Positive Psychology Halved Depression in Kids
BETHESDA, MD. -- Positive psychology techniques that
aim to instill a sense of optimism halved the rate of
depression in three studies of young adults and children
that included as much as 10 years of follow-up, Martin
Seligman, PhD, said at a meeting on preventing
depression sponsored by the National Institutes of
The goal of positive psychology is to enhance basic
human strengths such as optimism, courage, honesty,
self-understanding, and interpersonal skills, instead of
focusing on "the broken things" and on
repairing the damage of past traumas, said Dr. Seligman,
professor of psychology at the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Positive psychology is
meant to help the individual use inner resources as a
buffer against setbacks in life and as a means to master
adversity whenever it crops up, so that he or she does
not sink into depression, he said. "It's not about
how to heal; it's about how to have a great life,"
explained Dr. Seligman, who also is immediate past
president of the American Psychological Association.
He and his associates developed an intervention that
was designed to instill a sense of optimism, which they
defined as a positive way of construing the failures and
setbacks that normally occur in life. "If you think
that failures are stable and pervasive -- that they'll
last forever and undermine everything you try to do --
you'll get depressed. But if you can view them as
temporary or affecting only a small part of your life,
you won't get depressed," Dr. Seligman explained.
In a research project involving university students,
Psychologists screened students using a questionnaire
that measured the students' optimism. The students who
scored the lowest for optimism were then randomly
assigned either to no intervention or to a workshop that
was designed to develop skills to boost their optimism.
Principal among the skills taught in the workshop was
the cognitive therapy approach known as
"disputing." The students were taught to
recognize their own negative thoughts about themselves
and to argue against these thoughts as though they were
disputing an external critic, Dr. Seligman said.
The 126 subjects who took part in the workshops and
the 119 controls were then followed up for 8-10 years.
During young adulthood, those who had participated in
the positive psychology program when they were in
college were half as likely to have episodes of moderate
unipolar depression (13%) as were the control subjects
(27%). Similarly, the subjects who had taken part in the
workshops had half the rate of generalized anxiety
disorders, compared with the controls, he said.
Dr. Seligman and his associates then studied 10- to
12-year-old children who had symptoms of mild
depression. In this study, 67 children participated in a
similar positive psychology intervention and 47 served
as controls. After 2 years of follow-up, the rate of
mild to moderate depression was twice as high among the
controls (44%) as among the children who had
participated in the intervention (22%).
In a third study, University of Pennsylvania
researcher Dr. David Yu reported similar results after 3
months of follow-up of 10- to 12-year-olds in Beijing.
He studied 104 children who underwent a positive
intervention and 116 children who served as controls, he
Sherman specializes in teaching Positive Psychology
skills to adults and children.