15 November 2013

Shifting to look at ‘what is right’ instead of ‘what is wrong’

Sometimes when we think of counselling or therapy, we think of Sigmund Freud, one of the founders of psychotherapy. One of Freud’s original beliefs is that something is wrong with a person when they come to therapy, and they need to figure out what is wrong and fix it.

This perspective continues to this day, that a counsellor needs to assist in helping a client fix things. However, there is a new approach that asks a different question. That is, what is right? What are your strengths? And how can we build upon those strengths?

This is often called positive psychology. Positive psychology has five beliefs, or pillars, that hold up and point to well-being.

First is positive emotions. Positive emotions are those feelings, or things that are a resource to and in your life. Then there are negative emotions, those feelings and things that are a load or burden to life. The goal is to have more positive emotions, or resources, than negative emotions or load.

Second is engagement. Being engaged in your community, church group, school, or reading club is correlated with being healthier and cheerful and with an increase in alertness. I can remember times as a scout that I did not want to go out and volunteer, but always after completing the service I felt great.

Third is positive relationships. Often, depending on upbringing, it is difficult to tell actual positive relationships from negative ones. John Gottman, the guy who can predict if a marriage will be successful or not, has established a litmus-type test to see if a relationship is positive or not. He found that couples that said at least five positive things to each other for every one negative comment had a positive relationship. That just goes to show how sharp a negative comment is, that it takes five positives to overcome it.

Fourth is meaning. Kelly McConigal in her TED talk Make stress your friend said this about meaning: “Chasing meaning is better for your health, then trying to avoid discomfort…. Go after what creates meaning in your life, and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

Fifth is positive accomplishment. These can be large or small, such as putting the load of laundry that has been washed three times in the dryer, to finishing a class. When our self-efficacy, the ‘belief that we can succeed’ part of our self-esteem, is high we are more likely to set goals, expend effort to reach them, persist at attaining them, and bounce back when the goal needs adjusting.

An example of applying positive psychology would be like this. Think of a time when you overcame a great challenge in your life and succeeded. Then think of which strengths you used to succeed. Then consider how those strengths can be used with a challenge you are facing now.

And that’s how we can begin to start looking at what is right with us, and building on that, instead of focusing on the negative.