How Well Does Positive Psychology Apply to Mental Illness?

Ashley Peterson
· 3 min read
Image by Denise Husted from Pixabay

The basic idea of positive psychology is a good one. Who doesn’t want to feel happier and the other positive emotions that go along with that?

According to, positive psychology focuses on the positive aspects of life, including:

  • “Positive experiences (like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love)”
  • “Positive states and traits (like gratitude, resilience, and compassion)”
  • “Positive institutions (applying positive principles within entire organizations and institutions)”

It covers topics like strengths, happiness, satisfaction, hope, and gratitude. Again, all good stuff.

The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, developed a theory of well-being known as PERMA, which includes positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. Increasing each of these elements promotes greater wellbeing.

While there are definitely some positives (haha) there, and I think it’s very relevant to issues commonly faced by a lot of people who aren’t mentally ill, I’m inclined to think that in its entirety it’s relatively less applicable to people with mental illness. That’s not to say that it’s entirely irrelevant, but I think the potential benefit for non-mentally ill people is greater than the benefit that’s likely to result for people with mental illness.

This kind of goes along with my personal opinion that “happiness is a choice “ is a load of crap.

I believe that mental illness affects the capacity to experience certain feelings, and happiness just isn’t always on the menu. Happiness can only be chosen if it’s an available option, and focusing on generating positive emotions when the capacity just isn’t there may end up leading to feelings of frustration and inadequacy.

That doesn’t mean we can’t work at being more positive in relative terms, and things like gratitude and compassion are always good to practice. Still, I think there’s something to be said for taking a realistic approach that accepts that happiness might not be in the cards at the present time. I think that, paradoxically, not pushing positivity can actually allow for greater overall contentment.

I’m not trying to say we should wallow in negativity, but rather that’s it’s good to recognize that there’s a whole spectrum of human emotions, and the fact that some aren’t positive doesn’t make them any less normal or valid.

The University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness website has a number of different questionnaires you can take. On their Authentic Happiness Inventory, I scored a 2.13 out of 5, which put me in about the bottom 10th percentile based on all test takers, gender, age group, occupational group, and education level.

On their Well-Being Survey, I scored a 3.8 out of 10, and in terms of percentiles I was even lower than on the happiness inventory.

On the questions that I answered in a relatively negative way, for the most part I didn’t have any emotional response attached to the questions or the answers, it was just an appraisal of my life living with a chronic, non-remitting mood disorder. I’m chugging along the best I can, but I do have limitations as a result of my illness. I prefer to be realistic about those limitations and understand that they are a product of my illness rather than trying to convince myself that life is just hunky-dory.

Sometimes, chronic illness means that certain elements of life kinda suck. My take on it is that by being realistic in our evaluations, we can focus on the positives that are going to be more workable and hence more beneficial for us, such as gratitude and compassion, rather than devoting time and energy to generating positives that just aren’t coming.

So I’m okay with being in the bottom 10th percentile for happiness and wellbeing. It is what it is, and I’ll just accept it and keep on doing my thing.

Do you think too much focus on being positive can be counterproductive sometimes?

Originally published at on October 3, 2019.

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Ashley Peterson

Written by

Mental health blogger, nurse, living with depression. Author of Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis and Psych Meds Made Simple.

The Startup

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