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Mental Health – Let’s Focus on the Good Stuff

As you know, Positive psychology is also known as the study of happiness, but traditionally psychology has focused on what is wrong, on mental illness or other psychological problems and how to treat them, rather than mental health and wellbeing. Which begs the question, why is that?

Several years ago I suffered a period of stress and mild depression following the death of my mother and end of my first marriage – despite it being my decision to end it – and when I sought some help I found that everything revolved around what was wrong. My GP was brilliant and helped me through that time without resorting to drug therapy, but everything felt like we were focussing on what was wrong, why I felt so down and anxious and finding out what the root cause was. I guess we needed to talk through these things, but ultimately I wonder if I'd have felt better and recovered more quickly – and thoroughly – had we focussed more on the positives in my life, and there were lots, I'd just lost sight of them.

Mental health professionals spend their days dealing with psychological ills that can cripple a person. In the past, they paid little attention to positive emotions and personal strengths such as happiness and optimism, love and resilience. In fact, one pioneer of positive psychology, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, noted that psychiatric texts tend to focus solely on mental illness rather than health.

Quoted in Harvard Magazine, Vaillant points out that one leading psychiatric textbook, the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, "has 500,000 lines of text [with] thousands of lines on anxiety and depression, and hundreds of lines on terror, shame, guilt, anger, and fear. But there are only five lines on hope, one line on joy, and not a single line on compassion, forgiveness, or love."

Prof Martin Seligman, the co-founder of positive psychology, said of his years working as a clinical psychologist that when he was successful in treating people with depression, he didn't generally leave them feeling happy, he left them feeling empty. Getting to the point where you're no longer depressed is not the same as gaining the presence of happiness and well-being.

In fact, to counter the traditional focus, Seligman and another psychologist, Christopher Peterson, created a book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, which they devised as an alternative to the traditionally focussed texts. Their book identifies 24 character strengths, like curiosity and zest, organized according to six overarching virtues, such as wisdom and courage and this is being used more widely.

In recent years experts have begun to focus attention on the helpful and healthy traits of the mind, rather than its problems. Positive psychology was officially launched in 1998 and since then it's led to new insights into the way we think and live and how to nurture our most beneficial qualities. We're all capable of good feelings - we just need to learn how to find them within ourselves.

Positive psychology has tested a number of interventions that build positivity and well-being. One of the best results of these evidence-based techniques is that they also reduce depression. Put simply, focus on happiness and your happiness level will rise. Studies have shown that positive psychology techniques such as savouring the good things in your life, practising optimistic thinking and developing your strengths, alleviate depression and improve mental health.

These were found to be particularly useful as self-help tools for those, like me, who were at the milder end of depression where in spite of the bleakness, you're able to carry on with your routine. This is why I truly believe that it would have been the best approach for me all those years ago, I just needed to remember how much good there was in my new life and it was just the beginning.

So I guess we all need to stop focussing on what's wrong and start working with what's right, then the only way is up, and happy.

Well being


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