beach-couple-wander.jpgNo doubt it is a difficult time for many, as employers continue to cut jobs — 345,000 in the U.S. last month. Given the economic conditions, it is no surprise that many are experiencing depression, a clinical condition which can include symptoms such as sadness, loss of interest, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and suicidal thoughts.

The good news is that the field of positive psychology has much to offer those suffering from depression, whether the condition is related to the recession or to other factors.
Thanks to Robin and Greg for their comments on my first Mental Health Minute column last week. Their interest in positive psychology and how it relates to the recession moved me to continue the topic for the second week. . .  I would like to dedicate this column to and thank my wonderful father, who was a Humanistic psychologist, God, my awesome mom, grandma, grandpa, family, friends, my boyfriend Brad, and people at UNC Charlotte. (Photos courtesy of Sun Star)

In an empirical study by Nancy Sin (2009), positive psychology was shown to be effective at alleviating depression.*  Its various therapies can help those affected by the recession to see that there are some factors in their lives that are still within their control, according to an article in Positive Psychology News. This is referred to in psychology as shifting one’s focus of control from external to internal. Allowing people to regain their sense of control in the midst of the recession is crucial in helping them to build resilience during this difficult time.

This shift in mindset can be achieved in several ways. People may need to adjust their goals to smaller ones that are reachable in the current economic circumstances, such as getting a part-time job rather than a full-time job. People may also need to focus on other domains of their lives until they find a job, such as family, friends, and hobbies. The good news is that making simple changes in mindset like these can help to alleviate some of the depression and stress felt by those affected by unemployment and financial difficulties.

Another way positive psychology can help those who are suffering from depression, recession-related or not, is expressed in a Psychology Today article. Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology) described the importance of ‘learned optimism’ in preventing depression. This means ‘training your brain’ to focus on the good and joyful aspects of your life. Here are some of Seligman’s suggestions.

Training Your Brain Toward the Rosy Side of Life (MSN):

  • Identify your top five strengths and use these strengths in new ways each day (Use language that emphasizes strengths rather than troubles.)
  • Write three good things that happen every day before bedtime (The benefits of writing down three good things each day can last at least six months, according to one study by Christopher Peterson.)
  • Make a gratitude visit (discussed in more detail in the previous article in this series)

An MSN article makes the important point that positive psychology can be used with other forms of therapy to maximize treatment benefits for a given client. It can be used with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and similar therapies, which help clients to change negative thoughts to positive ones. In well-being therapy (developed by Dr. Giovanni Fava, M.D.), similar to CBT, the client journals about positive events and the negative thoughts and emotions that might interrupt those events and contribute to depression. Through CBT-like principles, the client is taught to think more positive thoughts. These include developing hope by using coping skills such as breaking problems into manageable parts, or taking the time to slowly and purposefully enjoy a routine activity during the day, such as eating or doing the dishes, which was particularly effective for a client being treated for depression featured in Psychology Today

Of course it is important to take each individual and his or her personality, diagnosis, and the severity of that diagnosis into account when deciding whether to use positive psychology on its own or whether to combine it with other approaches.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE:  If you are feeling depressed, the APA website offers a listing of therapists in every state. If you are feeling suicidal, please call the Suicide Hotline immediately at 1-800-SUICIDE. Please know that there are people out there who care and call now if you are feeling suicidal- there is help and hope available.

My Take:

holding-hands-mom-daugher.jpg Far from ignoring clients’ pain and telling them to simply “think positive,” positive psychology can be used on its own or in combination with other approaches to change a client’s entire way of thinking. This type of therapy combats the helplessness often present in depression by helping clients to regain a sense of control in their lives. Positive psychology teaches clients that they can break problems down into manageable steps, thus giving them a sense of mastery and empowerment. It encourages them to look at and reflect upon the positive moments in their day and on their feelings of gratitude. It teaches clients to be purposeful about even mundane tasks during their day, which increases pleasure and guards against the ‘robotic’ feeling of daily chores.

Especially in the recession, I believe that positive psychology can help people to focus on other domains of their lives, allowing them to get back in touch with deeply held values such as family. Also, positive psychology opens people to the possibility of finding another job that they like even better or discovering a new passion.

I hope this article has been informative and helpful. Comments and suggestions are welcomed.

If you are feeling depressed, the APA website offers a listing of therapists in every state. If you are feeling suicidal, please call the Suicide Hotline immediately at 1-800-SUICIDE. Please know that there are people out there who care and call now if you are feeling suicidal- there is help and hope available. You can get better. Please call now.

* 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, 467-487.


  1. Very informative article. I like that you include suggestions about training your brain. In my experience it is vital to put our brains into positive thought so that we guard against negative thinking which can lead to depression. We sometimes create our own reality; whether it is accurate or not.

  2. Dear Cristina: An excellent article! I very much enjoyed reading it. I feel that a column on positive psychology and humanistic psychology is especially appropriate for the Good News Network, and especially in the current difficult times.

    Additional thoughts — but feel free to disregard them if they are of no interest:

    I am very happy that you gave a link to a list of APA therapists for people who are feeling badly to contact. Are there comparable lists of specifically humanistic and positive psychologists that could be added to such links in the future?

    1. You could do an article on very specific steps the unemployed could follow each day to maximize their “positivity.” Your article points them in the correct direction, but many of them are very disoriented, and need very, very specific directions, as in: on arising, do X. At bedtime, here are practices x, y, z. Sort of sample “positivity and humanistic psychology menus,” as we see in some diet regimes.

    2. You might wish to do book reviews or even interviews with the authors of recent positive psychology and humanistic psychology books, with a slant towards the Good News Network focus.

    At one book/interview per week, that’s a lot of helpful columns! Links could be included to each author’s book and online videos.

    Also, you are probably familiar with the Positive Psychology News Daily emails — they contain the thinking of dozens of your peers who are in Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology programs, and they could certainly be interviewed also.

    An interview with the editor of that publication would be helpful in alerting many unemployed and/or depressed folks that a daily positive email (free of charge) could be useful to them.

    I vote for Sonja Lyubomirsky and her book, “The How of Happiness,” but you may have other preferences to start with.

    3. How might positive psychology and humanistic psychology help different generations? A “positive regime” for a baby boomer might be somewhat different than for a Gen X, who in turn will have a set of practices different from a Gen Y.

    Examples: a boomer might be keep a paper or computer-based journal; a Gen X might have a private or public blog journal; a Gen Y could “follow” a positive psychology figure on Twitter.

    I recognize that some Baby Boomers use Twitter, and some Millenials love paper journals, but you get the picture.

    4. I notice that you’re really interested in spirituality. Interviews with spiritual figures from various religious and cultural traditions — who have frequently written books on spirituality’s take on positive thinking — might be very interesting.

    I would vote for Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book “Building Your Sel-Image and the Self-Image of Others.” While Rabbi Pliskin is affiliated with Orthodox groups that are considerably more politically conservative than the typical reader of the Good News Network, his amazing book is a wonderful combination of ancient Jewish wisdom on happiness, along with positive psychology an humanistic psychology concepts.

    It’s possible he might be willing to be interviewed. I myself am politically liberal, but his book is not about politics.

    I would also not neglect the atheist/agnostic positive thinkers — I would bet some of them have positive thinking books, written from an atheist/agnostic angle.

    Now, needless to say, with spiritual figures, you may wish to Google them carefully, as some may have agendas that are not compatible at all with the Good News Network!

    Well, just some thoughts.


  3. Thank you to Greg and Robin for your wonderful comments:-) Greg, I am glad you found the article helpful- although depression is a complex issue, research has shown that the brain can sometimes be “re-trained” toward more positive thoughts.

    Robin, thank you so much for your suggestions! I really like your idea about specifically listing Humanistic and positive psychologists and may do this in a future article. I also like the idea of interviews with psychology figures. I am really interested in spirituality, and I think spirituality, giving more specific positive psychology suggestions for the unemployed, and how positive psychology can be applied to different generations are also wonderful ideas. I am thinking that this week I will probably do a piece on mental illness and its potential link to creativity, but I will definitely come back to some of the ideas you mentioned because I think they are great:-) Although there will be articles on many different topics throughout the course of the column, I like the idea of doing several more on positive and Humanistic psychology:-)

    Thank you again to both of you for your helpful comments on my articles, and I am glad you are enjoying the column- have a great week!!:-)

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