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What is positive psychology?

        Science | Emotions

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Opposite of Positive Psychology
Life has both negative experiences along with positive ones. Accepting experiences for what they are is a foundation of ACT.
Life has both negative experiences along with positive ones. Accepting experiences for what they are is a foundation of ACT.
©iStockphoto.com/Yuri_Arcurs

In many societies, mental illness is a disorder that requires treatment. In modern societies, depressive states fall into the same category. If we're effectively treating mental illness, then why can't we start focusing on making happy people even happier? The reason is simple: According to proponents of an alternative to positive psychology called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), happiness isn't the natural state of the human condition.

By placing an intense focus on happiness and its pursuit, detractors believe that positive psychologists could establish an unrealistically high bar for an average person's mood. To attain happiness, individuals may ignore or repress negative aspects of their lives that require attention. What's more, points out ACT therapist and author Dr. Russ Harris, "ignoring negativity is unrealistic." Focusing exclusively on the pursuit of happiness is "a nice theory, but here's the catch: The things we value most in life bring with them a range of feelings, pleasant and unpleasant" [source: Harris].

Humans are stuck, says Harris and other ACT adherents, in a life where we get both the good and the bad. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can start living.

Like positive psychology, ACT is an offshoot of traditional psychology, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy. ACT treatments focus on exploring past experiences that have come to define a person's outlook on life. By exploring these experiences on their own terms -- for example, regretful, shameful or thrilling -- patients will ostensibly come to accept their negative emotions and commit to changing or preserving behaviors, depending on the value the individual chooses to place on them [source: Hayes].

By becoming more conscious of the experiences they've had and the outlook they've framed for themselves, ACT participants can choose to decide for themselves how they feel about each one.

Acceptance and commitment therapy and positive psychology run nearly contrary to one another. Both are recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA), which lends weight to each subfield. That said, it should be left to the individual to choose which might work best for him or her.