Positive Psychological Interventions (also known as Positive Psychology Interventions-PPIs) are theoretically-grounded and empirically-validated instructions, activities, and recommendations that are designed to enhance wellbeing (Lomas, Hefferon & Ivtzan, 2014).
Moreover, PPIs focus on using positive emotions and strengths to achieve and/or boost wellbeing.
Numerous research projects have shown that concentration on positive characters and strengths are linked to health benefits and the wellbeing of people in various domains of their lives (Kobau, et al., 2011).
Kobau and her colleagues (2011) asserted that working on positive emotions (and character strengths) could be considered as an independent technique for improving (or restoring) our mental health and wellbeing. They point to the fact that the strength-based (asset-based, or abundance-based) approaches of positive psychology offer new opportunities for promoting mental health, and boosting psychological resilience.
Another important aspect of PPIs is the idea that we can work with our mind (or on the mind) to make our lives better and enhance our wellbeing (Lomas, Hefferon & Ivtzan, 2014). An example is the concept of dealing with pain in a non-reactive way which was the basis of the first mindfulness intervention (MBSR) that was designed for people with chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, 1982).
Scope and Flexibility of Positive Psychology Interventions
Before positive psychology (1998), there were hardly any scientifically scrutinised therapies for increasing happiness (both in a hedonic and eudaemonic sense) as a vital health-giving concept. But after the turn of the century, research in the field of positive psychology gave rise to a flurry of empirically validated PPIs that were designed to enhance personal qualities, as well as promoting recovery and relief from pain, discomfort, and agony (Parks & Schueller, 2014).
In 2005, Duckworth, Steen, and Seligman declared the existence of at least a hundred positive psychological interventions. Later, Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of fifty-one PPIs that were studied scientifically.
Nowadays, there are hundreds of positive psychological interventions available to practitioners and therapists.
PPIs can easily be adopted by therapists and practitioners working in other areas of psychology, and by professionals such as coaches, counsellors, and social-workers to enhance personal qualities and strengths of their clients. Increasingly, PPIs are also used in clinical settings with remarkable results. Examples can be found in using PPIs as assistive interventions in helping to treat mental illnesses (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). They can also be used by people who prefer to follow scientifically-based self-help recommendations.
In the next section, you find a list of most frequently used groups of PPIs that practitioners can choose (based on suitability assessment) for their clients.
Established Groups of PPIs
These include instructions for increasing gratitude such as; grateful self-reflection, counting blessings, and gratitude visits. Gratitude interventions have consistently produced psychological benefits that appeared to last for several months (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).
Forgiveness is useful for healing minds and bringing reconciliation to couples, families, groups, and communities. It helps people broaden their scope and build new resources and promote flourishing. Forgiveness benefits physical health (Worthington, Witvliet, Pietrini, & Miller, 2007), mental health (Toussaint & Webb, 2005), relationships (Fehr, Gelfand, & Nag, 2010), and spirituality (for a meta-analysis, see Davis, Worthington, & Hook, 2013).
Finding happiness in life is not always easy. Nonetheless, scientists have just recently started to develop strategies that enhance people’s ability to savour their positive experiences through exploring the memories of their past positive experiences; by valuing their ongoing positive experiences; or by anticipating future positive events. (Bryant, 2003; Bryant & Veroff, 2007; Bryant, Ericksen, & DeHoek, 2008; Bryant, Chadwick, & Kluwe, 2011).
A strengths approach starts with discovering and acknowledging our mental, physical, and social resources. It also uses the fact that building and using our strengths produce wellbeing, success, and personal growth. These interventions create confidence, optimism, and hope. (Frey, Jonas, & Greitemeyer, 2003; Lopez & Louis, 2009; Park & Peterson, 2009; Biswas-Diener, 2010; Linley & Burns, 2010).
Meaning Oriented Interventions
Meaning in life has been described as a sense of coherence; an understanding of our relationships; the pursuit of valuable goals; and a general sense of being appreciably useful. Meaning and purpose in life are associated with psychological and spiritual strengths and wellbeing, and are known to be facilitators of resilience and growth. They are also linked to professional success and life satisfaction. (Thompson, Coker, Krause & Henry, 2003; Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan & Lorentz, 2008; Steger, Oishi & Kashdan, 2009; Wong, 2010, 2012).
Empathy Related Interventions
Regardless of how we define empathy, it involves an internal response to what we see or learn, happen to another person, and it generates understanding and compassion. In that sense, empathy is a psychological process that at least temporarily unites self and others, and as such can be considered one of the most positive emotions that we have. Empathy related interventions aim to enhances our understanding of other people which in turn generates compassion, forgiveness, and acts of kindness. (Staub, Pearlman, Gubin & Hagengimana, 2005; Bunn & Terpstra, 2009; Soble, Spanierman & Liao, 2011; Reilly, Trial, Piver & Schaff, 2012).
Creativity is defined as the formation of new and useful ideas and/or the production of original artefacts. It has been one of the main phenomenon responsible for the advancement of our technology and culture. Positive psychology is interested in creativity as it is related to the process of human flourishing, and the factors that help individuals to thrive and live a better life.
Of course, most feats of creativity do not lead to fame and fortune, but it makes the life of the person easier and more rewarding.
They also boost the resilience of the individual, and bring more choice and flexibility to their lives. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Carruthers, 2002; de Bono, 2008; Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009).
Being patient and calmly wait for better opportunities, in times of adversity and suffering is a character strength which leads to resilience and grit. Change, personal growth, and recovery from illness or adversities often take longer than people expect. People withdraw early or fail to complete a therapy because they cannot wait longer to see the results. Patience interventions are often used as an adjunct or add-on to traditional therapies to help people stay with their treatment and successfully finish their therapy. (Kunz, 2002; Tangney, et al., 2004; Barrett, et al., 2008; Schnitker, 2010).
Although courage has been praised for centuries, but like many of the virtues studied by positive psychology, it has not received adequate empirical attention.
Courage is “a) a wilful, intentional act; b) executed after mindful deliberation; c) fraught with substantial risk to the actor; d) primarily motivated to bring about a noble, good, or worthy end; and e) acted despite the presence of the emotion of fear” (Rate, Clarke, Lindsay, & Sternberg, 2007, p. 95).
Courage can enable people to do great things, but it can also be misapplied to allow people make terrible mistakes. So, any courage interventions must be applied with care and caution to avoid unnecessary risks. (Finfgeld, 1999; Lopez, O’Byrne & Petersen, 2003; Woodard & Pury, 2007; Hannah, Lopez et al., 2010; Pury & Starkey, 2010; Sweeney & Lester, 2010).
Research supports that humour is trainable and that it leads to a number of desirable outcomes (e.g. increased positive emotions, decreased negative emotions, and increased coping ability). In addition to improving wellbeing, humour could positively affect people’s interactions with others, prolong their positive moods, and boost their popularity.
Those who score high on the sense of humour, often show less negative emotion in stressful situations; enjoy greater wellbeing; and experience lower levels of depression and anxiety. (Martin, et al., 2003; Ruch, Proyer & Weber, 2010; McGhee, 2010; Ruch, Rodden & Proyer, 2011; Ruch, 2012; Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013).
Engagement and Flow Interventions
Flow is a peak mental state of full immersion in an activity, characterised by a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow includes a perception of being in control, loss of self-consciousness, and a distorted awareness of time. Flow is one of the fundamental concepts of positive psychology which is strongly linked to happiness, wellbeing, and life-satisfaction.
Often interventions designed to increase flow and engagement provide a sense of control; a clear goal for the activity; a challenge which demands variety of skills and require focused concentration; and, interactivity, or feedback to the individual. (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuuhamdeh & Nakamura, 2005; Wilhelm, 2008; Shernoff & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009; Froh, et al., 2010).
Mindfulness and Meditative Interventions
Nowadays, expecting mothers participate in pregnancy meditation, stressed employees meditate to relax, athletes meditate to improve their performance, and people undergoing therapy meditate to improve their health (Ivtzan, 2015). The main reason is a body of scientific research that shows the effectiveness of meditative interventions, and their positive effect on the cardiovascular system, pain relief, decreasing anxiety and stress, and many more. Mindfulness interventions have been used both in clinical and non-clinical settings to promote wellbeing. (Zindel et al., 2002; Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Shapiro et al., 2006; Walach et al., 2007; Shonin et al., 2013)
There are many more PPIs that are introduced under the categories of; Wisdom Interventions, Resilience Interventions, Life Satisfaction Interventions, and so on.
For positive psychology practitioners, it is important to know how the interventions work; how their efficiency can be increased; and who can, or cannot safely benefit from them. It is also essential that practitioners take necessary precautions to safeguard the wellbeing of their clients.
Identifying the most suitable PPI for different individuals and their unique situations have always been a challenge for positive psychology researchers and practitioners. Parks & Schueller (2014) introduced the notion of “personalised positive psychology programme” that together with other studies in this area provided a better understanding of how PPIs can be chosen, or adapted to efficiently suit people who hope to benefit from them. Of course, the final judgement about the effectiveness of a PPI rests with its genuine impact on the user, and the fact that it should make them feel better about themselves and their lives. A suitability assessment can include;
To get maximum positive impact and efficiency, PPIs should match the clients’ idiosyncratic qualities. In other words, practitioners must consider their clients’ personality, gender, age, and other personal and social variations to ensure there is a reasonable person-activity fit (or person-PPI fit) before recommending a PPI. Some PPIs can be altered slightly to achieve person-activity fitness, while others remain unsuitable for particular groups of people or in specific circumstances (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010; Schueller, 2011, 2012; Biswas-Diener, Kashdan & Minhas, 2011).
For example; research provide support for the idea that introverts and extroverts benefit differently from various PPIs (Schueller, 2012). In the same way, men and women respond to PPIs in different ways (Thompson, Peura & Gayton, 2015). And, people have their own idiosyncrasies, for instance; Chris Peterson, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, reportedly could not write a gratitude letter despite frequently asking his students to do so (Lyubomirsky, 2008).
People accept more willingly the activities (PPIs) that suit their personality, strengths, and their life circumstances. It is also more likely that they continue engaging with such PPIs for longer, and do them more thoroughly (Parks, et al., 2012).
Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000) suggested that some character strengths and virtues are universal and span cultural boundaries. However, positive psychology scholars have always pointed to the importance of understanding variations of attitudes, customs, and traditions within different cultures (Chang & Banks, 2007; Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008; Pedrotti, Edwards & Lopez, 2009; Uchida & Kitayama, 2009; Leu, Wang & Koo, 2011).
Considering cultural peculiarities into account plays a significant role in choosing or developing the most suitable PPI, and achieving the best results. Because, different cultural groups, value different traits, as the most important quality (Lu & Gilmour, 2004).
In addition, professional practitioners also include other variations such as gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, physical abilities, and socioeconomic status as part of their assessment and formulation stage of their practice (Hays, 2008). After all, each of these facets contribution to how a person views the world, feels about his/her place in it, and reacts to what happens.
The enthusiasm to help people flourish, become happier, and live a better life must be balanced with careful consideration of the best strategies that can be employed. To achieve this balance, positive psychology researchers and practitioners need to adopt a strict scientific and ethical framework.
Crucial principles in choosing, developing, and using PPIs include: grounding the practice in reliable science; considering rigorous ethical standards; and respecting clients’ wishes, welfare, and rights (Gillon, 1994; World Medical Association, 2000; Chwalisz, 2003; Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009; Wood & Tarrier, 2010; Layous, et al., 2011; Vella-Brodrick, 2011).
In that respect, there are some questions that positive psychology practitioners must ask themselves to ensure their work is of the highest standards (Parks & Schueller, 2014).
- Is there a scientifically sound research behind what I am suggesting? And, have I checked the evidence before recommending this PPI?
- Am I up to date with the latest findings on this PPI? Or, do I need more training in this particular intervention, method, or theory?
- Is the work I am doing valuable to the client, and is it totally safe?
- What steps am I taking to assess the outcomes of this intervention (i.e. what the client could achieve as a result of engaging with this PPI)?
- What work in positive psychology or in other relevant disciplines is at the forefront, and what can I learn from it?
A Take Home Message
You might have noticed that I have avoided to categorise PPIs according to the illnesses they might help to relieve, even when they are used in a clinical setting. I have also avoided to classify them based on the circumstances in which they could be use, such as coaching, family therapy, or rehabilitation of ex-offenders, etc.
But, I have mentioned their broad scope and flexibility, and the fact that they often work on the mind to create the desired changes. That’s because PPIs can be adapted by clinicians, therapists and other practitioners such as coaches, counsellors, and social-workers to suit their particular case and the outcome they seek.
Here, I would like to caution against the idea that PPIs are effective for everyone regardless of their circumstances or personal peculiarities. I know of many cases where people copy and use a PPI from the Internet (e.g. keeping gratitude journal, or a mindfulness exercise), and soon become disappointed with the result or lack of it. They then complain, and call the PPI a nonsense fad. However, those who manage to use them through a trained professional, after a suitability check and an appropriate modification, always enjoy doing them, and positively benefit from the PPI they used.
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Author: Reza Zolfagharifard