Sometime in the last century I was stuck in the Geneva airport waiting for a snowstorm to pass so that I could catch my long-delayed flight home. My mood had turned as bleak as the sky. This was no surprise. My default position seemed to hover somewhere just above depression. I fished Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism out of my bag. Within a few pages, the seeds of my transformation were sown, and I had found a path that would lead to authentic happiness. A decade later I was a member of the first European MAPP class. When Martin Seligman came to speak to us, I asked him to sign my much-thumbed copy of his book, wondering if he ever still got that wet weather in the soul?What Does Positive Psychology Have to Do with Depression?
My own experience was more akin to tropical storms in the soul with highs followed by lows. There is a certain irony in being a positive psychologist with a history of depression, but as the saying goes, “We teach best what we most need to learn.” Personal experience tells me that positive psychology works as a treatment for depression.
One of the most dispiriting things about having a visit from the black dog (a frequent symbol for depression) is the narrow range of treatment available, which usually boils down to anti-depressant medication or one of the talking therapies. Positive psychology has much to offer at the milder end of the depression spectrum as drug-free, evidence-based self-help which avoids constantly picking over emotional scabs.
Positive psychology forged its reputation as the study of happiness with a goal of increasing the tonnage of happiness on the planet. Less attention has been paid to the role that positive psychology could play in dealing with the shadow side of life, in reducing the global burden of depression.As the science moves into its second decade there is potential for the interventions to be applied, not only as protection against depression but also as therapy. An article by Seligman and colleagues as well as a meta-analysis by Sin and Lyubomirsky confirm that positive psychology interventions (PPI) are efficacious in alleviating depression just as they are in enhancing happiness and well-being.
One of the reasons why PPIs work may be a simple case of “What you focus on grows.” If you focus on activities that increase your happiness, the likelihood is that your happiness will grow. If you focus on your depression as therapy often does, the chances are that you might get to know the black dog more than you care to…!
My First PPI
What worked well for me first off was learning to savor as a way to build positivity. Depression is almost a form of reverse savoring, where awareness of the negative is intensified into an experience of the bleakness, ashes, and utter greyness of life.I remember once being at a spa hotel as a treat with a group of girlfriends. Despite all the pampering and fun, my mood was low. I took myself outside and sat staring at a rosebush. As an experiment I put my full attention onto the roses, noticing their beauty, enjoying their delightful fragrance, and marveling at this wonder of nature. Lo and behold my mood lifted!
This was a turning point. Pretty soon I was starting to savor my way through daily life: the smell of good food on the stove, a crisp spring day, buds on a tree, a cheery conversation with a neighbor. I’d even go to department stores to sniff my way through all their lovely soaps and perfumes! This approach of engaging all the senses drew me into savoring. I began to feast on life’s good stuff and by doing so was able to distract the analytical side of me which slipped so easily into ruminating over all that was bad.
Coaching for Depression
In my coaching practice I’ve found that increasing positivity is key to the positive psychology approach to depression recovery, no surprise when you consider that low positivity is one of the main symptoms of depression. Here is one area in which positive psychology has a strong contribution to make to depression treatment.
Applying optimistic explanatory style helps to puncture the pessimistic beliefs that take on monstrous proportions and can drag you into the downwards spiral.I also find that strengths have a role to play, acting like vitamins providing a boost of energy to counteract the lethargy of depression. The black dog is often a reflection of something not working well in life. Your strengths can help you to move forward by providing a clue to a new, positive direction that lends meaning and purpose to life and helps to rebuild from low states.
Learned Optimism was one of the first positive psychology books I ever read and it continues to be on the book list that I give to clients. Under Martin Seligman’s signature in my copy, the author has added two words, “dry weather.”
Editor’s note: Miriam has just published a book, Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression; Self-help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength and Well-being, that explores how positive psychology can be used as self-help for depression. We will be publishing a review within a week or two.
Akhtar, M. (2012). Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression: Self-Help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength and Well-Being. London: Watkins.
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A.C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61, 774-788.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467-487