Positive Psychology, Person-Centered Therapy, and Happiness

Positive Psychology, Person-Centered Therapy, and Happiness

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Mental Health Minute: A New Column By Cristina Frick… This new Monday Morning weekly column will showcase recent news developments and topics in the area of mental health from a positive and inspirational perspective as well as provide information that can help those who may be struggling with mental health issues.

I would like to dedicate this column to my wonderful, kind, and supportive father, who was a Humanistic psychologist and with whom I was very close. He died when I was fifteen, but I know he is looking down on me from Heaven and is very proud.

Positive Psychology, Person-Centered Therapy, and Happiness

What better debut for a mental health column on the Good News Network website than information on the movement of positive psychology? After all, the Good News Network is undoubtedly part of this movement.

Positive psychology, developed by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, is an area of psychology which focuses on a client’s positive emotions, strengths, health, and how to be happier. It differs from some psychological approaches in that it focuses not on what is wrong, but on what is right. It focuses not on pathology and simply alleviating symptoms, but on increasing happiness and life satisfaction. It is based on the premise that, at heart, we are all basically healthy and happy and simply need to be encouraged to take personal responsibility for moving in the direction of our happiness (read more at The University of Pennsylvania website).

800px-iraqi_girl_smiles.jpg Positive psychology is an outgrowth of its predecessor, person-centered (also known as Humanistic) psychology. Psychologist Carl Rogers, as founding father of this type of psychology, taught therapists to have unconditional positive regard for the client and to value the client for his or her worth as a person regardless of choices he or she might have made or difficult emotions the client may be experiencing. Person-centered therapists also believe that all human beings have a self-actualizing tendency, or a natural tendency to reach their highest potential and an ability to create goals for therapy in order to self-actualize. (See the “The Carl Rogers Reader” below for citation).

Humanistic/person-centered therapy and positive psychology both have the goal of helping the client to be happy and a belief that human beings have a natural tendency to be happy and successful. Recent positive psychology news focuses on the new findings surrounding human beings and happiness. A BBC news article about the topic states that having meaning in one’s life, such as a belief in a higher power, praying, or a philosophy of life, as well as social relationships, marriage, and goals are all important to happiness.

Positive psychology researchers believe it is not money that makes us happy, but the depth of our relationships with family and friends. If, for example, we suddenly win the lottery, our happiness may increase for awhile, but we will become used to it and go back to our original level of happiness, a sort of biological “set point” of happiness that we are born with. Although we may remain close to this set point throughout much of our lives, it is possible to change this set point slightly so that we are somewhat happier, according to Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. Other research shows that we have quite a bit of control over this set point by intentionally choosing positive actions and thoughts.

How do we change this set point? 200px-smiling_girl.jpg

According to an article in Time Magazine about happiness, one way to change our set point is to keep a gratitude journal, writing down three things that went well each day. Another way to boost happiness includes performing acts of kindness or altruism. Martin Seligman has found in studies that one of the most effective ways of boosting one’s happiness is to make a “gratitude visit,” which involves writing a letter of gratitude to someone and then visiting them and reading the letter in person. Seligman also recommends visiting the website http://www.reflectivehappiness.com/ to find your strengths and new ways to use them, which can also substantially increase happiness.

Other ideas for boosting happiness include taking care of yourself, thanking a mentor, learning to forgive, developing coping strategies to deal with stress, and investing energy in friends and family. In addition, several self-report numerical scales have been developed to measure happiness, such as Diener’s Satisfaction with Life Scale and Daniel Kahneman’s Day Reconstruction Method, which requires keeping a detailed journal of activities done each day to see which bring the most and least happiness. (Read the Time Magazine article by clicking on the link at the bottom of The U. Penn Authentic Happiness website).

My Take

In Dr. McAnulty’s class at school we had a discussion about whether the positive psychology movement is helpful or hurtful to people’s mental health. One opinion that we discussed was the opinion that positive psychology tries to deny the inevitability of human suffering so that when people do naturally experience suffering, they feel that there is something “wrong” with them- in effect, the opinion that the positive psychology movement creates denial.

I disagree and feel that the positive psychology movement and person-centered therapy are wonderful for people’s mental health. I feel that when used correctly, they unconditionally accept both a person’s positive emotions and a person’s negative emotions, which certainly does not suggest that the negative emotions are being pushed away. Rather, the negative emotions are accepted with the understanding that the client has it well within his or her power to change those negative emotions to something more positive. I find this viewpoint very balanced, as it is both empowering and acknowledges human suffering at the same time. The key is that this type of therapy needs to be used correctly. 
ship-compass.jpg Is it ultimately helpful to measure one’s level of happiness on a regular basis? While I think daily recounting can help people gain insight into what brings them joy (it is similar to the very effective pleasure and mastery journal used to treat depression) and that other happiness-measuring questionnaires can be useful, I also think it is important to have a balance. It is certainly useful to record levels of happiness on some occassions and in some situations, but as a profession we must guard against a level of overanalysis that takes away the potential to spontaneously enjoy the moment and simply experience the feeling of happiness. It may in fact stress some clients out unnecessarily to focus on whether or not they are feeling happy every second of the day- it could lead to dwelling on one’s every passing emotion in an unhealthy way.

So how do we as psychologists determine if something such as a day reconstruction journal or a happiness measure is helpful or hurtful? I think it is crucial to know one’s client well. For example, would they have the patience or the discipline to fill out such a detailed journal? Do they tend to dwell on their emotions to an unhealthy degree, or do they have an analytical mind that allows them to take their emotions out and look at them, finding patterns that can help them to feel happier? What is their diagnosis? All of these questions are crucial to consider in knowing how to help lead a client to happiness.

 IMPORTANT MESSAGE: If you are feeling depressed or think you might be suffering from a mental illness, the APA website offers a listing of therapists in every state. If you are feeling suicidal, or if you know someone who is, (warning signs include marked changes in sleeping or eating patterns, profound sadness or expressions of hopelessness, giving away belongings/saying goodbye to others, and a sudden and inexplicable lifting of depression because the person may mistakenly feel they have found “a way out”), please get help. Call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is help and hope available. You can get better- suicide is not the answer for your pain. Please call now.  
Look for my column next Monday morning. Until then, I welcome your comments or questions below…  Also, if you have a different idea for the title of this column, please share it with me. I hope you enjoyed the first article in this series.

Citation for “The Carl Rogers Reader:”  H. Kirschenbaum and V.L. Henderson (Eds.). The Carl Rogers Reader. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

About Me

I am currently in the process of completing my Master’s degree in Clinical and Community Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I have completed all my coursework except for my thesis and plan on graduating in December. 

My thesis (if approved), advised by Dr. Rick McAnulty, would explore whether there is a link between obsessional personality traits and creativity. I hypothesize that the greater the level of obsessionality, the greater the level of creativity, but it is also possible that creativity could be lower with increased obsessionality or that there is no correlation between the two at all. I look forward to beginning this project in the fall. I consider myself to be person-centered in orientation and would eventually like to open my own clinical practice.

In addition to psychology, I love going to church and have always loved writing and editing. I wrote stories and journaled when I was younger and began writing tutoring in college at Otterbein College in Ohio. I found Geri’s site the summer after my junior year when the idea for a Good News Network popped into my head. I looked online to see if anyone had the same idea. Geri has happily worked with me through two summer internships and accepted my volunteer work as a writer and copy editor for the site. I am thrilled now to be the author of this new weekly column.


I would also like to dedicate this to my grandma, Nan, Theresa, and Venny, who passed away but who I know are watching over me from Heaven. I would also like to thank God and Geri for this amazing opportunity and would like to thank my kind, wonderful, and supportive mom with whom I am very close, my amazing grandpa with whom I am very close and who has been like a second dad to me since my dad died, my aunt, uncle, half-brothers and their families, cousins and their wives, family, friends, Alison, Graham, Ian, Molly, Laura, my boyfriend Brad, and all my friends (Mike, Amanda, Jana, Katrina, and Jeff) and professors at UNC Charlotte for their immeasurable support- you guys  are all amazing!



  1. Dear Cristina:

    Looking forward to more of this column! Three suggestions:

    (1) would be interesting to hear your take on what positive psychology’s findings have to offer the unemployed — many are very depressed;

    (2) would be interesting to hear your perception of what positive psychology’s findings have to offer the mentally ill, from the depressed to more serious illnesses — at least one study is being done; and

    (3) suggest that we have to be careful to differentiate clearly between humanistic psychology and positive psychology — I know you tried — but my perception is that the two movements are somewhat different.

    This is discussed by Professor Seligman, the leader in positive psychology, on p. 275 of his book “Authentic Happiness,” in a very long essay in footnote 29, in which he pays warm tribute to humanistic psychology’s founders, Maslow and Rogers, and the fact that some of their ideas were pioneering forerunners of positive psychology.

    He goes on to state that the reason humanistic psychology never achieved full acceptance among psychologists after the deaths of Rogers and Maslow was because the field was never developed by rigorous scientific studies to support its theories, so many psychologists refused to accept its premises.

    He believes that humanistic psychology tended to rely too much on, among other things, individual case histories, which was not accepted by the majority of psychologists. He quotes a letter from one of Maslow’s assistants to Seligman about this problem.

    He believes that positive psychology has done the rigorous scientific studies of its theories necessary to gain the acceptance of the majority of other psychologists.

    I personally believe that humanistic psychology has been enormously productive and has produced many original insights, but as someone who has studied both humanistic psychology and positive psychology, my experience has been that the two approaches have a very different “feel” and rely on different texts, refer to different leaders, have separate professional asociations, and I see almost no references in positive psychology texts to humanistic psychology, except once in a while to Maslow’s theories.

    Robin Margolis

  2. Robin,

    A note about your point #3 above, I did edit some of Ms. Frick’s column for length, and that includes cutting a bit of detail describing what defines the Humanistic/person-centered therapy.

    I hope it wasn’t something necessary for clarity.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment! ~geri

  3. Hi Greg and Robin:-) I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful comments. Greg, I’m really glad you have been inspired to look into positive psychology and that you are enjoying the column. Robin, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments- I will be sure to respond to each individual comment tomorrow:-) And don’t worry Geri, you didn’t edit out anything necessary for clarity:-) Thank you everyone for making this opportunity possible, and it means a lot that you are enjoying it!

  4. Hi Robin,

    Thank you again for your thoughtful comments- and Greg as well!:-) Robin, I’d like to take this opportunity to respond to each part of your comment individually:

    1. This is a great question- I imagine that positive psychologists would say that unemployment due to the recession is an opportunity for people to re-connect with their deepest values- it might give them the opportunity to spend more time with their friends and family or allow them to discover a new passion and find a job they enjoy even more.

    2. I just found a great article on PsycINFO addressing this question and plan on reading it thoroughly in the next several days so that I can respond fully to your question. In the meantime, if you’d like to check it out, the citation is:

    Sin, N.L. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive

    psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65,


    3. I am interested in reading more about the distinction between positive psychology and Humanistic psychology and would like to do so in the next several days so that I can more fully respond to your comment:-) I respect both movements immensely, although I always thought it was unfortunate that Humanistic psychology often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves because it tends to rely more on case studies and qualitative research (a type of research I really respect and think has great value). I really appreciate that you too recognize the important contributions of both types of therapy:-) Have a great day everyone- I really appreciate that Geri is giving me this opportunity (thanks Geri!), and it means a lot that you are enjoying the column:-) Also, congrats on “Rolling Stone,” Geri!:-)

  5. Hi Robin and Greg,

    I wanted to let you know that due to the interest in the topic of positive psychology, I have decided to write more about the topic in my column for tomorrow. Robin, I thought your ideas were excellent and will address some of the issues you mentioned in tomorrow’s column. Thank you both for your feedback:-)


    I wanted to further address two of your comments:

    1. I unfortunately have had trouble dowloading the above article on my computer (Sin, 2009). However, I was able to read the abstract, and it appears that her meta-analytic study found that positive psychology interventions are effective in reducing depressive symptoms. The status of the depression was related to the effectiveness of positive psychology treatments. Positive psychology interventions worked especially well with older depressed clients, when given individually, and when given over a longer span of time.


    Sin, N.L. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive

    psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65,


    I will be looking more at the above issues for tomorrow’s column, so I may have some additional information to share in my column.

    2. Since the last time I commented, I have read an article on “Psychology Today’s” website that provided some quotes from Dr. Seligman about the differences between positive psychology and Humanistic/person-centered therapy. After reading these quotes, I do agree that Dr. Seligman may be doing more empirical research than some of the Humanistic therapists did. Thank you for opening my eyes to this difference between the two schools:-) However, I still feel that positive psychology drew many of its concepts from Humanistic therapy, but this is my opinion, and I appreciated the opportunity to read and learn more about this issue. If you would like to read the article I am referring to, you can find it here:

    The article is by Allison Stein Wellner and David Adox and is very well-written.

    I would like to add that I do not agree with Dr. Seligman’s comment in this piece that Rogers and Maslow were “hostile” towards empirical research. They may not have agreed with all of its principles, but I do not feel that they were hostile.

    Again, thank you for opening my eyes to some of these issues and prompting me to read more about this topic, I really appreciate it:-)

  6. Dear Cristina: Thank you for your patience with my questions! I enjoyed reading your replies.

    Just a quick thought — I believe that Professor Seligman (perhaps I misread him) stated that Maslow and Rogers were suppportive of empirical research, but their successors in humanistic psychology were much less friendly to it.

    I think he is actually an admirer of Maslow and Rogers, though he has disagreements with their successors.

    I believe that you are correct that positive psychology borrowed some of its concepts from humanistic psychology. Much of the differences between the two groups appear to be in what topics they emphasize, and their approach to them.

    Looking forward to reading your next valuable column, and glad that my thoughts were of interest to you!