The Pursuit of Happiness: Cultivating the Positive

This article is the second in a series in which we explore happiness and positive psychotherapeutic interventions.

by Catriona Rogers

At the end of this month in Sydney, 3,500 people are expected to attend the Happiness & Its Causes Conference. Last year 2,500 people attended the conference in Brisbane. This increase clearly indicates a huge interest in this topic. It also marks a shift for the field of psychotherapy.

For more than a century, clients have gone to psychotherapists to discuss their problems and deficits, relying on the largely untested assumption that discussing deficits is curative. By focusing on deficits, psychotherapy has made huge strides. The focus on psychopathology has effectively eased symptoms, but it has not necessarily enhanced happiness.

The future trend for psychotherapy is to focus on complete mental health, which is not merely the absence of psychopathology. This is a complete state comprising the absence of psychopathology and the presence of happiness and well-being.

Most clients who come for psychotherapy seek happiness, yet this goal is rarely addressed directly. Happiness is not achieved by the mere removal of unhappiness, and we do not find it by focusing only on negative emotions and deficits in order to remove them.

Unfortunately, millennia of programming as hunters has primed our primitive brain to pay more attention to negatives than to positives. To survive, we needed to be alert to the dangers of predators about to attack, rather than focusing on the pleasure of the berries we wanted to pluck. Our brain is programmed to respond like Velcro to negative experiences and like Teflon to positive. So to create positives — happiness — in our lives we need to relearn and to reprogram our brains to focus on that.

A colleague, an Appreciative Inquiry consultant, was asked to investigate the negative topic of sexual harassment in an organization. She chose instead to focus on the desired positive outcome — positive gender relations. While sexual harassment did not immediately disappear, by focusing energy on the positive, that quality began to grow. Within two years the organization was voted the best organization to work for. What you put energy into and focus on grows! It makes sense, therefore, in psychotherapy to explicitly explore and pursue happiness itself, if that is our goal.

Psychotherapy then becomes a place where not only troubles are discussed; it is also a place where positive emotions are cultivated, where new behaviours conducive to happiness are learned, and where gratitude and optimism are fostered. Positive interventions, essentially, are a re-education of attention and memory. Mindfulness practices are a major help in both these areas. Distressing or unpleasant or negative experiences are not denied; clients are encouraged to use their strengths to understand and address their weaknesses.

There is compelling evidence that experiencing more positive emotions enhances relationships, work productivity, and physical health, and relieves depression. It broadens mindsets and facilitates flourishing. Individuals who experience more positive emotions and optimism tend to live longer.

The function of psychotherapy is not only to help clients manage emotional crises and alleviate social and emotional malaise, it is also to restore and nurture character strengths such as courage, kindness, modesty, and perseverance, and to develop emotional and social intelligence. These positive interventions offer an opportunity for diagnosable individuals to overcome challenges by working on strengths and deficits, and for the non-diagnosable to flourish.

Reference:

Rashid, T. (2009). Positive interventions in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology 65(5)461-466.

Catriona Rogers has been working with clients' strengths and using Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Psychology interventions for many years. She is collaborating with an IMI colleague to offer mindfulness trainings through IMI. She will be attending the Happiness & Its Causes Conference in Sydney and hopes to share the latest findings with IMI clients on her return.