Positive Psychology

The Importance of Positive Psychology When in Addiction Treatment

What Is Positive Psychology?

In the simplest terms, positive psychology is the study of what makes us happy and what can be done to promote positive emotions and meaningful life experiences. It is the branch of psychology that focuses most significantly on emphasizing the strengths of humanity rather than its weaknesses. By studying the way that humans think, feel, behave, and interact with one another, psychologists can better understand the things that motivate us and how positive emotions directly impact a person’s self-esteem. In turn, this field of study helps to improve the good and beneficial things in life while fixing the negative things that impact us.1 By placing a focus on a person’s character strengths and focusing on the good things in life, we can experience learned optimism which guides us to a meaningful life full of positive experiences rather than a mediocre one.

The History of Positive Psychology

Through the 1960s and 70s, Martin Seligman conducted research that provided the groundwork for the theory of learned helplessness in psychology. This research was connected to lower feelings of self-esteem and prolonged negative emotions associated with depression.

Despite his early studies, he became frustrated with psychology’s focus on negative emotions, mental illness, and abnormal psychology. Instead, he strived to focus on what he termed positive psychology. Through this study, he determined how focusing on a positive mindset directly impacted a person’s happiness. Through psychology interventions, a therapist can help bring positive change in people.

It is important to note that positive psychology was created to work in tandem with traditional psychology, not to replace it. No method of treatment works entirely in a vacuum, and as with other forms of addiction treatment and psychological interventions, positive psychology only works if the things that impact us negatively are addressed and managed as well.2

How Substance Abuse Negatively Impacts Life

There are several reasons as to how substance abuse negatively impacts a person’s life including:

  • Hinders their ability to get a job, housing, or other achievements
  • Causes negative physical and mental health conditions that impact a person’s lifespan
  • Increases the risk of causing or being in a dangerous accident
  • Increases the spread of transmissible diseases
  • Negatively impacts a person’s feelings of self-worth and self-esteem
  • Causes alienation from friends, peers, and family members
  • Increased risk of homelessness

The Three Domains of Positive Psychology

According to positive psychology, three types of happiness correspond to the way life is perceived. Psychology interventions focus on the happiness that these levels bring in different aspects of our lives and often utilize gratitude journals to track positive events and increases in certain character strengths.

Level One: Pleasant Life

This level of life is where a person engages in activities and events that bring them happiness and joy regularly. These tend to be fleeting moments of happiness such as eating a favorite food, practicing a craft they enjoy, or listening to a favorite song.

Level Two: Engaged Life 

This level emphasizes living up to character strengths and getting into a “flow state.” It involves spending time studying a new skill, mastering a trade, or spending hours learning about a topic that you are engaged in. An example of this method is a history professor researching the Crusades.

Level Three: Meaningful Life  

This level of life is measured by purpose and meaning. At this level, the focus is no longer just on bettering oneself but on applying one’s character strengths that have been honed into the service of others. By putting something that a person deems important above their desires, such as an environmental cause or social justice cause, a person can achieve the highest state of happiness.

Positive Emotions That Support Recovery

Maintaining a positive attitude through psychological interventions is the best way to achieve recovery and a sober life.3 Many therapists will ask those that are going through recovery from substance abuse, alcohol dependency, or other forms of addiction treatment to keep a gratitude journal on a daily basis.

By keeping a focus on the positive things that are happening in their lives, a person will have a greater focus on gratitude and happiness. Focusing on these types of aspects will promote a healthy lifestyle and recovery from addiction. The emotions that a therapist will emphasize focus on are:3

  • Optimism (things will work out in the end)
  • Gratitude (being thankful for the things that they have)
  • Purpose (having something to work toward or a goal to achieve that is bigger than themselves)
  • Happiness (appreciating the joy in everyday life)
  • Empathy (being kind and understanding of others who are struggling)

Positive Psychology in Addiction Treatment

Some of the most common forms of positive psychology that are used to help people who are undergoing addiction treatment are:


A therapist will help a patient learn how to calm their mind and thoughts through guided meditation. This practice helps them isolate and understand the thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs that may be hindering their recovery. In addition, once they understand those negative things, they can then focus on replacing them with positive versions of those that will help their recovery

Building Connections

Building deep, personal, and meaningful connections with others that are going through the same experiences as yourself can help a person to overcome their addictions. This connection is why support groups are so beneficial to addiction recovery.

Gratitude Exercises

Maintaining and writing daily in a gratitude journal will help a person keep a focus on the good things that are happening in their lives and will help them learn how to focus on positive events rather than negative ones.

Engaging Activities

Learning new hobbies and activities to help distract oneself from the temptation of addiction is an extremely important step in recovery.

The Addiction Recovery Movement

Today more than ever, people have a better understanding of the mechanisms and trauma that lead to addiction. The Addiction Recovery Movement focuses on fighting the stigma associated with addiction and emphasizes trauma-informed care when helping people in recovery.4

They strive to change public opinion and increase awareness as to the struggles that people face with addiction. In addition, they strive to provide greater support and treatment options to those who are seeking help and long-term recovery.


  1. https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3531570
  3. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1088&context=mapp_capstone
  4. https://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/about/what-we-do/public-policy/recovery-advocacy-movement/

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