Mental health is an increasingly important topic in today’s society, especially in relation to practicing and maintaining positive mental health. In recent years, there has been a surge in the abundance of resources and education around positive thinking, mindfulness, and healthy self-care practices. However, did you know that the study of positive mental health has been around since the early 1950’s? Prior to this, the focus of psychology was on mental illnesses and the abnormalities of human behaviour. Now more than ever, researchers and people alike are interested in the positive aspect of psychology and ways we can enhance our mindset and function, while preventing negative outcomes.
In 1955, social psychologist Erich Fromm defined mental health as “the ability to love and create”. During that same time period, Marie Jahoda (1958) who was also a social psychologist, characterized mental health as “the positive condition that is driven by a person’s psychological resources and desires for personal growth”.
Marie describes several characteristics of good mental health:
- A healthy attitude towards the self, which includes self-acceptance, self-esteem, and accuracy of self-perception
- The pursuit of one’s potentials
- Focused drive that is integrated into one’s personality
- An identity and values that contribute to a sense of autonomy
- World perceptions that are accurate and not distorted because of subjective needs
- Mastery of the environment and enjoyment of work, play, and love
Within the topic of mental health are the terms primary and secondary prevention.
Primary prevention is stopping the problem before it happens using preventative, prophylactic measures. For example, making mental health education, resources, and assistance available to the public to reduce the chances of becoming physically unhealthy and psychologically unhappy.
Secondary prevention is lessening or eliminating the problem after it has appeared, taking action to address the issue. It is at this stage that psychotherapy may be used as treatment to regain positive mental health. A great example of a secondary prevention is teaching someone to unlearn negative thoughts and behaviours, while adapting positive ones instead.
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, explains how to use optimism and attributional retraining as a therapeutic approach. His books on Learned Optimism (1991) and Authentic Happiness (2002) give excellent examples as to how to retrain your thinking:
It starts with teaching people the ABC’s related to the negative events in their lives. A is for the adversity, B is for the belief about the underlying reason of the event, and C is the consequence in terms of your feelings. An additional D can also be used to dispute the previous counterproductive belief with compelling accurate evidence.
Adversity: Anna’s perception that her friend Rose has been ignoring her.
Belief (of Anna): Rose does not like her because Anna is “no fun”.
Consequence: Anna feels bad about herself.
With positive thinking training, Anna will learn other explanations for Rose’s behaviour that will leave her feeling better about herself.
Disputation: Anna adapts a more optimistic approach by remembering Rose has previously mentioned she has been very stressed with her work and school tasks and that they take up a lot of her time. Anna remembers the last several times they spent together, Rose had mentioned how much fun she had. Having made these more optimistic attributions, Anna is able to feel much better about the situation.
The ABCD strategy can be applied to numerous situations in your daily life and can be a helpful way to retrain your brain to think more positively. Try this out yourself by simply writing out the ABCD’s of an event that happened in your day. Could you benefit from thinking more positively?