Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology

The advent of fitness apps and wearable devices has undoubtedly increased the profile and importance of exercise and fitness. Our social media feeds are seemingly saturated with fitness bloggers and the newest recipes for goji berry smoothies. This emphasis on our physical health is great, but are we giving enough thought to the state of our mental health? Positive mental health is crucial for optimal functioning, but more needs to be done in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Mental health in Australia

SANE Australia reports that nearly half (45%) of the population will experience a mental disorder at some stage in their lives, with almost 1 in 5 Australians likely to experience a mental illness every year. These come in various shapes and sizes, including anxiety disorders (14% of the adult population), depression (6%), substance abuse disorders and psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, personality disorders and other conditions.

There are estimated to be a whopping 690,000 Australians living with complex mental illness. Most will recover successfully and go on to lead fulfilling lives in the community after receiving the right treatment and support. But only around half of mental health sufferers will actually receive treatment. SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath explains that reducing stigma surrounding mental health conditions is pivotal in encouraging people who may be affected to seek help.

“Research shows that far too often people affected by complex mental illness do not seek the help they so desperately need because they consider themselves a burden, or because they are ashamed of their situation,” Heath said.

“Lack of services, a culture of self-reliance, stigma and often having limited access to a busy general practitioner are all major barriers for people battling complex mental illness in rural and regional Australia,” he said.

“While as a nation we have made real advances in reducing stigma around mild to moderate mental health conditions, there is still a great deal of work to be done to help those at the more severe end of the spectrum.”

The power of positive psychology

Chris Mackey & Associates, a psychology group practice, have worked with the residents of Geelong over the past 21 years to transform psychological problems into personal growth. Mackey agrees there is still a considerable amount of stigma in the mental health field, including the widely held belief that those with mental health problems have an underlying mental or personality weakness.

“There is a common view that people are weakened or damaged by mental health problems. It’s actually quite the opposite: many people gain valuable awareness and are strengthened by working through mental health problems such as depression,” he said.

“I experienced two cases of severe depressions myself in my early adulthood and believe I have gained considerable lasting benefits in the process of working through them,” he said.

Focusing on the field of ‘positive psychology’, Mackey and his team pioneer innovative services in order to help people realise their potential. Positive psychology embraces the idea of growth and personal development in treating mental illness, as opposed to a pure focus on pathology. By shifting the focus from clinical illness to addressing mental health problems in an optimistic light, people are able to hone in on their strengths and resourcefulness.

“Many traditional approaches in the mental health field fixate on people’s weaknesses or discrepancies in personality. Positive psychology is unique to other mental health services because it holds an optimistic focus, with an emphasis on promoting wellbeing and drawing on people’s strengths,” Mackey said.

The power of community

Mackey believes that the principles of positive psychology can flourish not only in individuals, but also within communities. By focusing on the strengths of a community through group activities, wellbeing can be improved at a broader level.

“With regard to positive mental health, we are only starting to get a glimpse of the extent to which our mental health and physical health are related. Our mind and body are literally inseparable, mutually influencing each other in ways that we are only beginning to properly appreciate,” Mackey said.

“By using innovative and optimistic ways to enhance our mental health and wellbeing beyond the norm, we are also improving our physical health beyond the norm.”

Routes to feeling good

Positive psychology is still a relatively new field of research, with its foundation based on the quest for increased satisfaction and meaning.

“A key contribution of positive psychology is highlighting that even if we are free of obvious mental health problems, we can often do more to enhance our mental health and wellbeing,” he said.

“This is similar to the idea that even if we are free from physical illness, we can often do more to enhance our physical health. In other words, there are some very achievable things we can do to help us reach our maximum functioning and to appreciate our lives even more.”

To support and maintain our own mental wellbeing, Harvard Medical School describes several routes to increasing positive thinking and happiness:

  • Seeking pleasurable emotions and sensations
  • Engaging in life by pursuing goals and activities that satisfy your interests
  • Expressing gratitude for what you have in your life
  • Savouring feel-good emotions as they arise and enjoying the moment
  • Practicing mindfulness and accepting things as they happen without judgment
  • Having self-compassion, forgiving yourself and cultivating inner strength.

The power of positive emotions cannot be understated. When we feel good, we are better equipped to deal with the pleasures, as well as pressures, that life throws at us.

Mackey reiterates: “Mental health is relevant to all of us, not just to those suffering from mental illness.”

If you need to speak to someone, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the SANE Australia helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263).

Apps available for helping you with your mental health:

Smiling Mind

Headspace Guided Meditation

UniThrive Wellbeing