Undoing Negativity and Hardwiring Gratitude: A Tool from Positive Psychology

By: Brian McCallum, LCPC,

Martin Seligman, renowned psychologist, spent half of his career studying psychopathology—i.e., disorders of the mind. Specifically, his research interests included depression and trauma. Seligman is famous for coining the phrase "learned helplessness,” a phenomenon observed in both animals and humans. In short, an animal or human can become so conditioned to expect pain and suffering that the animal or human will not escape pain and suffering even when an opportunity to flee is available.

Seligman became chair of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998, and he decided to shift his research and practice. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with people, Seligman wanted to study what can go right with people. Seligman and colleagues, in turn, compiled the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV), a manual that catalogs six core virtues and 24 character strengths. The core virtues are wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. This manual, in effect, serves as a counterbalance to the “sacred text” of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Positive Psychology does not ignore the negative or harsh realities of existence. In fact, Positive Psychology is built on the premise that the human mind skews towards negativity. To counteract this negativity bias, Seligman and the Positive Psychology movement have created interventions to foster resiliency, grit, and well-being. For example, one simple practice is called "The Three Good Things" exercise. 

This daily practice asks people to identify three good things—no matter how mundane or magnificent—that transpired during a day. People can amplify or expand this practice by asking and answering the following two questions: first, how did this event come about? Second, how can I have more of this in my life? This gratitude practice has been likened to "hunting for the good" or finding light in darkness.

To learn more about Positive Psychology as well as take many free assessments, visit Authentic Happiness: www.authentichappiness.org. See also the Positive Psychology Center: http://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/. Seligman delivered a TED Talk (see www.ted.com) called “The New Era of Positive Psychology” that can be viewed as well.