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Positive Psychotherapy: An Overview

What Is Positive Psychotherapy?

Dr. Tayyab Rashid created positive psychotherapy (PPT) for depressed patients seeking treatment at Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Pennsylvania. As with other psychotherapies, positive psychotherapy is a set of techniques that are most effectively delivered with basic therapeutic essentials such as warmth, accurate empathy, basic trust and genuineness, and rapport. We believe that these essentials allow for tailoring the techniques to the individual needs of depressed clients. We first conduct a careful assessment of the client’s depressive symptoms and the well-being scores from We then discuss how depressive symptoms are potentially explained by lack of well-being: lack of positive emotion, engagement, and meaning in life.

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An Overview of the 14 Sessions of PPT

The details can be found in my book Positive Psychotherapy: A Treatment Manual co-authored with Dr. Rashid. (Rashid and Seligman, in press):

Session 1:

The absence or lack of positive resources (positive emotions, character strengths, and meaning) can cause and maintain depression and how these can create an empty life.

Homework: The client writes a one-page (roughly three hundred words) “positive introduction,” in which she tells a concrete story showing her at her best and illustrating how she used her highest character strengths.

Session 2:

The client identifies his character strengths from the positive introduction and discusses situations in which these character strengths have helped him previously.

Homework: the client completes the VIA questionnaire online to identify his character strengths.

Session 3:

We focus on specific situations in which character strengths may facilitate cultivation of pleasure, engagement, and meaning.

Homework (starting now and continuing through the entire course of therapy): The client starts a “blessings journal,” in which she writes, every night, three good things (big or small) that happened that day.

Session 4:

We discuss the roles of good and bad memories in maintaining depression. Holding onto anger and bitterness maintains depression and undermines well-being.

Homework: The client writes about feelings of anger and bitterness and how they feed his depression.

Session 5:

We introduce forgiveness as a powerful tool that can transform feelings of anger and bitterness into neutrality, or even, for some, into positive emotions.

Homework: the client writes a forgiveness letter describing a transgression and related emotions and pledges to forgive the transgressor (only if appropriate) but does not deliver the letter.

Session 6:

Gratitude is discussed as enduring thankfulness.

Homework: The client writes a gratitude letter to someone she never properly thanked and is urged to deliver it in person.

Session 7:

We review the importance of cultivating positive emotions through writing in the blessings journal and the use of character strengths.

Session 8:

We discuss the fact that “satisficers” (“This is good enough”) have better well-being than “maximizers” (“I must find the perfect wife, dishwasher, or vacation spot.”) Satisficing is encouraged over maximizing.

Homework: The client reviews ways to increase satisficing and devises a personal satisficing plan.

Session 9:

We discuss optimism and hope, using explanatory style: the optimistic style is to see bad events as temporary, changeable, and local.

Homework: The client thinks of three doors that closed on her. What doors opened?

Session 10:

The client is invited to recognize character strengths of significant other(s).

Homework: We coach the client to respond actively and constructively to positive events reported by others, and the client arranges a date that celebrates his character strengths and those of his significant other.

Session 11:

We discuss how to recognize the character strengths of family members and where the client’s own character strengths originated.

Homework: The client asks family members to take the VIA questionnaire online and then draws a tree that includes the character strengths of all members of the family.

Session 12:

Savoring is introduced as a technique to increase the intensity and duration of positive emotion.

Homework: The client plans pleasurable activities and carries them out as planned. The client is provided with a list of specific savoring techniques.

Session 13:

The client has the power to give one of the greatest gifts of all—the gift of time.

Homework: The client is to give the gift of time by doing something that requires a fair amount of time and calls on her character strengths.

Session 14:

We discuss that the full life integrates pleasure, engagement, and meaning.

In our one test of positive psychotherapy with severe depression, the patients were randomly assigned to either individual positive psychotherapy following the table above or to treatment as usual. A matched but nonrandomized group of equally depressed patients underwent treatment as usual plus antidepressant medication. (I don’t think randomly assigning patients to medication is ethical, so we matched on demographics and intensity of depression.) Positive psychotherapy relieved depressive symptoms on all outcome measures better than treatment as usual and better than drugs. We found that 55 percent of patients in positive psychotherapy, 20 percent in treatment as usual, and only 8 percent in treatment as usual plus drugs achieved remission.
Positive psycotherapy is only at its very beginning stages of practice and application, and these results are preliminary and much in need of replication. It will be important to tailor the order and duration of the exercises to clients’ reactions. Even though they are new as a package, however, the individual exercises themselves have been well validated.

Note: The text above is excerpted from Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being 

Learn More About Positive Psychotherapy
The information in this article has been excerpted from the resources below. For more detailed information about positive psychotherapy, please consult each of these sources. 
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being

Read chapters 2 (“Creating Your Happiness: Positive Psychology Exercises That Work”) and 3 (“The Dirty Little Secret of Drugs and Therapy”)

Positive Psychotherapy: A Treatment Manual

Due to be published later this year by Oxford University Press, Positive Psychotherapy: A Treatment Manual will offer a detailed explanation of the fourteen sessions of the positive psychotherapy program described above.

Positive Psychotherapy Article in American Psychologist

Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A.C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist (61), 8, 772-788. Click here to read. 

Positive Psychology Progess: Empirical Validation of Interventions

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist (60), 5, 410-421.