If you're in therapy, consider asking your therapist to include some positive psychology techniques in your sessions—in fact, he or she may already be doing so. If not, try some of these exercises:

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Identify and use signature strengths. Write down your top five strengths and try to use them more and in new ways each day. If you need help identifying yours, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., one of the leading researchers in positive psychology, has a test on his website (www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu) that measures 24 character strengths. To take it, complete the free registration form and then click on “Brief Strengths Test.” In a 2005 study by Dr. Seligman, published in American Psychologist, people were instructed to use their top five strengths in a new and different way every day or to write down their early memories nightly for a week. Six months later, those who utilized their strengths experienced more happiness and fewer symptoms of depression than those who simply put their memories to paper.

Keep a gratitude journal. Often recommended by Oprah Winfrey, this technique involves writing down each evening three good things that happened to you and noting why you think they happened. Many people focus on negative emotions or events and ignore the positive ones. Keeping a gratitude journal is a way to shift your focus to the more positive aspects of your life and to reflect on them. In Dr. Seligman's study, keeping a gratitude journal was just as effective as utilizing signature strengths for improving mood.

Research also suggests that fostering a sense of gratitude can have a strong physical benefit. A 2009 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research enrolled more than 400 men and women, 40% of whom had sleep problems. The researchers found that participants who reported feeling more grateful about their lives fell asleep quicker and slept longer and deeper, independent of any other personality traits.

Express appreciation to other individuals. Extend your gratitude to the important people in your life. For example, write a letter to a friend, relative, or colleague telling them why you are thankful for something they said or did. But don't just send the letter; consider reading it to them in person or over the phone. In Dr. Seligman's study, the benefits of writing an appreciation letter were not as long lasting as using signature strengths or keeping a gratitude journal, so you might aim to write such a letter once a month.

Perform acts of kindness. Turning your focus to improving the lives of people around you can increase your own happiness. Try to help others in ways both random (like holding the door open for someone or letting someone go in front of you in line) and planned (such as volunteering or donating blood). A study published in 2005 in Review of General Psychology examined the effects of performing acts of kindness. Participants were asked to engage in five acts of kindness over the course of a week or a day or to do nothing. Only the participants who combined their five kind acts into one day felt happier, suggesting that making kindness a regular part of your daily routine is the most beneficial approach.

Striking a Balance in Treating Depression and Other Mood Disorders

While the practice of positive psychology is growing in popularity, it is still important to treat psychological disorders by dealing with negative emotions and problems. But supplementing this traditional approach with positive psychology's focus on building strengths and savoring the positive aspects of life can have an additive, beneficial effect on your mental health.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 02 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 10 Sep 2015