How Well Does Positive Psychology Apply to Mental Illness?

How well does positive psychology apply to mental illness? - cartoon of smiling sun

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?

The essentials of positive psychology

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

  1. “Positive experiences (like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love)”
  2. “Positive states and traits (like gratitude, resilience, and compassion)”
  3. “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
  • Accomplishments

Increasing each of these elements is said to promote greater wellbeing.

Is positivity always available?

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 not a choice, or at least not always a choice that’s up for grabs. 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. 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, 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.

Scoring your happiness

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. That 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. In terms of percentiles, I was even lower than on the happiness inventory.

The questions that I answered in a relatively negative way didn’t generally 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.

Actions towards greater joy

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.

In fact, there are a lot of things we can do to promote a state of greater joy in our lives, even when happiness as a transient emotion is elusive. Actions toward joy aren’t about ignoring the negative; they’re about taking values-congruent action.

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?

The post Toxic Positivity: What It Is and Why It’s Not Helpful is the hub for all things toxic positivity-related on Mental Health @ Home.

24 thoughts on “How Well Does Positive Psychology Apply to Mental Illness?”

  1. When you feel almost nothing to empty, no ‘posivitves’ are going to stuck around. You can try but there is a certain order in which things appear in your life. When it’s the negatives, you’ll have deal with them first. In my experience trying to ‘overstep’ them with (forced) positivity, only made the negative come full force at me.

  2. Yep, toxic positivity is a real non-starter for me and I think positive psychology is where some of it came from.

    I’m in a support group and it never fails that new members go through a “I’m going to say overly positive things because no one wants to hear about my feelings” phase before they figure out it’s okay to just be real.

    Thanks for the history on this, it’s really neat to find out some things I didn’t know.

    And I agree, being in constant pain or having chronic illness probably is not going to make you be positive all the time.

  3. First, I don’t believe that “Happiness is a choice” by any stretch of the imagination, for someone who is mentally ill. I certainly don’t walk around with a huge grin on my face 24/7.
    However, that being said. I sincerely try (desperately at times) to push myself into thing postively even when the negative is dragging me down. Why? Simple reason. I try to make others feel (scratch that) I attempt to make others feel less negativity and get there minds thinking about something other than the constant despair one can feel during the depressive episodes, even if it’s for only a few minutes.

    1. I’m more an advocate of allowing negative thoughts/feelings so I can challenge them and change them. I went through a phase with Twitter where I was put off by what I thought was toxic positivity. Well-meaning people who just want to help others were actually making me more depressed. I learned to handle that and know it for what it is – peer support and kindness – and just let it go.

  4. I’m not sure what positive psychology’s definition of happiness is. I don’t often have a lot of energy or motivation to move toward things which increase my sense of well being. But I am usually content and I think being consistently content is preferable to me than chasing some higher level happy high.

  5. knowledgeofabsolute

    Interesting, i read a quote once that said ‘ people who are depressed are not really depressed they just have the abiljty to see the state of the world for what it really is.’ unknown

  6. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable in situations or with certain people and I might sound rude. I feel fine until someone starts telling me to be happy and complaining about me.

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