Going Back to Positive Psychology Basics for Mental Health Awareness Month

After two years of navigating the difficulties of pandemic living, many people are realizing that stress, isolation, and uncertainty have taken a toll on their well-being. In March, the World Health Organization reported a massive 25 percent increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression during the first year of COVID. Adolescents and young adults are among the demographics most significantly impacted, with nearly half of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. It’s no surprise that the mental health crisis has been called a second pandemic.

As we approach May, Mental Health Awareness Month (WBI/SPIRE), it feels like the perfect time to revisit the research that informed these programs and to review the foundational practices that can increase happiness. 

In the early days for positive psychology research, Corey Keyes (sociologist and psychologist) was trying to reimagine the way we understand mental health. Keyes proposed a new way of thinking about this topic: the mental health continuum. Keyes proposed that mental health exists on a spectrum that includes flourishing (which he defined as a combination of “feeling good about and functioning well in life”), languishing, and mental illness. 

In his 2021 New York Times article, Adam Grant highlighted Keyes’ continuum and particularly languishing, which effectively captured the state of “blah” many found themselves experiencing in the midst of the pandemic. This helped millions of people to normalize their experience and provided a platform for other authors to write follow-up articles that cited a variety skills to help readers transition from languishing into flourishing. Many of the practices suggested in these articles correspond to the five pathways of WBI’s SPIRE model, as WBI alum Sandy Campbell explains in her recent blog post on using SPIRE to move from languishing to flourishing.

Keyes is in fact one of the thinkers that Megan McDonough, Tal Ben-Shahar, and Maria Sirois referenced when conceptualizing SPIRE—specifically his delineation of the psychological dimensions of flourishing. Keyes defined flourishing as “a state where people experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time.” In his 2007 study on flourishing, in which he presented a complementary strategy for improving mental health, Keyes described flourishing people as experiencing “low helplessness, clear goals in life, high resilience, high intimacy,” and better physical health—all characteristics encompassed by the SPIRE model.

The conversation around these ideas continues as researchers seek to operationalize strategies, protocols, models, and treatment recommendations, building on the resilience research done in the early days of positive psychology. In 2021, a dream team of happiness researchers, including Barbara Fredrickson, Ryan Niemiec, and Kristin Neff, published a paperexploring how nine fundamental aspects of positive psychology (meaning, coping, self-compassion, courage, gratitude,character strengths, positive emotions, positive interpersonal processes, and high-quality connections) can support mental health during a pandemic. Also last year, researcher Rick Hanson, known for his work on positive neuroplasticity, published research on how people can be active agents in the process of developing psychological resources. All of this contributes to the discussion on mental health and overall well being. 

WBI has continued to share with as many people as we can the daily exercises and general strategies that have been proven to increase well being. These are some ways to reenergize your positive psychology practice, or to support family members, friends, and clients to do so.

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