Positive psychology for depression

Positive psychology for depression

By Miriam Akhtar

One of the most depressing things about having depression is the limited choice of treatment available once you recognise what’s ailing you. It’s the no1 threat to well-being in the 21st century, the leading cause of disability according to the World Health Organisation. 1 in 2 people in the West will have an episode of it in their lifetime and yet the treatment for depression, if you can access any, usually boils down to one of two choices - anti-depressants or talking therapies, both of which have their limitations.

Some people suffer side-effects from taking anti-depressants which can be really hard to tolerate when you’re already at a low ebb. What happens too when you come off the pills if the triggers for depression are still present or your thinking habits unchanged? Depression feeds off negative thinking patterns and pessimism can suck you back down. The idea with the talking therapies is that going over the source of your pain will lead to an emotional understanding of what’s gone wrong and facilitate a cathartic release from it but as one of my clients once put it ‘“digging up sad stories from the past is not my idea of an effective treatment for depression.” I can echo that sentiment. When I had depression I found talking about my long dark night of the soul left me drowning in the darkness rather than transcending it. Prof Martin Seligman, the co-founder of positive psychology, said of his years working as a clinical psychologist that when he was successful in treating people with depression, he didn't generally leave them feeling happy, he left them feeling empty. Reaching a point of absence of depression is not the same as achieving the presence of happiness and well-being. So what if you want to move beyond that feeling of languishing into something more flourishing?

Positive psychology, aka the science of happiness, has tested a number of interventions that build positivity and well-being. One of the delightful consequences of these evidence-based techniques is that they also reduce depression. It seems to be a case of ‘what you focus on is what you get’. Focus on happiness and your happiness level will rise. Focus on depression and there is a chance that you will get to know your black dog very well indeed if that’s what you want! Studies have shown that positive psychology techniques such as savouring the good things in your life, practising optimistic thinking and developing your strengths, alleviate depression. They are particularly useful as self-help at the milder end of depression where, in spite of the bleakness, you’re able to carry on with your routine. You can use these scientifically-proven tools to overcome depression, speed the recovery from it and protect you from falling into it again. About 40% of your happiness is under your direct control so there is a lot you can do to halt the downwards spiral and keep the black dog at bay. 

Positive Psychology for Depression

  1. Savour the moment – relish, cherish, marvel, bask in and feast on life’s good stuff
  2. Practise gratitude – thank-you therapy!
  3. Cultivate positivity – have a ‘playlist’ of pleasurable things to do
  4. Learn optimism – self-defence for the mind
  5. Make positive connections – other people matter for your happiness
  6. Meditate – mindfulness develops positive emotions
  7. Identify and use your strengths - your greatest potential for growth


Miriam Akhtar (http://www.positivepsychologytraining.co.uk/) is the author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression, Self-Help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength & Well-being (Watkins, 2012). She is one of the first positive psychologists in the UK and a contributor to the World Book of Happiness. She has first-hand experience of living with depression, which she used positive psychology to overcome.  

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