Positive Psychology: Fit for Purpose?

Do Positive Interventions Ever Backfire?

A few weeks ago someone started an interesting discussion on the ‘Friends of Positive Psychology’ Listserv by asking if using a gratitude activity had ever backfired. The question may have been prompted by a recently published study by Susan Sergeant and Myriam Mongrain in which a gratitude exercise not only did not work with particularly needy personality types, but also appeared to result in lower self-esteem. You can read a review of the research on the British Psychological Society’s website here. (Note that, as usual, there are limitations to the study which you need to take into account).

Gratitude Journal

Gratitude Journal

Establishing Fitness to Purpose: 3 Alternatives

This again raises the question of fit (which we have covered several times before on PPND, and which Jeremy McCarthy recently discussed here), that is, whether positive psychology techniques, such as expressing gratitude, are suitable for everyone or whether they must be tailored.

It seems from the previous articles and comments on PPND there are three broad approaches:

1. One size fits all: Anyone can benefit from doing any of the positive psychology techniques.

2. Personalized: It’s possible, given the science, to find a specific approach to suit every individual. On the one hand this makes sense because we need to know if there are any exceptions to the general rule. But on the other there is no middle way with this approach. What you could end up with is “This exercise will work for those with personality type A and experience of X but not for those with personality type B or C and experience of Y or Z.” As we are all unique (aren’t we?), the level of detail to which you’d need to drill down to get a definitive answer could go on. And on. And on.

3. The Half-way House: This is the way I describe Sonja Lyubomirsky’s best fit approach. In The How of Happiness she suggests choosing a happiness strategy according to whether there is a fit with your

*source of unhappiness
*your strengths
* your lifestyle

She then provides a handy diagnostic for person-activity fit to determine which four of the 12 empirically-based strategies in her book will be most valuable to you.

Reflections on Fitness to Purpose

I can see why option 1 (one size fits all) is attractive, especially if you’ve got slightly more knowledge about positive psychology than the person you’re talking to and you’re keen to broadcast it, but actually I only know one person who takes this approach – a colleague who insists on being the expert and that people should do the dozen or so empirically validated positive psychology exercises to the letter. I’m not advocating you should take this approach by the way, but as it happens, this person does seem to be pretty successful with it.

Cutting  Your Cloth

Cutting Your Cloth

Option 2 (completely personalized) is also logically appealing. The right positive psychology technique, in the right way, at the right time, for the right person does make sense, doesn’t it? After all if someone broke a leg you wouldn’t prescribe a dose of statins to fix it. But can we deal with unhappiness, mental ill-health, or other deficits in the same way? Whether you work as a coach, therapist, counselor or psychologist, can you ‘see’ the client’s problem with the same clarity that a doctor read an Xray? I simplify to make a point, of course physical illness isn’t always straightforward to diagnose!

So that leaves us with option 3, Lyubomirsky’s half-way house, the person-activity fit. She states that “…there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier” because “Each individual is unhappy for a unique constellation of reasons.” However, she appears to be sticking with her twelve broad categories of evidence-based activity and is confident that persisting with your four best matches will pay off and boost your happiness. If not, she suggests trying other complementary activities, again selected from her original 12.

What’s interesting about Lyubomirsky’s approach is that fit is based on what you think and feel about the activity (“Will I enjoy it? Will I value it?”) and your motivation to do it, not on your innate personality characteristics. Perhaps the person-activity fit criteria really are a good proxy, but there is no suggestion that doing the ‘wrong’ activity could actually be harmful to your well-being (as occurred in the Sergeant and Mongrain’s study of highly needy people mentioned above), merely that it won’t work and that you’ll become demotivated.

So what is right? Does fit matter, and if so, how much? Are positive psychology advocates that bothered if a small group of people reacts badly to one of their techniques under laboratory conditions?

I don’t think any positive psychologist has ever given a cast-iron guarantee (even my colleague fights shy of that) but they certainly have led many hundreds of thousands of people to believe that greater well-being is readily within their grasp based on doing a small selection of activities. It would seem that there is a huge amount of work to be done, not just in terms of research but also in the way we present positive psychology to the public. Until then (paraphrasing Richard Lazarus) should we be surprised if the ‘science’ of positive psychology is continually criticized for promising a lot and delivering little?


Lazarus, R. (2003). Does the positive psychology movement have legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 93-109.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. London: Sphere. Quotations are on pages 69 & 71.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Sergeant, S. & Mongrain, M. (2011). Are positive psychology exercises helpful for people with depressive personality styles? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6 (4), 260-272


Gratitude Journal courtesy of Limevelyn
Scissors courtesy of trakygraves

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