Positive Psychology is often criticised for focusing on happiness and ignoring the myriad of negative experiences and accompanying emotions that we all have. However this is an over simplification. While Positive Psychology does focus on moving people towards a flourishing state this is not achieved solely by focusing on the positive.
On first impressions, the famous Sam Cooke song lyrics ‘ You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative’ appear to apply Positive psychology. However, on closer inspection, a better fit would be ‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive, build on the negative.’

Tried and tested methods

A great strength of Positive Psychology is the way that it provides empirically based methods to address the negative issues in our lives, face on, and to use this as a platform for growth. Often in life we ignore the bad things we experience by doing distraction activities such as working long hours or putting others first at the expense of our own health and well-being. While in the short term this may numb the negative experience it does not deal with the underlying problem which may even become worse.
By using the tools that Positive Psychology provides we can face up to the negative and look it straight in the eye. I’m not suggesting this is easy, it can require courage and it also requires practice like all new behaviours.


For example, Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer’s research on self-compassion provides us with the tools we need to face our difficult situations and feelings, head on and then to reappraise them. Typically we blame ourselves when something goes wrong or we heap criticism on ourselves, which often makes the problems worse and may make us hide from the problem. However, by using the tools of self-compassion such as mindfully acknowledging that we are going through a difficult time and treating ourselves with kindness as we would do with a friend, this reduces the stress response and allows us to face up to the problem and not see it in such a reactive light.

Vulnerability as a positive

Similarly, the issue of vulnerability has been widely researched by Brené Brown who highlights the fact that we all feel vulnerable at times and in an innovative approach, she argues that we should not cover up this vulnerability, as it can be harmful and doesn’t provide the right conditions for healthy long term growth. Typically we are socialised to appear strong and competent, but that leaves many of us behaving like swans, appearing calm to the wider world while frantically paddling underwater to keep afloat. This can lead to stress and anxiety and again it can lead to distraction activities. However, by recognising and accepting our vulnerabilities we can embrace all sides to ourselves and start to live authentically. This means we make the choice to be honest and show our true selves, which is a brave path to take, but so worthwhile. A great thing about showing our vulnerabilities is that it allows for more open and honest relationships, and as we are not defensive other people start to share their vulnerabilities with us, deepening relationships further.

These are only two ways in which Positive Psychology directly approaches the bad things that happen in our lives and the negative emotions we feel. Over the next few months I will examine more.

About the author: To find out more about Bryony Shaw, click here.


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