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The major psychiatric institution McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, a Harvard teaching facility, announced it is introducing “positive psychology” as an alternative approach to assist in mental and emotional well being recovery.

Positive Psychology is Getting a Tryout at McLean Hospital

Date Published:

Jan 15, 2007 03:00 AM

Author: Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff

Source: Boston Globe

In a first for a major psychiatric institution, Harvard’s McLean Hospital plans to invite greater happiness into its halls, embracing the teachings of a new movement in psychology that emphasizes the positive rather then the pathological.

McLean is putting together a proposal to create an institute that will aim to teach healthcare providers and patients some of the more practical tenets of positive psychology, a mix of science and self-help that has been growing explosively in academia and building buzz in the media.

The institute, expected to come into being by the end of this year, will concentrate largely on coaching that uses positive psychology techniques such as shifting focus from people’s problems to their strengths, said Carol Kauffman , the veteran McLean clinical psychologist who will be its director. It will try to help people across the spectrum from inpatients to successful corporate executives.

“What we’re really doing is moving positive psychology from the ivory tower to the real world,” Kauffman said.

Nationwide, research papers and college classes on positive psychology have multiplied rapidly in recent years, and scores of schools have begun to try to integrate some of the movement’s concepts into the curriculum.

But Kauffman and Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor considered the father of the movement, say that as far as they know, McLean is the first psychiatric hospital to commit to positive psychology.

Positive psychology does have its skeptics — psychologists who question its effects and the quality of its science — and McLean’s move is likely to draw some questions as well.

Told about McLean’s plans, Julie Norem, chair of the Wellesley College psychology department, said: “I think that the state of the evidence to date does not warrant that large-scale implementation of the tenets of positive psychology.”

For example, she said, positive psychology often cites a wealth of studies that have found that optimism is linked to better health and longevity, then tries to help people become more optimistic.

“But we have virtually no studies that show that you can reliably, long-term, change people’s levels of . . . optimism and that doing so will lead to positive outcomes,” she said.

In fact, she said, her own work suggests that pessimism can be helpful to highly anxious people, because they end up better motivated and more satisfied with their own performance.

Philip Levendusky , McLean’s senior vice president of new business development, said he predicts that positive psychology will follow the same path as cognitive behavioral therapy, a highly popular technique that helps patients catch themselves in counterproductive thinking and refashion their thoughts. When he helped bring cognitive behavioral therapy to McLean in the early 1970s, at first “people looked at me like I had three heads,” he said.

The coaching institute may seem like a departure for McLean, one of the nation’s top psychiatric hospitals, which has long been known for researching and treating some of the most dire mental illnesses, from schizophrenia to major depression, Levendusky said. But the hospital is evolving with the times.

In recent years, McLean has expanded into new areas of research and treatment and opened new satellite locations, he said, “and the zeitgeist of McLean is such that looking at something like positive psychology makes sense.”

The institute is still early in the planning stages, said Levendusky, adding that it is in the equivalent of the first trimester of a pregnancy.

It will start off small, Kauffman said, with a budget of perhaps $250,000 a year, herself as director, her cofounder, a postdoctoral researcher, and some administrative staff. Fundraising is just beginning. The cofounder, Margaret Moore, has a business background and already runs a coaching company that helps people improve their physical and mental health.

One focus of the center will be to train mental health professionals from around the country, including nurses, social workers, interns, and doctors.

It’s still an open question whether positive psychology, which has been studied mostly in healthy people, will work on the psychiatric patients at McLean .

Seligman and others are just beginning to study the more seriously ill. Initial studies suggest that positive psychology does indeed help fight depression.

Asked if she expects resistance to the institute, Kauffman emphasized that there is no “either-or” between traditional psychotherapy and positive psychology — Both have the goal of healing. The former, she says, follows “a trail of tears,” and the latter follows “a trail of dreams” — and they can coexist. In fact, she said, some evidence suggests that positive psychology coaching boosts the effects of traditional treatment methods.

Coaching can help recipients identify and pay attention to their strengths, Kauffman said, but it is not pure cheerleading. She said she keeps in mind that research shows that a ratio of three positive comments for every negative one helps optimize performance.

“Positive psychology is not about, ‘You’re so great, you’re so great,’ ” she said, “but also, ‘Where can you be challenging yourself more?’ “

Other techniques, she said, include trying to find the right level of challenge to best develop a person’s skills, and “futuring,” which entails asking a person to imagine, for example, that it is now Jan. 1, 2008: “Look back at 2007 and the really wonderful things you did,” she said. “What are they? What did you do?”