I started writing a psychology column for The Capital 25 years ago this month.
For about half of that time, I wrote about helping people with their problems using the traditional model of treating what was wrong with a person. For the last 11 years, however, I have been writing about positive psychology — the study of what people can do right to give themselves a good life. It has been fantastic to see psychology become an even more powerful instrument of change.
For 50 years, psychotherapeutic approaches focused on patients being the source of the problem, not part of the solution. Psychotherapists were trained to delve into their patients’ maladjustments, character defects, relationship issues, depressions or anxieties. That led to the development of treatments that sought to identify patients’ problems, decrease their dysfunction and alleviate their suffering.
But a massive number of studies have shown techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, hypnosis or a particular approach to relationship counseling are not primarily responsible for improvement in the patient’s condition. One more person telling them what to do about their problems is only marginally helpful.
Studies show the therapists’ theories and treatment strategies account for only 15 percent of what contributes to improving your life. Working to overcome weaknesses and deficiencies has not been shown to substantially increase a person’s level of life satisfaction.
Fortunately, the research also reveals effective methods for helping people produce positive changes in their lives. According to ‘’The Heart and Soul of Change’’ (American Psychological Association, 2009), the biggest part of what leads to improvement is the client’s ability to figure out how to improve themselves. In fact, client contributions account for 40 percent of the transformation that takes place in psychotherapy.
The most powerful force in learning to deal with life’s difficulties involves activating the positive internal factors that people bring with them into the counseling sessions. It is the client, not the therapist, who is the “engine” that drives change. The best therapists function as an important part of the person’s support system and as a resource to be used by the client when they seek expert information.
The degree of collaboration in the therapist-client relationship accounts for another 30 percent of successfully achieving a positive outcome. Helpful professional relationships provide a safe space for the client to relax and reflect on their problems. Brainstorming with a trusted confidant can put the problem into context, offer a chance to gain new perspectives, and generate possible solutions. It offers a unique supportive environment to try new behaviors, make mistakes, recover and re-evaluate, as well as discover one’s inner strengths.
The remaining 15 percent of what contributes to successful change is the client’s optimistic beliefs. Clients activate self-healing processes by mobilizing hope and desire to achieve a goal, generating positive emotions and energy, as well as stimulating creativity and commitment.
It’s the client, after all, who must do the actual work of changing. So, in a way it should not be shocking that the surest and quickest way to promote change is to put the client’s strengths and resources in the spotlight.
My studies on helping people to make effective changes at a major academic medical center have shown that asking six positive psychology questions can PROPEL significant improvements:
Passion: What would it look like if you were extremely satisfied with how your personal and professional life was working?
Relationships: Do you spend a great deal of time contending with negative individuals who dampen your ability to achieve goals? How could you detach from toxic relationships and engage primarily with supportive individuals? Who could offer you encouragement to get started, empathy when you experience setbacks and enthusiasm when you succeed?
Optimism: What do you say to yourself when you suffer a setback? Do you have an effective mentor or therapist who can help you learn from the experience? How can you stay hopeful when you’re struggling?
Proactivity: Do you figure out a positive approach to challenges rather than allowing stressful situations to create a negative reaction? Have you taken one of the strengths identification tests to help you recognize and deploy your best qualities?
Energy: How does dealing with stress drain you? What works to replenish your energy? Are you eating and sleeping well? Are you experiencing laughter and love every day? What daily routines would support your being consistent in working toward your goals?
Legacy: How have you made a meaning difference in people’s lives? What words and deeds helped most? Who could you help next?