December 20, 2022

ASU professors say positive psychology promotes mental health

The American jazz and folk musician Bobby McFerrin once sang, “Don’t worry, be happy.” 

But it's not always that simple.

Dealing with trauma, tragedy and relationships — or even the stress of family interactions, especially during the holidays — can sometimes make happiness elusive. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2020, an estimated 21 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. 

Two new Arizona State University professors believe positive psychology can help. 

John K. Coffey and Katherine Nelson-Coffey, who just finished teaching their first semester at the West campus, are leading researchers in the field of positive psychology. They are both associate professors of psychology at ASU’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

Positive psychology is a relatively new term that was first coined in the late '90s. The field’s approach is not about plastering a smile on and silently suffering through each day, but rather real and regularly practiced actions that promote mental health. 

The material they teach draws students from many different majors. 

“Students are so eager to grab onto this information and put it into action,” Nelson-Coffey said. “This is content that people want.”

ASU News spoke with the couple about how positive psychology works and the scientific studies that support it.  

Question: How would you describe positive psychology? 

Nelson-Coffey: Positive psychology focuses on understanding and promoting strengths, virtues and positive aspects of well-being. 

Coffey: (It) is about understanding how to thrive and live a good life. 

Q: How does positive psychology differ from other types of psychology?

Nelson-Coffey: I think one of the things that makes positive psychology unique is, of course, the focus on positive aspects of life. That doesn’t necessarily mean that other areas of psychology are negative, but they do tend to focus on the problems of human behavior, whether that’s mental illness, prejudice and discrimination, or other biases and misperceptions. Often, those areas might focus on alleviating those problems, which would often bring people back to a neutral state — and of course this is very important work. Positive psychology starts where these other areas end and tries to elevate people to a more positive, fulfilling way of life. 

Coffey: It’s human nature to focus on problems and adversity, and that’s important and helps with survival. We need to solve those problems, but it has led to less attention on things like positive emotions, sense of purpose and other experiences that prepare people for adversity and help people to thrive. 

Q: When someone is practicing positive psychology, what does that look like? What kinds of things are they doing? 

Nelson-Coffey: One thing that I really like about practicing positive psychology on a personal basis is that it doesn’t necessarily require a therapist, although it certainly can be incorporated into therapy. Most positive psychology activities are very simple, enjoyable and self-directed. My favorite positive psychology activities, to do and to research, are those that focus on building close relationships with others, such as expressing gratitude or practicing kindness. 

Coffey: ... It’s not so much about wanting to be happy as it is about following a path and doing activities that cultivate meaning, relationships and positive emotions in healthy ways. Sometimes this could be writing a gratitude letter or spending time with friends and loved ones. 

Q: How would someone use this approach to wellness in dealing with negative feelings, trauma and other experiences? 

Nelson-Coffey: I really like this question because I think a common misconception of positive psychology is that it’s all about promoting happiness, blind optimism or seeing the world through rose-colored glasses and that negative emotions are bad and should be avoided. I don’t agree with that approach at all. Everybody feels sad, angry or anxious, and unfortunately trauma is pretty common. People shouldn’t try to avoid or suppress these emotions because that will actually make things worse. If we can learn to experience joy, gratitude or awe even in the midst of these negative experiences, then we might be better able to cope with them. 

Coffey: All emotions are adaptive. Negative emotions help us survive and anticipate and resolve problems. Denying or hiding from these feelings is problematic in the long term, so being able to accept them and learn healthy ways to respond is an important skill.  

Q: What is the science behind positive psychology? What kind of research have each of you done in this area?

Nelson-Coffey: Positive psychology is based on the same scientific principles as other areas of psychology. Positive psychologists use rigorous methodologies to determine the causes and consequences of happiness, well-being and other topics within positive psychology. Most of my research focuses on close relationships — particularly families. I use a variety of methods in my research, including randomized controlled trials to evaluate how certain practices such as gratitude benefit families, daily diary studies to evaluate emotions and relationships in daily life, and surveys of large, nationally representative populations. 

Coffey: I use similar methods with more of a focus on children. Generally, I take a top-down approach to consider what a thriving adult looks like and then conduct research to evaluate how children’s experiences early in life help them to grow up to be a thriving adult. Most of my research focuses on positive emotions and relationships from infancy to adulthood. A lot of my studies are longitudinal — meaning that I evaluate positive emotions or relationships in childhood to predict well-being or other outcomes in adulthood. 

Q: With the holidays here, many people experience sadness, loneliness and more. Sometimes family get-togethers can trigger old wounds. Are there actions that people can take to prepare themselves for these kinds of feelings?

Nelson-Coffey: I think one thing that’s challenging about the holidays is that people often have a certain idea or expectation for how they want things to go — whether that’s how they want to interact with a family member or how someone will respond to a gift or more. And then they get upset or disappointed when things don’t go as planned. I think one strategy is to try to let go of those expectations and accept those negative emotions as they come up. It’s easy to have an inner voice telling you, “But it’s the holidays, you’re supposed to be happy!” But research shows that the more we idolize happiness in this way ... we’re often met with disappointment. 

Coffey: Managing expectations can be helpful. Taking time to savor and appreciate small things. Helping other people is another good one. Learn when to say no and don’t overdo it as a way to try to maintain balance.

Nelson-Coffey: Yeah, I think it’s good to know your limits. Schedules can get so busy during the holiday season and it feels like you have to do everything, which can leave people feeling really stressed. Thinking about priorities and what is “extra” can help people set boundaries.

Top photo by Ketut Subiyanto, courtesy Pexels

Reporter , ASU News