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Could positive psychology techniques help reduce the effects of depression?

That was the theory leading to a series of preliminary studies by renowned psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman a few years ago. Seligman and his team wanted to know if they could use a more proactive approach than just targeting depression’s symptoms to get better results.

As a result, they studied the lives of more than 300 college students at the University of Pennsylvania, some of whom were categorized as clinically depressed.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if three intervention components would make much of a difference. Those components were having positive emotions, being engaged, and having a “meaningful” life.

Positive emotions included attitudes about the past, present and future and learning skills to amplify both the intensity and duration of these emotions. The idea of engagement came from another researchers idea of “flow” — that state of mind in which a person is totally involved and absorbed in something important to him or her. And finally, a “meaningful life” meant a person was using his or her signature strengths and talents to serve something that was bigger than themselves, such as church or their family.

Using several different exercises, the researchers followed the attitudes of the participants over a period of one year.

They found that the positive psychology exercises relieved depression symptoms for at least six months compared with no intervention, and they decreased levels of mild-to-moderate depression over a one year period.

The researchers would be the first to note that the study sample was small and may not reflect larger populations. And no one is saying these techniques are the best and only way to relieve depression symptoms. In fact, pharmaceutical interventions continue to have the most dramatic improvement in the lives of millions of depressed individuals.

Still, the results show promise. Positive psychology interventions could very well make a difference to people in dire need of treatment.

Source: Positive Psychotherapy. Seligman, Martin E. P., Rashid, Tayyab, Parks, Acacia C., American Psychologist, Vol. 61, Issue 8

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On average, happier people are more successful, do better in social relationships, and like themselves and other people more. They are also usually more creative and better able to cope with difficult situations.

However, there may be one area where unhappy people may have a slight edge — judgment and decision making.

It’s been called the “depressive realism” effect. Research suggests depressed people (at least in laboratory settings) judge their control over events more accurately than non-depressed people.

In research studying this effect, happier people have applied successful shortcuts they’ve learned in the past, only to arrive at the wrong answer. Furthermore, the research suggests people in a positive mood tend to use stereotypes more, to be less logical and to be more biased in their judgments.

Real-life, complex settings still probably favor the happier person over the unhappy person in the long run, but it is an intriguing thought — just because you’re happy doesn’t mean you will necessarily make the right decision or move. In fact, your positive mood may cloud your judgment, causing you to believe in a potential outcome that may be unrealistic or has serious “holes” in it. In other words, our positivism could blind us to realities.

Perhaps it’s okay at times to be skeptical, negative or be in a bad mood. It may just prevent us from making a big mistake.

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