Definition, research basis, PERMA, positive psychology interventions (PPIs), benefits, criticisms, relevance for social work, social work practice approaches
This page has three sections:
Background Material that provides the context for the topic
A suggested Practice Approach
A list of Supporting Material / References
Positive psychologists see all people as having the potential to thrive given the right skills, strengths, and social context. (Ciarrochi et al., 2016).
Positive Psychology advocates approaching change not from the perspective of difficulty, but rather from the perspective of capitalising on what we have, using our strengths and activating positive experiences (Boniwell, 2017).
Positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to “great” instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to “normal”. As a field, positive psychology spends much of its time thinking about topics like character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, wellbeing, gratitude, compassion (as well as self-compassion), self-esteem and self-confidence, hope, and elevation. These topics are studied in order to learn how to help people flourish and live their best lives (Ackerman, 2021).
A meta-analysis by Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009) suggested positive psychology interventions significantly enhance wellbeing and decrease depressive symptoms. They encouraged clinicians to incorporate positive psychology approaches into their clinical work with individuals, recommending longer rather than shorter interventions. They found interventions, such as engaging in enjoyable activities, using one’s strengths in new ways, replaying positive experiences, and mindfulness, particularly effective.
In 2013 Bolier et al. reported on a meta-analysis of forty articles (6139 participants) finding a small but significant positive effect for positive psychology interventions, with this maintained at follow-up from three to six months. They suggested that PPIs could be used in conjunction with problem-based preventive interventions and treatment, delivered over a four-to-eight-week period and on an individual basis.
In 2019 White, Uttl and Holder re-analysed the above two studies. They found many of the primary studies used a small sample size and when small sample size bias was considered, the effect of PPIs on well-being were small but significant. They suggested future PPI research needed to focus on increasing sample sizes.
Carr et al. (2021) extracted data for their systematic review and meta-analysis from 347 studies involving over 72,000 participants from child and adult populations in 41 countries. The effect of PPIs with an average of ten sessions over six weeks offered in multiple formats and contexts was evaluated. At post-test, PPIs had a significant small to medium effect on wellbeing (g = 0.39), strengths (g = 0.46), quality of life (g = 0.48), depression (g = −0.39), anxiety (g = −0.62), and stress (g = −0.58). Gains were maintained at three months follow-up. The authors concluded that PPIs have an extensive evidence base supporting their effectiveness.
The PERMA model is central to positive psychology (Ackerman, 2021). PERMA is an acronym for the five facets of wellbeing:
P – Positive Emotions: Part of wellbeing is enjoying yourself in the moment, i.e., experiencing positive emotions.
E – Engagement: It’s hard to have a developed sense of wellbeing if you are not truly engaged in anything you do.
R – (Positive) Relationships: Having deep, meaningful relationships with others is vital to our wellbeing.
M – Meaning: Even someone who is deliriously happy most of the time may not have a developed sense of wellbeing if they do not find meaning in their life, e.g. by dedication to a cause.
A – Accomplishment / Achievement: The absence of a drive to accomplish and achieve, impacts negatively on authentic wellbeing.
Implementing PERMA to enhance wellbeing involves:
Experiencing more positive emotions; doing more of the things that make one happy; and bringing enjoyment into daily life.
Working on increasing engagement, e.g. pursuing hobbies and/or developing skills.
Working on building positive and supportive relationships with friends, family, and significant other(s).
Seeking out meaning through work, volunteering, personal hobbies or leisure, or as a mentor.
Keeping a focus on achieving goals—while keeping ambition in balance with other important things in life.
Positive psychology describes a person who pays attention to each aspect of PERMA as flourishing (Ackerman, 2021).
Flow is a key concept in positive psychology and PERMA. It involves generating intrinsic personal reward by focusing with great concentration on the task at hand. Achieving flow leads to greater happiness and wellbeing, more success, and more positive and helpful relationships (Ackerman, 2021; Pawelski & Pawelski, 2021). As illustrated in the diagram on the left, Pogosyan (2018) suggests flow requires the right balance of perceived challenges and existing skills, clear goals and immediate feedback on progress.
Ackerman (2021) lists a number of benefits of positive psychology.
It teaches us the power of shifting one’s perspective, e.g. injecting more optimism and gratitude into one’s life to maximize the potential for happiness in many of our everyday behaviours, e.g. developing a more realistic view of the role of money on one’s life, spending money on others, cultivating gratitude, showing physical affection, putting effort into being happy, performing acts of kindness, and volunteering.
By experiencing positive emotions, positive psychology increases our chances of success, although forcing people to “just think positively” can be detrimental.
Positive psychology helps define what “the good life” is. It revolves around finding meaning in one’s life, e.g. by thinking not only of the present but also of the past, by giving back to others, accepting negative emotions as part of life, and being an authentic person.
The Licensed Confidant (2015) suggests PPIs can easily be adopted by therapists and practitioners working in other areas of psychology and by professionals such as coaches, counsellors, and social workers to enhance the personal qualities and strengths of their clients.
Ciarrochi et al. (2016) suggest positive psychology that is decontextualised can be coercive, promote harmful emotion regulation strategies (experiential avoidance), and promote maladaptive pursuit of positive internal states. They base this criticism on distinguishing between content-focused positive interventions and context-focused positive interventions. Content-focused interventions emphasise that a certain way of thinking is good and underemphasise the role of context. This content-focused approach treats optimism, grit and positive thinking as a universal good for achieving wealth, health, relationship success and wellbeing. On the other hand context-focused interventions recognise the impact situational and historical events can have on behaviour (e.g. social class, culture, family and friends). If positive psychology focuses solely on content, it runs the risk of placing the sole burden of responsibility on the individual, largely ignoring their individual circumstances (their context). This can lead to the conclusion that if someone is not succeeding it is because of a lack of character strength rather than a lack of supportive social context. This makes it easy to blame the victim. Ciarrochi et al. provide examples.
Suggesting mindfulness exercises to someone who is stressed may work in many instances, but not all. If the stress arises because the person is being bullied, then ignoring the bullying means practising mindfulness will probably fail as a strategy. Without proper exploration of the context in which a person exists, practitioners may suggest activities that are not in a person’s best interests.
Attempting to directly increase one’s happiness may actually undermine happiness.
One can set unrealistic standards for happiness and be disappointed
People may not know what makes them happy and engage in activities that intuitively lead to happiness but don’t, e.g. buying things rather than giving things away
People pursuing happiness may constantly monitor their internal state rather than enjoying the moment
Pursuing happiness may make it seem like a possession one must have and cling to, but unfortunately happiness can be transitory
Pursuing one’s personal happiness may lead one to devalue the feelings of others and become more selfish
Research shows people who tend to cling to positive states, compared to their non-attached counterparts, have higher depression, anxiety and suicide rumination. They are less generous to others, less open-minded, exhibit lower life satisfaction and are less effective in managing time, handling social situations, achieving important goals, changing their point of view in the face of contradictory evidence, facing challenges with a sense of calm and mental balance and trusting themselves to fully engage with the present tasks Therefore practitioners should take a context-focused approach by (i) creating environments where people can choose actions that are personally important and meaningful, and (ii) teaching people skills that help them respond effectively and flexibly to their environment, so that they can reach their full potential (Ciarrochi et al., 2016).
Ackerman (2021) outlines the following common critiques of the positive psychology movement.
Positive psychology has an overly narrow focus on the individual and a lack of attention paid to relationships, teams, groups, organizations, and communities. Individuals can be blamed for issues that are sometimes system issues (cf. to Ciarrochi et al. above).
Research finding are often invalid, overstated and misleading (e.g. there is too much emphasis on self-report and survey data); however, more recently critical attention in being paid to research, raising confidence in findings.
Much of the research has been published by Western scholars and journals; the audience is often white and middle-class in which poverty, injustice and inequality are ignored. However, more research from non-Western countries and a diverse range of backgrounds is emerging.
Addressing criticisms Recent publications have sought to modify the positive psychology approach to address these criticisms. The Licensed Confidant (2015), recognising the need for a context-driven approach to implementing PPIs, suggests a suitability assessment (cf. the social work biopsychosocial-spiritual assessment) is essential prior to using PPIs. Ultimately the final judgement about suitability should include
Person-activity fit—consider the clients’ personality, gender, age and other personal and social variations to ensure there is a reasonable person-activity fit, e.g. research supports that introverts and extroverts benefit differently from various PPIs.
Cultural considerations—it is important to understand variations of attitudes, customs, and traditions within different cultures. In addition professional practitioners also include other variations such as gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, physical abilities, and socioeconomic status as part of their assessment at the formulation stage of their practice.
Ethical considerations—adopting a scientific and ethical framework is essential. Three principles are important:
Grounding the practice in reliable science
Considering rigorous ethical standards
Respecting clients’ wishes, welfare and rights.
The author suggests the following questions to consider prior to choosing PPIs:
• Is there scientifically sound research behind this PPI?
• Am I up to date with the latest findings on this PPI? Or do I need more training in this particular intervention, method or theory?
• Is the work I am doing valuable to the client, and is it totally safe?
• What steps am I taking to assess what the client could achieve as a result of engaging with this PPI?
Parks and Titova (2016) support The Licensed Confidant in raising concerns about how PPIs are used in practice. They point out that the effectiveness of PPIs depends on the person-activity fit, cultural mindset, and the person’s expectations about the impact of completing a PPI. They suggest certain subpopulations (e.g. certain cultural groups, certain personality types, and so on) may not find PPIs useful and could find them harmful. One should not be applying PPIs universally, to every person who walks in the door, without consideration of who that person is and whether they would benefit. PPIs are useful, but like any technique, have their time and their place. PPIs should be context-focused, not simply content-focused.
Positive Psychology Interventions (PPIs)
Practitioners practise positive psychology using positive psychology interventions (PPIs). PPIs are scientific tools and strategies that focus on increasing happiness, wellbeing, and positive cognitions and emotions. All positive psychology interventions have two essential components:
Focusing on enhancing happiness through positive thoughts and emotions, and
Sustaining the effects for long-term (Madhuneena, 2021).
The Licensed Confidant (2015) provides a list of established PPIs together with sources that have verified their validity via research. Details for the following PPIs are available at https://www.thelicensedconfidant.com/interventions.
Gratitude: Increasing a sense of gratitude can last for several months.
Forgiveness: Useful for healing people’s minds and enhancing reconciliation leading to benefits in physical health, mental health, relationships and spirituality.
Savouring: Dwelling on and valuing positive experiences to help find happiness in life.
Strengths-based: A person who uses and enhances their strengths improves in confidence, optimism and hope.
Meaning-oriented: Finding a purpose in life facilitates resilience and growth, success and life satisfaction.
Empathy: Enhancing our understanding of other people can generate compassion, forgiveness and kindness.
Creativity: Boosting creativity can make life easier to live, more rewarding, boost resilience and provide more choice and flexibility.
Patience: Being patient and calmly waiting for better opportunities in adversity is a character strength that leads to wellbeing, resilience, and grit.
Courage: Courage can enable people to do great things, but it can also be misapplied to allow people to make terrible mistakes. So, any “courage interventions” must be applied with care and caution to avoid unnecessary risks.
Humour: Those who score high on sense of humour often show less negative emotion in stressful situations, enjoy greater wellbeing, and experience lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Engagement and flow: Interventions designed to increase flow and engagement provide a sense of control, a clear goal, a challenge that demands skills and concentration, and feedback to the individual. Flow is strongly linked to happiness, wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness and meditative interventions have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, pain relief, decreasing anxiety and stress, and wellbeing.
Parks and Titova (2016) refer to most of the above categories and add kindness and optimism. For each category they include examples of PPIs with relevant research results.
Kindness Kindness activities ask their participants to perform deliberate acts of kindness towards other people. Examples: (i) “Prosocial spending”—spending money on others (e.g. buying a sandwich for a homeless person, a cup of coffee for a colleague, donating to charity). (ii) Small gifts, helping someone carry a heavy bag.
Optimism Optimism based activities ask people to think about the future in a positive way and create positive expectations. Examples: (i) Write about how one sees oneself in the future for about 10 to 15 minutes. (ii) Write a “life summary”—a summary of one’s life as one would like it to be relayed via a biography; then consider how to amend this everyday life to better pursue an ideal life. (iii) Complete one of the above activities and then spend two weeks thinking back daily on what was written.
Savouring Examples: (i) Reflect on two pleasurable experiences for two to three minutes every day and try to make this last as long as possible, e.g. eating a favourite food. (ii) Encourage the practice of a specific skill or activity such as savouring a piece of good news or repeating an activity that has meaning daily (over a two-week period) for 15 minutes.
Gratitude Examples: (i) Keep a gratitude journal by either just naming the grateful event or reflecting on the reasons why the feeling of gratitude is present in the described situation. (ii) Not only contemplate gratitude but express it in a social event such as writing a “gratitude letter”. One could then deliver (and read) this letter to the person to make the effects even stronger.
Empathy Example: “Loving-kindness meditation”—using meditation to create positive feeling and emotions towards someone else or even themselves.
Meaning Examples: (i) Reflect on the meaning of one’s profession. (ii) Set a meaningful goal and plan its implementation. (iii) Reflect on one’s life in writing. (iv) Meaning-making – writing about the positive events that have come out of a negative event – can assist in coping with negative life events.
Boniwell (2017) adds the following:
Positive Reminiscing If the habit you are trying to instil is exercise, try bringing to mind all successful experiences of exercising from the past. Just let the images come to your memory, try seeing them as vividly as you can.
Increasing Hope Consider a desired future image of yourself. Write about and vividly imagine yourself in that future and use this technique for four weeks. This is likely to increase hope, a strong emotional driver of intentional change.
Responding to Good News in an Active-Constructive Way Researchers have discovered that what distinguishes good relationships from poor ones is not how the partners react to problems, but how they welcome good news in each other’s lives. There are quite a number of ways in which we can react to our partner’s success. Two ways include: (i) paying close attention to the person, listening, asking questions, being interested and enthusiastic, and (ii) celebrating the success (e.g. open a bottle of champagne, telling others the news, doing something special).
Madhuleena (2021) describes in some detail other positive psychology interventions.
The Imagined-Self Technique Imaging one’s ideal self and feeling the joy that flows from doing that.
Mindfulness and other practices Positive psychology embraces qualitative and self-enhancing practices like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
Forgiveness Exercise Holding on to grudges and complaints sucks out inner peace and prosperity. Developing the art of forgiving can help focus on life in a new way.
Positive Affirmations Positive affirmations are simple statements said aloud every day, e.g., “I deserve to be happy”, “I forgive myself for all past mistakes”, “I will live in the present”.
Have-a-Good-Day Exercise This exercise helps users generate new insights about what makes for a good day and set new goals to strengthen daily wellbeing.
Action for Happiness The ‘Action for Happiness’ booklet (n.d.) is a set of exercises explicitly promoting and enhancing happiness in our lives. This booklet has
Links to surveys to assess happiness and current mood.
A list of ten keys to happier living: giving, relating, exercising, awareness, trying out, direction, resilience, emotions, acceptance and meaning.
Practical actions to take in daily life that can impact positively on happiness and fulfilment.
Listing, daily, three good things that happened
Writing a letter of thanks
Performing an extra act of kindness daily
Identifying, reviewing and using strengths
Looking for the good in people
This booklet is available at https://www.actionforhappiness.org/media/80216/happiness_action_pack.pdf
The Therapist Aid (n.d.) add the following (described in detail at https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/positive-psychology-techniques):
Acts of kindness
Design a beautiful day
The Therapist Aid (n.d.) has resources that may assist social workers in identifying a client’s strengths at the following link: https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/strengths-based-therapy. Black Dog Institute (n.d.) also looks at identifying client strengths and using them to improve wellbeing. Black Dog suggests 24 strengths underpin PERMA, strengths that can be grouped into six categories:
Wisdom (creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective)
Courage (bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest or enthusiasm)
Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)
Justice (teamwork, citizenship, fairness, leadership)
Temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-control)
Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality)
A client can be assisted in identifying strengths and, once strengths are known, positive psychology advocated using them, i.e. applying one’s strengths in daily living, especially to overcome challenges. A signature strength has the following features:
A sense of authenticity (feeling like ‘this is the real me’)
A feeling of excitement when using it
Learning very quickly when first learning or practicing the strength
Wanting to find new ways of using it
Feeling invigorated rather than exhausted when using your strength
Pursuing projects that revolve around the strength
Feeling joy, enthusiasm or flow whilst using it.
Positive psychology incorporates many of the approaches that are typical of social work, e.g.
Comprehensive (biopsychosocial-spiritual) assessment of clients so the practitioner is fully aware of the client’s background and can incorporate this into practice
Utilising client strengths to assist clients to find meaning in life and experience the satisfaction that arises from achievement of goals
Promoting a client self-determination approach—arriving at strategies by working with the client to discern the appropriateness of what will be trialled.
The importance of the social aspects of life – developing, enhancing and maintaining positive relationships.
Social workers may find the following aspects of positive psychology useful as they support clients:
The philosophy behind positive psychology is consistent with a social work approach: seeing all people as having the potential to thrive given the right skills, strengths, and social context (Ciarrochi et al., 2016) and approaching change not from the perspective of difficulty, but rather from the perspective of capitalising on what we have, using our strengths and activating positive experiences (Boniwell, 2017).
The importance of a context focus rather than a content-only focus. The context focus is an integral aspect of social work practice, e.g. the use of the biopsychosocial-spiritual assessment to gain insights into clients’ circumstances before using a self-determination approach when supporting them.
Keeping PERMA in mind
Positive emotion Feelings of pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, comfort. We can take responsibility for our feelings, cultivating happiness and gratitude.
Engagement Living an engaged life, being absorbed and connected to activities to the point where we lose track of time and effort (flow).
Relationships Connections to other people and relationships give us support, meaning and purpose in life. Positive relationships have been found to have enormous influence on our wellbeing.
Meaning Being part of and working towards something that’s much larger than yourself rather than purely pursuing material wealth; it might be a political party, a charity, leading your local soccer team, helping your religious group, school council, or being a passionate bush regenerator, refugee advocate or volunteer in a shelter. Spiritual people have been found to have more meaningful lives, because they believe in something greater than themselves.
Accomplishment Pursuing success, achievement and mastery of things for their own sake can build self-esteem, self-efficacy (useful in tough times) and a sense of accomplishment (Black Dog Institute, n.d.).
A personal reflection
Because the approach and values of positive psychology are consistent with social work, social workers may choose to incorporate different PPIs into their work with clients. How would I, as a social worker, go about this? PERMA appeals to me as a framework to keep in mind with clients. Therefore, if the opportunity presents itself and with the client’s agreement (i.e. context driven) I would offer appropriate PPIs enhance the personal qualities and strengths of clients. The following PPIs could be used to support clients in the following areas:
+ Increasing the client’s experience of positive emotions.
o Meaning-oriented PPIs
o Engagement and flow PPIs
o Positive reminiscing PPIs
o Mindfulness practices
o Humour PPIs
+ Helping clients identify and develop their strengths and unique talents.
o Twenty-four strengths divided into six categories
o Features of people’s signature strengths
+ Enhancing the client’s goal setting and goal-striving abilities.
o Courage PPIs
+ Building a sense of hope into the client’s perspective.
o Increasing hope PPIs
+ Cultivating the client’s sense of happiness and wellbeing.
o Kindness PPIs
o Forgiveness PPIs
+ Nurturing a sense of gratitude in the client.
o Gratitude PPIs
+ Helping the client build and maintain healthy, positive relationships with others.
o Empathy PPIs
o Responding to good news PPIs
+ Encouraging the client to maintain an optimistic outlook.
o Optimism PPIs
+ Helping the client learn to savour every positive moment.
o Savouring PPIs
o Imagined-self technique
As indicated in the background material above, there are many web-based resources that social workers could explore for use in the above areas. Each resource with an appropriate link will be found in the following section.
Supporting Material/Useful Resources/References
Ackerman, C. (2021). What is positive psychology and why is it important? Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-positive-psychology-definition/
Action for Happiness. (n.d.). Happiness action pack. Retrieved from https://www.actionforhappiness.org/media/80216/happiness_action_pack.pdf
Black Dog Institute. (n.d.). Wellbeing. Retrieved from https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/resources-support/wellbeing/
Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G. J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 119-139. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-13-119
Boniwell, I. (2017). Positive psychology and behaviour change: 5 ways to change your habits. Retrieved from http://positivepsychology.org.uk/behaviour-change/
Carr, A., Cullen, K., Keeney, C., Canning, C., Mooney, O., Chinseallaigh, E., & O’Down, A. (2021). Effectiveness of positive psychology interventions: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16(6), 749-769. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1818807 (Abstract only)
Ciarrochi, J., Atkins, P. W. B., Hayes, L. L., Sahdra, B. K., & Parker. P. (2016). Contextual positive psychology: Policy recommendations for implementing positive psychology into schools. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1561-1577. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01561
Madhuleena, R. C. (2021). Nineteen best positive psychology interventions and how to apply them. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-interventions/
Parks, A. C., & Titova, L. (2016). Positive psychological interventions: An overview. In A. M. Wood & J. Johnson (Eds.)., The Wiley handbook of positive clinical psychology (pp. 307-320). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118468197
Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. (2021). This one behaviour boosts well-being more than socializing. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/happy-together/202112/one-behavior-boosts-well-being-more-socializing
Pogosyan, M. (2018). Flow and other secrets to a happy life: Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-cultures/201804/flow-and-other-secrets-happy-life
Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly met-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467-487. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20593
The Licensed Confidant (2015). Positive psychology interventions: Empirically validated recommendations that could enhance our well-being. Retrieved from https://www.thelicensedconfidant.com/interventions
The Therapist Aid. (n.d.). Positive psychology techniques. Retrieved from https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/positive-psychology-techniques
The Therapist Aid. (n.d.). Strengths-based therapy. Retrieved from https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/strengths-based-therapy
White, C. A., Uttl, B., Holder, & M. D. (2019). Meta-analyses of positive psychology interventions: The effects are much smaller than previously reported. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216588. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216588