Positive psychology – Polyanna or Promising?

holly-cherubl.jpgI was hoping to post on positive psychology and chronic pain, but have failed to find any specific references using these two headings – I then had a brain-wave and without waiting for someone reading this to locate something for me… I remembered the body of research in contextual cognitive behavioural therapy – mainly by Lance McCracken.
So this post is dedicated to CCBT, positive psychology and the season of good cheer!

Anyway, the reason for wanting to post on this aspect of psychology is that I have a hunch that resilience (my PhD topic!) and aspects of positive psychology might just be relevant for people learning to live with chronic pain.

So, what is positive psychology?
It is the ‘scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive’ (Positive Psychology Centre )
It’s derived from the early humanist psychologists such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and others, and further developed by Martin Seligman, Albert Bandura and others, with the focus being on strengths, and those features of human life that promote wellbeing, resourcefulness and the ability to develop.

For a great list of resources and links relevant to positive psychology, go here: and go here for links to various questionnaires that may be useful.

Anyway, to come back to my hunches… psychological flexibility is a feature of positive psychology, and involves processes of acceptance, mindfulness, values, and cognitive defusion (for a longer explanation of these see McCracken, L. M., & Vowles, K. E. (2007)).

Positive values such as the following seem to enable people to live well despite life events around them:

  • finding good things about each event that happens in our lives,
  • having compassion for ourselves and others,
  • being creative and finding opportunities for development

When people don’t demonstrate cognitive flexibility, they can remain fixed in resentment and anger, attend to only a few things (and judge the experience negatively), and believe that what they think is so, rather than a thought that alters depending on context. What this means in pain management is that people fixate on their pain and the negative judgement of that pain and how it interferes with their activities, remaining angry and fixed in the ways that they approach life.

Using what we can learn from positive psychology, we may be able to help people in this position draw on their strengths by assessing coping strategies in terms of strengths rather than us as professionals dwelling on their vulnerabilities and problems.

For example, we may look at the values that they are using when declaring that ‘I can’t do pacing’ – does this reflect their desire to achieve and their ability to persevere despite pain? Instead of a negative feature, can we help them identify their strength with task persistence or achievement, and develop the ability to apply this value flexibly and in contexts in which this is helpful?

McCracken and others have spent a good deal of time exploring the concept of acceptance, finding strong positive relationships between acceptance and function, acceptance and positive affect, and acceptance and reduced use of avoidance (see below for references). I’m looking forward to the time when we can read of others researching this area – perhaps from the Positive Psychology Centre or similar.

In the meantime, we can learn from this research ways to encourage the people we work with to sit ‘with’ their pain, becoming aware of pain but not judging it negatively (or positively), help them to look for positives (remember the post about counting your blessings?

And in this season of good cheer, perhaps we can interpret the ways people cope with their pain in positive ways – what is adaptive about their strategies? How can they be used to help them achieve their goals in life? What features of what they currently do can be drawn upon to help them succeed?

Finally, can we as treatment providers look on the bright side too? Can we give ourselves credit for continuing to work in this complex and challenging area, often with limited idea of just how effective we are? And perhaps, by being ‘Pollyanna’ for a while, we might catch sight of the promise, possibilities and potential in our clients and ourselves – and have a Brilliant New Year!

If you’ve enjoyed this post, and others – subscribe above using the RSS feed, and leave a comment!

BTW For a great place to review positive psychology from a personal perspective, go to Authentic Happiness and spend some time mooching about the information and resources held there…

McCracken, L., & Samuel, V. (2007). The role of avoidance, pacing, and other activity patterns in chronic pain. Pain, 130(1), 119 – 125.

McCracken, L. M. (2007). A Contextual Analysis of Attention to Chronic Pain: What the Patient Does With Their Pain Might Be More Important Than Their Awareness or Vigilance Alone. Journal of Pain, 8(3), 230-236.

McCracken, L. M., Eccleston, C., & Bell, L. (2005). Clinical assessment of behavioral coping responses: Preliminary results from a brief inventory. European Journal of Pain, 9(1), 69-78.

McCracken, L. M., & Vowles, K. E. (2007). Psychological flexibility and traditional pain management strategies in relation to patient functioning with chronic pain: An examination of a revised instrument. The Journal of Pain Vol 8(9) Sep 2007, 700-707.

McCracken, L. M., & Yang, S.-Y. (2006). The role of values in a contextual cognitive-behavioral approach to chronic pain. Pain, 123(1-2), 137-145.


  1. Hi, I’m a social work major who lives with a condition called complex regional pain syndrome. I like your post. We believe in a strengths perspective at my school of social work. I think this positive focus is great, and is of greater help for someone with pain. Thanks for posting about this, and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. Great post. Many times I’ve mentioned in my blog about “the new science of pain”. I written about how the brain changes with pain. It’s been shown by imaging that imagined movements or seeing movements activate the same brain pathways as if actually doing the activity, “monkey see, monkey do”. From this discovery mirror therapy was developed.

    It’s also known that if we think negatively about our pain (this is the worst pain ever), our brain changes in an unhelpful way, just as it changes in a beneficial way when we think positively about our pain (I can cope with this).

    So scientists have discovered that you can change your brain by what you imagine not just by actions. You can benefit by practicing feeling happy. The left frontal cortex, known as the seat of happiness, will be activated. Just by practicing, or imagining feeling happy, you can create the pathways to happiness. Changing my thinking, accepting what is (as you mentioned) has really helped me cope with chronic pain.

  3. Thanks friends for your kind words. I really think that working towards acceptance rather than struggling to control a situation is really the most positive way of learning to live despite pain. I’m not sure of the brain circuitry (I don’t think the neuro-imaging studies have been done yet), but from a psychological point of view, thinking positively reduces the ‘fight or flight’ response, allows the problem-solving parts of the brain to engage, and enables you to do what humans are good at – adapt.

    At the very least, working with strengths of people really makes my job as a pain therapist miles easier – a whole lot less heartbreaking!

  4. A positive outlook on life is not a Pollyanna Complex in my view. I have Fibromylgia and I work with a TRUE Pollyanna. We can not go to this person with a reality based people issue because they are too busy trying to save the world. In the work place that is impossible and controlling ones environment by being nice has a negative impact on all involved. In our environment Pollyanna draws too her ALL the needy people who function by being enabled and not on work skills. We have a person in our workplace who on a daily basis drops the ball and costs the Company large amounts of money. We are all working twice as hard redoing or double checking this persons work causing everyone involved more work. When we go to complain we are told this person has a bad home life, don’t we all to some extent? Reality is just that it is reality and because we can face it head on does not mean we are negative people who should feel guilt. But that is part of the complex if we do not keep Pollyanna’s illusions of extreme compassion and happiness we are made to feel bad about ourselves. I was a Pollyanna when I was a child and it took years to realize what that truly meant. My ex-husband beat me, put guns to my head and called me every vile name you could think of. I could forgive because I understood where his behavior came from and I had extreme compassion for him. In the end with the help of a Judge I realized I was enabling him to act in this fashion that it was my change in reality that needed adjustment. As with all things one end of the spectrum is Pollyanna the other is a Negative personality in the middle is healthy.

  5. So true, MissyDianaMarie – there does have to be a balance!! What I like about positive psychology and ACT is that it’s not being Pollyanna, but allowing oneself to be in the middle of an experience without avoiding or overattending, just being neutral.
    Thank you for posting, and I hope you drop by again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.