Resilience & Positive Psychology
Review of Flourish (2011) by Martin Seligman
The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), developed by Martin Seligman and his colleagues, is currently the most widely-researched programme for the prevention of depression, although its developers also believe it probably contributes to the prevention of anxiety and stress-related problems as well. The training was developed for schoolchildren although similar programmes have also been used with adults in the US military. It is designed to imbue emotional resilience, one of several secondary ingredients in Seligman’s current definition of “well-being” and closely associated with his earlier concept of “learned optimism”. According to Seligman, “Resilience, however, is only one aspect of Positive Psychology – the emotional aspect.” He describes resilience as the natural response of our ancestors to stressful or adverse life events, “the human species has evolved through millennia of trauma, and far and away the usual response to high adversity is resilience – a relatively brief episode of depression plus anxiety, followed by a return to the previous level of functioning.”
The basic Penn Resilience Program consists of the following elements,
- Learned optimism, through realistic and flexible thinking
- Assertiveness (and social skills such as “active constructive responding”)
- Creative brainstorming and decision making (social problem-solving)
- Relaxation skills
- Other coping strategies
According to Seligman, 21 controlled outcome studies (including many randomised controlled trials, RCTs) have evaluated PRP with a total of over 3,000 children participating in the research.
Traditional cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for depression begins with a behavioural intervention known as “activity scheduling”. This attempts to create more opportunity for experiences of both pleasure and achievement (sometimes termed “mastery”) by keeping an hour-by-hour record of daily activity and planning changes in the daily routine of patients. Resilience training, by comparison, seeks to enhance ordinary experiences of pleasure and achievement to prevent future depression through a number of simple and enjoyable exercises. Two of the main exercises used in Positive Psychology’s approach to resilience training are called “Three Good Things” and “Using Signature Strengths” and further important element is the inclusion of techniques of cognitive restructuring derived from Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.
Three Good Things (“What Went Well”)
Students are asked, for one week, to keep a careful written record each evening of three good things that happened during the day, sometimes called a “blessings journal”. Next to their description of each good event, they answer one of the following questions,
- Why did this good thing happen?
- What does this mean to you?
- How can you have more of this good thing in the future?
This technique is designed to enhance the experience of recalling pleasurable events and generate more positive emotions by learning to “savour” positive experiences. By elaborating on genuine positive experiences in this way, attention is shifted toward events that generate more positive feelings, the opposite of what normally happens in depression, where there is a marked tendency to dwell upon and ruminate over negative experiences.
Using Signature Strengths
Positive Psychology has identified 24 key strengths, including the ancient virtues of “wisdom”, “courage”, “justice”, and “temperance”, which it uses techniques such as the Values in Action Signature Strengths test to help students identify in themselves. By focusing on their signature strengths and creatively making better use of them, students “play to their strengths” and experience an enhanced sense of life satisfaction and personal achievement. This appears to be more motivating and rewarding for many people than focusing on and trying to battle against their own weaknesses. Subsequently, however, signature strengths can be used to improve areas where weaknesses have been identified. Additional exercises involve identifying the signature strengths of friends, family, and role-models in the real world or in works of fiction. Another way of identifying strengths is to write a short story describing a time when you performed at your very best and to review it looking for clues regarding your personal signature strengths. Sometimes people are asked to evaluate the possible “shadow” or negative side of their signature strengths and how this might be minimised.
Again, in a very similar manner to early CBT for depression, Positive Psychology makes considerable use of the Adversity (or “Activating Event”), Beliefs, and Consequences (ABC) model derived from Albert Ellis’ Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). In the most basic form of this approach, students learn to view negative emotions in general as being due primarily to their distressing beliefs about adversity rather than being directly caused by seemingly adverse events themselves. Learning to spot the role of beliefs and slow down thinking allows alternative beliefs about the same situation to be flexibly explored.
In the “emotional fitness” or Master Resilience Training (MRT) programme taught to the military, which is based on the resilience training given to civilian teachers, negative emotions are treated as early-warning signs, i.e., signals to stop and think. They provide clues to underlying beliefs and thoughts about current problems. According to the basic cognitive model, anxiety typically indicates thoughts relating to uncertain social or physical danger, depression thoughts relating to certain loss, and anger thoughts relating to trespass or violation of some personal rule or boundary. According to Positive Psychology, moreover, positive emotions also serve a cognitive and behavioural purpose by drawing attention to certain aspects of positive experiences and enhancing our learning and other beneficial responses.
Resilience is further developed by learning to spot “thinking traps” (cognitive distortions) such as over-generalisation, which can lead to irrational or excessive emotional reactions to adversity. Moreover, underlying and deep-seated beliefs (“icebergs”) are carefully identified and modified, by developing alternative, more adaptive and philosophical, beliefs and attitudes. The final stage of cognitive therapy in resilience training involves learning a simple three-stage “decatastrophising” strategy, called “putting it in perspective”,
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What’s the best that could happen?
- What’s the most likely thing to happen?
This is a typical CBT approach to challenging catastrophic thinking, typical of worry (“What if the worst happens?”), by focusing attention away from the possibility of a catastrophe on to the probability that something more realistic will happen, and planning how to cope with it. A “coping plan” is therefore developed for dealing with the most-likely scenario, the most probable outcome.
Seligman, Martin. Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them.