future issues with coping strategies or behavior modification.

Positive Psychology
Goal:  To reduce symptoms, promote happiness, prevent future problems, and make life worthwhile.


Traditional Psychology
Assumes that an absence of illness and problems equals satisfaction and happiness.

Positive Psychology
Assumes absence of problems is not happiness but vulnerability to future problems and a sign of an impoverished present.


Traditional Psychology
People need help with a disorder.

Positive Psychology
People need skills to grow.


Traditional Psychology
Discussing problems is curative and eases symptoms.

Positive Psychology
Building strengths and generating positive emotion is curative.


Traditional Psychology
Focus on repairing negatives as they are worth attention and analysis.

Positive Psychology
Focus on positives to repair, promote, and prevent.  Positives are worthy of attention and analysis.

Traditional Psychology
Client:  I’m unhappy.
Counselor:  “How do you think you could overcome these feelings?”

Positive Psychology
Client:  I’m unhappy.
Counselor:  “so, what are some good things about your life?”

Many psychologists admit that we have little knowledge of what makes life worth living or of how normal people flourish under usual, rather than extreme, conditions. We often have little more to say about the good life than self-help gurus. But shouldn’t we know better?

The Western world has long overgrown the rationale for exclusively focusing on the disease model of psychology. Perhaps it is time to readdress the balance by using psychological resources to learn about normal and flourishing lives rather than lives that need help.

Perhaps now is the time to gather knowledge about strengths and talents, high achievement (in every sense of this word), the best ways and means of self-improvement, fulfilling work and relationships, and the great art of ordinary living carried out in every corner of the planet. This is the rationale behind the creation of positive psychology.


Sean Achor, Author and Speaker   The Happiness Advantage
Full Ted Talk Video Here

The More Tools In The Toolbelt

All this Positive Psychology stuff sounds great for the average person looking for more “happiness” and satisfaction in life, but what about the clients that come to see me because…they have…disorders??!  I’m not trying to focus on the dysfunction or be negative in my approach, but a problem exists.  My client is depressed because her husband asked her for a divorce.  I wasn’t looking for the dysfunction.  She called, made an appointment, and presented with depression.  We have to work on the presenting problem.  

If an individual were to tell their friends that they would see a counselor, what is the most likely response they would get? ‘What’s wrong with you?’.  The focus has centered on fixing dysfunction.  We don’t generally get our clients who want to improve a decent situation.  We can, however, help the client who comes in because of a problem go beyond just fixing the present issue.  Here is an example:

Mom brings in her teenager, Annie, because she is depressed. After all, her boyfriend broke up with her.  She has lost significant weight, won’t go out with friends, and her grades are falling.

We can work with Annie to alleviate the depression from feeling rejected and sad to the point where she is again taking care of herself and taking part in activities with friends again and feeling better (traditional psychology), or we can work with Annie to alleviate the depression and to identify strengths and resources that create a full life that help her to realize she may want a boyfriend, but she is great with or without one.

Positive psychology does not need to replace or compete with traditional psychology.  It complements traditional psychology’s focus on pathology. It studies strengths, virtues, and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life.

Perhaps rather than looking at either Traditional or Positive, maybe utilizing what we have learned about how the brain works and how to harness the power of gratitude, exercise, journaling, meditation, and kindness to produce faster, better well-being as we are working with our clients on dysfunctional issues through more traditional means.  If they can feel good in a moment, they are better equipped to work through issues.  

The most significant contribution of positive psychology in mental health counseling and therapy is the introduction of happiness as a treatment goal (Gruman, Schneider, & Coutts, 2017).

Identifying one’s character strengths (such as courage, humanity, or justice) is considered an important step on the road to the good and meaningful life envisioned by positive psychologists. For example, gratitude exercises have been studied as a way to increase happiness over time. Just what the name sounds like, these involve such simple actions as writing down each day three things for which one is grateful.  Research shows this has an impact.

Although positive psychology focuses on happiness and fulfillment, it is important to understand that this does not mean people are advised to push away their negative emotions altogether. People who are flourishing make room in their lives for such inevitable states of mind.

Practices associated with positive psychology that can work within the scope of traditional practice include interventions that can boost social and emotional well-being. Positive psychology has also led to explorations of how developing certain character strengths, positive emotions like awe, and other qualities, such as a sense of meaning and purpose in life, might contribute to positive life outcomes.

Positive psychology could be used best to explore the inner strength of a client. It produces an understanding of the client’s experiences, behaviors, thinking patterns, and traits that could help in improving everyday quality of life if used effectively. These include hopefulness, optimism, creativity, spirituality, and perseverance.

On the contrary, the traditional approach would allow more emphasis on describing the client’s challenges and aid in finding various techniques to solve the problem. 

Working from a Positive Psychology perspective, we would focus on a client’s mental well-being and the elements of mental health that could result in a comfortable and fulfilled life, for instance, worthy relationships and positive emotions. Working from a traditional psychology focus, we would work on the client’s emotional unrest, mental illness, symptoms, and causes.

The Strengths Brush Exercise
This exercise aims to have a client identify their strengths and then see if they could use them more frequently.  
Give the client a piece of paper, poster board, small paintbrushes, and a tin of watercolors.
Have them list their strengths in different colors

Then have them list other areas in these strengths that could be used.

Possibly the best use of both strategies is in noting one more difference.  Positive Psychology is focused on prevention.

Positive psychology emphasizes self-reliance in emotional control, confidence, and relationship wellness, which prevents problems. Traditional psychology concentrates on the problem after it has occurred and teaches coping mechanisms. Helping clients understand and utilize coping strategies is not without merit. People must also know how to create more good (positive experiences) in their lives.

GOOD prevents problems

GOOD improve relationships

GOOD generates mental and emotional strength and self-reliance

GOOD feels good

The field of positive psychology is often somewhat negative toward traditional psychology.  Even in the research and delivery of this course, it sounds derogatory to Traditional Psychology.  That is not the intention.  I don’t believe there is a good, bad, or worse approach.  Positive Psychology should complement, not replace, traditional psychology.  It aims to investigate how to improve the quality of living and make it more fulfilling rather than just trying to treat mental illnesses.  We can go further.  

Positive psychology goes hand in hand with traditional mental health interventions. The combination of both is essential for the successful outcome of any psychiatric disorder.

Life has ups and downs for all of us.  Our clients need every tool they can find to deal with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and more.  Why not start the tools they have inside themselves?  Instead of just a coping strategy, maybe we help them develop a proactive strategy.  



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  4. Hall, K. J. (2003). Carl Rogers. Retrieved March 2, 2003 from
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  6. Misiak, H., & Sexton, V. S. (1966). History of psychology: An overview. New York: Grune & Stratton.
  7. Misiak, H., & Sexton, V. S. (1973). Phenomenological, existential, and humanistic psychologies: A historical survey. New York: Grune & Stratton.
  8. Moss, D. (2001). The roots and genealogy of humanistic psychology. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, & J. F. Pierson (Eds.), The handbook of humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and practice (pp. 5-20). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  9. Rathunde, K. (2001). Toward a psychology of optimal human functioning: What positive psychology can learn from the “experiential turns” of James, Dewey, and Maslow. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41, 135-153.
  10. Seligman, M., & Peterson, C. (Eds.). (2004). Human strengths: A classification manual. New York: Oxford University Press.
  11. Shapiro, S. (2001). Illogical positivism. American Psychologist, 56

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