Newswise — Research shows that people who have more positive experiences are happier and healthier. But little is known about how increasing positive experiences affects the mentally ill.
"Clinical psychology for years has focused primarily on the diagnosis and treatment of psychopathology," says Lisa Lewis, PhD, director of psychology for The Menninger Clinic, "But what we have been learning is that when you eliminate all the excess negatives, it doesn't produce happiness, it produces emptiness."
Hoping to fill that emptiness, Dr. Lewis and her colleagues at Menninger are studying positive psychology in group therapy. The goal of the positive psychology interventions is to help patients with mental illness focus on what's right about themselves as well as wrong, and to build up a reserve of positive experiences and emotions. They can then draw from their reserve in difficult or stressful times. As research has shown, positive emotions and positive experiences promote resiliency " the ability to weather adversity without developing symptoms and to actually grow from adversity.
The study is the first to investigate positive psychology in persons with mental illness receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment, Dr. Lewis says. She plans to enroll 100 patients into the study, which is still in the beginning stages.
Patients admitted to Menninger's adult hospital programs are eligible for the study, which compares positive psychology in group therapy to more traditional means of therapy.
The traditional therapy group emphasizes reducing negative emotions and thoughts. The positive psychology group emphasizes cultivating positive emotion and experiences, for example, gratitude or meaning in life.
"Our hypothesis is that the comparison group will show a reduction of negative emotions and not a whole lot of increase in positive emotions, and that the positive psychology group will show less reduction in negative emotions and a major increase in positive emotions," says Dr. Lewis, principal investigator of the study.
Dr. Lewis based the study on the research of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD, with whom she studied. Dr. Seligman is author of Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness and is considered to be one of the founders of the positive psychology movement. He identifies three paths to happiness: the pleasant life, the meaningful life and the engaged life. People gravitate to one path or another, but may pursue a combination of paths.
On the pleasant path, people seek to amplify and intensify their pleasure. A "foodie," who enjoys rich Swiss chocolates and rare wines may be pursuing the pleasant path.
People on the engaged path to life use their signature strengths to create absorption and flow. An avid gardener, Dr. Lewis says she gravitates toward the engaged path to happiness.
"When I am in my garden, I lose track of time and become lost in my work," Dr. Lewis says. "It allows me to show a lot of curiosity for the condition in which plants grow and allows me to appreciate the beauty of nature."
In the third path, the meaningful life, people use their signature strengths to belong to and serve something larger than themselves. That could include community work, church involvement or participation in family life.
"Every exercise in the study is meant to increase pleasure, engagement, meaning or some combination of the three," Dr. Lewis says. "If people want to improve the quality of their lives, they need to pay attention to all three of those paths."
The Menninger Clinic is an international specialty psychiatric center, providing innovative programs in treatment, research and education. Founded in 1925 in Kansas, Menninger relocated to Houston in 2003 and is affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital. For 14 consecutive years, Menninger has been named among the leading psychiatric hospitals in U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of America's Best Hospitals.