In the late 1990s a new branch of psychology, positive psychology, was developed. Its founder, Martin Seligman, continues to promote the use of scientific principles in order to study optimal functioning and wellbeing. Seligman is by no means the first person to advocate the more positive aspects of psychology but perhaps a combination of timing, focus, communication and leadership have placed him firmly in the driver’s seat.
One of the distinctive features of positive psychology is its emphasis on flourishing. In terms of a condition like depression too much emphasis has always been placed upon the absence of symptoms rather than gaining high emotional wellbeing. This leaves many people in a state of emotional inertia - free from symptoms but languishing in a state of emptiness. But when emphasis is placed upon building positive states a corresponding lessening of negatives is seen.
A defining difference of positive psychology is its emphasis on health rather than disease. So while a disease model relates to issues such as cures, pain avoidance and a focus on weaknesses and deficiencies, a health model is more about tapping into strengths, building resilience, finding new strengths, happiness and enjoyment. Of course we are much more familiar with the disease model where the goal is to achieve relief or an absence of symptoms. It does not see its role beyond getting the person back to neutral. Depression sufferers know that an absence of symptoms is different to the presence of contentment and happiness.
This leads us to a point about treatments. The disease model is geared to provide relief. It’s a strong model and can be highly effective. Relief from depression in this context will largely be via antidepressant medication and this is where things get a bit shaky. Although antidepressants can help they are by no means effective for everyone and cannot, in themselves, address possible issues in the cause of depression. This is just a start point. In subsequent posts I’ll be examining why and how contributions from positive psychology differ from the more traditional approaches and the benefits to be had as a result.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.