Integrating Positive Psychology into Counseling Why and (When Appropriate) How

Article excerpt

In recent years, the study of human strengths (termed positive psychology) has enjoyed wider popularity. Positive psychology includes, among other topics, the study of subjective experiences (e.g., well-being, satisfaction, flow, happiness), individual traits or dispositions (e.g., capacity for love, courage, hope, gratitude, patience, forgiveness, creativity, spirituality, wisdom, humor), and interpersonal/group level virtues (e.g., civility, sense of community, altruism; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Several books (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003; Lopez & Synder, 2003; Walsh, 2003) and special journal issues (e.g., The American Psychologist, 55[1]; Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 19[1]) have been dedicated to positive psychology research and theory. In these volumes, authors identify and define human strengths and virtues; examine means of assessing these constructs; and, to a lesser degree, describe efficacy studies of strength-enhancing interventions. However, relatively little attention has been given to developing rationales or strategies that link positive psychology to the daily work of counselors--work that often involves the relief of acute suffering in a time-limited manner.

Counseling psychology was founded with a primary orientation toward problems of adjustment and development (vs. psychopathology), a focus on strengths and assets, and an emphasis on relatively brief interventions (Gelso & Fretz, 2001; Lopez, Edwards, Magyar-Moe, Pedrotti, & Ryder, 2003). However, applying positive psychology theory, research, and interventions to counseling practice is easier said than done. Increasing numbers of counselors are working in health care settings (really illness treatment settings), such as hospitals, community mental health centers, college counseling centers, and psychotherapy practice, rather than strength-enhancement settings, such as vocational counseling, education, executive coaching, and strength-focused private practices (Fitzgerald & Osipow, 1986; Neimeyer, Bowman, & Stewart, 2001). In illness treatment settings, the biomedical model is dominant and strength-based approaches may be viewed as ineffective, frivolous, and even minimizing of serious problems. With few exceptions, research does not exist directly linking strength-promoting approaches or interventions to common, reimbursable counseling goals. For counselors drawn to the idea of balancing psychology's focus on pathology with a focus on fostering human strengths, these cultural and evidentiary hurdles can loom large.

Our goal is to discuss applications of positive psychology to counseling practice in pathology-focused settings, where many counselors work. First, we discuss the main rationales for increasing the prominence of positive psychology in counseling practice. Specifically, how can strength promotion be justified in the service of attaining common (and reimbursable) counseling goals such as the treatment of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and relationship difficulties? Put more bluntly, we examine why anyone (e.g., clients, insurance companies) should pay counselors to focus on strengths. Then, after discussing why strength promotion should be done in specific circumstances, we discuss how it might be done. Specifically, we discuss ways counselors might infuse a strength orientation into current modes of assessment and treatment, including identifying client strengths, using more positive language and conceptualizations, and expanding the counseling framework to include strengths and environmental (outside the person) considerations. It must be emphasized that we are not promoting positive psychology in a blanket manner. Rather, we are raising the possibility that strength promotion might be useful and efficient in specific situations.

Some positive psychology constructs, such as self-efficacy and self-regulation, have already achieved mainstream status. …