When I first heard about Positive Psychology and character strengths it was from the most unlikely of sources. A positive psychologist (I forget who) was quoted in a glossy magazine spread about body image as saying something (I forget what) about overcoming anxiety by choosing to find happiness instead.
Full disclosure, my first reaction was to roll my eyes and laugh out loud and have the following rapid-fire train of thought: ’There is a positive psychology (scoff)?! What’s the point of that?! Some more experts telling us to choose not to be sad but to somehow ‘be happy’ instead (huff and another eye roll)?!’
I was my anxiety
At this point, I had spent a decade in therapy and on medication for anxiety and depression. During this time, I was alternately encouraged to try and look on the bright side, be more optimistic, lower my expectations or just generally pull my socks up because life wasn’t so bad, was it?! Trying to take this approach to dealing with my mental health had very little to do with what I was good at or enjoyed doing (my personal strengths) and over the years caused me considerably more anxiety rather than less.
I have dealt with generalised anxiety disorder and a lovely if complicated combination of additional symptoms pointing to major depressive disorder and a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (known as Pure O) for most of my life. Being a high achiever, a perfectionist and (learned) extrovert it took a combination of life circumstances, genetics, bad choices, whatever, to produce a series of breakdowns in my twenties and thirties which crippled my self-esteem and confidence in my abilities, stalled my career and my capacity to even identify let alone set goals based on my true interests or needs.
Is PP just for ‘normal’ people? Well, no…
With fire in my belly, I turned to Dr Google and emerged feeling smug; I was vindicated. PP was to bear the brunt of my righteous anger. How dare normal people learn to be well, better than normal!
Irritable at this point, I kept scrolling, reading and ruminating until I read something that stopped me in my tracks. Others had also criticised the ‘positive’ in PP, questioning its usefulness and purpose in particular within the context of the much (more) in need 1 in 4 people like me who suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem like an anxiety disorder and no, blanket positivity wasn’t the answer…
It’s for everyone
What surprised me was the response of the PP field to overall agree with this criticism and develop a more nuanced approach to a science of positive outcomes rather than just promoting positive experiences. That was my interpretation of it anyway, as I absorbed as much as I could about character strengths, the dialectic of emotions and the difference between seeking pleasure and meaning in life. I quickly saw that all of these topics were highly relevant to me personally as well as all the ‘normal’ people in my life.
PP had piqued my interest by its attempt to capture the full rainbow of human experience, subjective, objective, good and bad. To me at this point PP seemed to provide somewhat of a model for understanding both sides of my self – both my strengths and my anxiety. This was something (it has never been clearer) missing from the black, white and grey approach of traditional psychotherapy, disorder-labelling and endless self-analysis.
All at once PP seemed relevant and welcoming and I tentatively began to take the first steps towards finding out about my own strengths, understanding my own emotions – (positive and negative this time) and discovering more about how I can take steps to influence my own subjective wellbeing.
Finding my strengths
In hindsight, I was using what Martin Seligman calls my signature strengths and it was a revelation to finally give this side of my life recognition and attention. By using my strengths of Judgement, Love of Learning and (self) Honesty/Authenticity I arrived at what seemed a scary yet natural decision. Having done my research, asked my questions and followed my instinct I took the plunge and signed up for the MAPP at Bucks New University last year.
For someone dealing with daily mental health challenges this was a great leap in the dark as I also have a young family to care for. Perhaps unwittingly (and again hindsight is a fabulous thing isn’t it?) I was developing my lesser strength of Hope as I developed and put my faith in an understanding of both PP’s and my own potential to transform.
Helping myself and others
In short, learning more about PP and conducting interventions on myself has enabled me to accept and manage my anxiety and develop my strengths in a way that psychology (and certainly psychiatry) hasn’t to date. Applied PP is useful (in my humble opinion) to anyone who has the capacity for self-insight, including those of us who have a diagnosable mental illness.
Instinctively as I write this now, the next natural step seems to be for me to share this knowledge with others as I do now and put myself in the position to help people, perhaps those just like me.
It is impossible to summarise all I have learned from the first year of the MAPP course within this entry. But as I build my knowledge, experience and language for the best as well as the worst things in life I am becoming more confident that I could enable others to navigate a similar journey towards increased wellbeing regardless of their starting point.
About the author: Lena Britnell is a current student on the MAPP course at Buckinghamshire New University and is an active voice in the conversation about mental health through her blog followingflamingos.com and her volunteering roles. Prior to her discovery of a passion for psychology, she studied Maths and honed her learned behaviours in various corporate roles.