The Power of Positive Psychology

by CDR Michael Franks, USPHS

My entire professional career as a psychologist has been spent on active duty and working in a military environment. During my time in service I have spent a total of over three years on long deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, or on briefer excursions, ranging from disaster response to humanitarian missions. Our nation has been at continuous war for more than a decade, and psychologists have proven their worth as force protectors and force multipliers.

Throughout history, war and other disasters have been unfortunate catalysts for advances in medicine and technology. Prior to World War II there were essentially three missions of psychology:
a.) curing mental illness, b.) making the lives of people more productive and fulfilling, and c.) identifying and nurturing talent.

By the end of World War II, up to a quarter of all U.S. psychologists were engaged in military psychology. It has been argued that wartime advances have been most responsible for psychology being recognized as a legitimate area of science. However, along the way, attention inadvertently moved more to a disease model focused on human suffering and repairing damage than on nurture and fulfillment.

Dr. Martin Seligman, who in 1998 pioneered a rebirth of the more positive aspects of psychology, described Positive Psychology in the following way: “Psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best. Psychology is not just a branch of medicine concerned with illness or health … it is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play … the quest for what is best. What foregrounds this approach is the issue of prevention.”

While the U.S. military is generally a healthy force both physiologically and psychologically, the military health care system certainly faces the challenge of combating disease and illness, as well as the ravages of war that bring about wounds, both visible and invisible. Mental health services are available to all military members, and constant effort is made to encourage military members to step forward when they have a problem.

I have witnessed psychologists’ roles expand exponentially to support conventional and Special Forces units and service members’ families. There is not a carrier in the Fleet that pulls out without its psychologist in tow.

In addition to incorporating services that evaluate and treat problems and address issues of the past, the military is incorporating prevention and resilience models that focus on client success and ability to thrive now and in the future. This is known as Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CST) and Operational Stress Control (OSC) in military terms. As the apostle Paul notes, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). The military is also making a robust effort in psychology to focus on resilience, which can contribute to higher post-deployment adjustment.

CST and OSC touch on values compatible with my Christian worldview, such as positive beliefs, meaning making, ethics in leadership, and the accommodation of diversity. This allows me to offer my clients an approach that blends my worldview with my training in psychological theory and practice.

In my own clinical practice, rather than try to replace any traditional evidence-based psychotherapy, I often supplement with evidence-based Positive Psychology techniques. I acknowledge pain and suffering, but help clients seek meaning and gratification. Certain human strengths, which can be fostered, safeguard us against dysfunction. These include, among other traits: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skills, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, and the capacity for insight.

I have found that, indeed, specific mental and physical resilience techniques can be trained in therapy through a program of continual self-development.

In fact, I have seen firsthand that integrating Positive Psychology, especially through resiliency training that promotes positive thinking, positive coping, behavioral control, and positive affect, can increase our ability to withstand, adapt, recover, or even grow in the face of the rigorous challenges and demands.

As, again, the words of the apostle Paul are meant to challenge us: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy —think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

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