Hooray for Sadness: positive emotions in treatment of depression

So can fostering feelings of connection and nurturing positive skills—as opposed to just limiting negative thought patterns—reduce suicidal plans and death fantasies? 

This is a great question and at the heart of what positive psychology aiims to serve. Normal is not enough. Thriving is the goal. While we have many tools that have truly helped in targeting suicidal ideation, The Greater Good Society explores how positive emotions can be leveraged in treatment of depression and suicidal ideation. 


While it is easy to make fun of the “turn the frown upside down” approach and scoff at “happy therapy” when it comes to treating very real mental health issues, the article does highlight two key studies targeting Graitutude, Grit and Forgiveness. 



Calvin and Hobbes inspire Happiness

Calvin and Hobbes launched in my senior year in high school. Never acused of being too cool for school, I adored the little man’s antics and philosophical queeries to his tiger. Bill celebrated the Child’s immagination before society has beaten it out of him, Character Building dad’s, brave mothers, teachers and babysitters who will have their revenge, slimy girls and deep friendships with tigers. He tooks us back to our day dreams and reminded us to invent our own rules because with out it how can you play Calvin Ball? Bill gave the commencement speech at Kenyon College back in 1995. Poignant. Inspired. A few months latter he retired Calvin and his world: “I will be stopping Calvin and Hobbes at the end of the year. This was not a recent or an easy decision, and I leave with some sadness. My interests have shifted, however, and I believe I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.”
Now, Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than, of Zen Pencils, hasn taken the key elements of that speech and set them to a Bill Waterson stylized comic strip complete with Dinosaurs, red wagons and otherwroldly landscapes (although lacking any tiger).  This panel is a celebration that living life authentically, being true to your own values, is the path to happiness. From Gavin’s profile of Bill, we learn that Watterson is not just creative, but persistent and full of intergirty. His comic strips reveal his humor, curiosity and wisdom

Happy hacks by Professor Zaks

Ok, could not resist. Happiness research continues to higher plains of understanding as research specifically looks at exact neurochemicals that contribute to happiness. Dr. Zak has studied Oxcytocin for over a decade in his neuro-economics lab as he sought to understand morales. From his research he made some profound discoveries:

I found that individuals who release the most oxytocin — I call them “oxytocin-adepts” — were more satisfied with their lives compared to those who release less oxytocin. Why? They had better relationships of all types: Romantic, friendships, family, and they even shared more money with strangers in laboratory experiments. The moral molecule morphed in the happy molecule. Happiness largely comes from other people for social creatures like us.

Note: The ring on the right side is actually seretonin

Oxytocin looks like this: 

Now what hacks did he actually discover?

  • Hug. Touch is powerful, be it with a person or animal. 
  • Recognize and express your observations of other’s emotional states. 
  • Tell people you love them. 

These three actions stimulate release of oxytocin. Why does that matter? Oxytocin helps us connect with others, heal, increase generosity, romance, trust…among its primary function. 

Dr. Zac explains in his most excellent Ted Talke:


Where is the besets, happiest schools?

Singapore of course!

Well, at least according to Buzzfeed, who compared test scores and happy student score:

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s triennial international survey compared test scores from 65 countries. Happiness was ranked based on the percentage of students who agreed or disagreed with the statement “I feel happy at school.” Test scores were ranked based on the combined individual rankings of the students’ math, reading, and science scores.


Personally I question the results. 

One of the best sets of videos on Happiness EVER!

Check out this extraordinary set of videos from Think and Be Happy. It includes a couple of hundred videos featuring top psychologists, educators and buddhists monks. 

Enjoy some past Happiness & Its Causes presentations –  a fabulous mix of leaders in psychology, science, education, business, spirituality, the arts and more! Visit our Think & Be Happy YouTube channel here for more footage.

What is the strengths explorer? Initial Review.

Most people familiar with the Strengths Movement are aware of the big two: Gallup Strengthsfinder and the VIA Character Strengths assessment. There are others, but today we will focus on one designed specifically for younger students, The Gallup StrengthsExplorer, which they claimgives teachers a tool to help identify the talents of their students, as well as actionable suggestions for utilizing those talents. Such information can help teachers to individualize the ways in which they respond to youths, and the manner in which they can teach most effectively. In addition, it provides teachers and parents a common language, goals, and sets of action, all based on the unique talents of youth.” The stated aimes of the Strengthsexplorer instrument is:

  • Help youths identify their positive characteristics

  • Help youths improve their understanding of self

  • Help youths develop from their areas of greatest talent

  • Improve parents’/instructors’ understanding of their children/students

  • Provide an opportunity for an important kind of communication between parents and their children (i.e., discussion of one’s unique nature, the positive characteristics/gifts that one has, and how those can be developed)

  • Provide the theme-based language that youths and parents/ instruc- tors could use to discover and describe positive characteristics 

This 78 item assessment focuses only on 10 strengths, reporting out a person’s top 3. Aimed at students in grade 6 to 10, is a welcome addition to the Naviance platformGallup has partnered with Naviance to provide this assessment to students at its 6000 school around the world. Certainly this has far reaching implications. See it in action here:

Gallup StrengthsExplorer in Action from Naviance on Vimeo.

What intrigues me most is how they linked it careers. I expect many counselors will like that. 

StrengthsExplorer Themes:


  • Achieving
  • Caring
  • Competing
  • Confidence
  • Dependability
  • Discoverer
  • Future Thinker
  • Organizer
  • Presence
  • Relating

So how does it work?

Spend about 12 minutes answering the 78 questions. The interface is clean, large letters. Each question comes up once, with no timelimit, but you cannot go backwards. Once completed, you will learn your top 3 (of the ten). 

The breif descriptions are straightforward and empowering. The detailed report begins with an eye-catching graphic.

Take a look at the detailed for Discoverer (“A thinker and learner, you are excited about exploring ideas and making connections. You like to ask the questions “How?” and “Why?”)


A thinker and learner, you are excited about exploring ideas and making connections. You like to ask the questions “How?” and “Why?” Questions are in your mind a lot. How does that work? Why did that happen? How did someone figure that out? You are excited to explore new ideas and ask questions so you understand the “how” and “why” of the things you choose to learn. You collect and connect information and ideas. It is fun to be an expert, and when you find a subject or idea you like, you can spend a lot of time exploring it. You might be bored doing things the same way everyone else does because you like to find new ways. Talking with creative thinkers is fun because it sparks even more ideas. People can benefit from your information and ideas when you share them.

Obviously this sounds a lot like VIA’s Curiosity and a bit like love of learning and perhaps creativity. But given that it comes from Gallup, perhaps it is best to look at which of the 34 strengths themes it combines. Gallup has their own Learner description that is quite similiar, but it has strong tones of Context and analytical. The descriptors are very useful and insightful for helping students understand themselves and counselors and teachers to gain insight. 

The action items are aimed at students. They are somewhat general and basic. 

1. Discoverer – Action Items

  •  What would you like to research? Maybe you would like to choose one or two subjects that interest you a lot, and try to become an expert on them. Could you know more than anyone else in your grade about something? Since you like to explore ideas on your own outside of school, try to earn credit for your research and have it help your grades.
  •  You are good at figuring out how things work. Try to create a space of your own where you can take things apart and see how they’re made, even if it’s just a special “project box” you keep under your bed.
  •  Find people who are interested in the same things as you. Start a conversation. You can teach each other what you know and learn to look at ideas in new and different ways. Together, you may discover more and more because your ideas connect and lead to new ones. Who else might like to join in?
  •  The Internet is one place to explore ideas. Find someone who knows great Internet sites where kids can do research, and make a list. Share the list with teachers and friends, and add their favorites to it. They will appreciate it, and you will have a growing list of places you can learn about new ideas.
  •  You like to know the reason why. You like to get as much information and knowledge as you can before you kick off an activity. Sometimes, others may have an idea and want to jump in and get started. You can be the “voice of reason” in the group who helps them get the facts and learn more first.
  • ——
  • Counselors and teachers would appreciate more direct suggestions on how to work with students. Perhaps a secton called “Working with Discoverers”
  •  Discovers often like school, especially when they get to explore actively. They will respond well to constructivist approaches, problem based learning and original research projects. 
  •  Discovers love to solve problems, be it math, or design, emotional or intellectual. find ways to engage them actively in the problems of the world. 
  •  Discoverers may love clubs that allow them to explore–Science Fair, Socractic Club, Quiz team–anywhere knowledge can be discovered. 
  •  Discovers may like to deeply inquire into a topic or broadly explore a varity of topics. Either way, they rejoice in new and interesting topics. 
  •  Discovers like to know why. Give them a context for why you are doing these things. 
  •  Partner Discovers with organizers to help them stay grounded in their exploration and Pressence to help them bring their research alive to others. 
    I think counselors and teachers would find this sort of information very useful. 
    The workbook that accompanies the profile ould rpovide some useful guiance lessons, but I wonder if the student would actually use it otherwise. Colorful, it contains a lot of fill-in the blanks self-reflection components. The suggetions again could be very useful if students did them. For example: “Ask your mom, dad, teacher, friend, brother, or sister to tell you about a time when he or she saw you using these talents.” and ”Consider selecting an action item that you would do with your mom, dad, brother, or sister. Then talk to that person about getting started.” The workbook is available here, along with the parent guide and the Educator/Leader Activity Book. You can read a review of a parent’s reastion to seeing his daughter’s report here:
    I had an “aha” moment when I saw his three themes: Competing, Relating, and Discoverer. They explained so much about who my son is. For example, we knew that he loved to win at basketball. But we couldn’t figure out why, if he wanted to win so badly, he kept passing the ball to whoever called out for it, whether they were likely to make the shot or not. Now we realize that in his activities, the relationships are just as important to him as the game itself. 


     One of the most intriguing aspects of the Strengths explorer is the link to career pathways:


    The links take you to Naviance’s already established career pathways. Unfortunately, Naviance and Gallup have given no indication on how the career pathways came to be associated with the indivudal strength themese. Strengths explorer was not designed as a career discovery tool (read the technical report here). So how did Naviance come up with this list? Does accounting really respresent a Discoverer? Do accountants really emobdy “A thinker and learner, you are excited about exploring ideas and making connections.” Do they “like to ask the questions “How?” and “Why?”” Apparently accountants do have particular types of personalities: 

    Although there are 16 different MBTI types, 42 percent of all accounting students fit into just two types according to the “Accounting Editors’ Journal.” Twenty-five percent tested as type ESTJ or extroverted, sensing, thinking and judging. They tend to trust what they perceive with their senses rather than intuition or gut feelings. They rely on logical thought more than emotion, and they prefer to make judgments about what they experience rather than simply experiencing life without judging. Seventeen percent tested as ISTJ or introverted, sensing, thinking and judging.

    Do the STJ personality types correspond to the Discoverer strength theme? Certainly a discoverer is a thinker and most likely a sesnor. As an ENFP…and a discover…it apparently does not fit for me. 

    While Naviance should make their details more clear, in adding the StrengthsExplorer Naviace provides a robust counseling tool. Naviance also needs to develop a report so counselors can quickly see who has completed the assessment (much like they do for both the Do What You Are and the Career Interest Profiler). Counselors will want lesson plan outlines and activities. Stay tuned and the StrengthsMining website will aim to help you.  

    This is Grit

    Angela Duckworth defines Grit is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” She explains in her research on Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee. 

    Our major findings in this investigation are as follows: Deliberate practice—operationally defined in the current investigation as the solitary study of word spellings and origins—was a better predictor of National Spelling Bee performance than either being quizzed by others or engaging in leisure reading. With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice, despite rating the experience of such activities as more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities. Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance.

    You can here Duckworth talk about her research at this Ted X. 


    People have LOVED this concept. Her Ted X talk has been viewed 118,000 times. Her original Ted talk was viewed 255,00 times. Paul Tough’s excellent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, profiling her research has been number 1 in Amazon’s Educational Psychology books (it is 271 overall). It has inspired a movement encouraging people to send in their own stories of Grit:


    #ThisIsGRIT is a video campaign showcasing stories of people just like yourselves, who have faced hurdles, challenges and hardships in pursuing their collegiate, professional or development education. They all share something in common: they leveraged GRIT to press through their hard times and onward to success. Here is one of my alumni sharing his trials as he moved from one school to another. 


    Years of research show GRIT to be an absolute essential element in success. Do you have a GRIT story?

    Submit here.

    Strengths Mined: Perseverence. Discipline

    Happy Parenting

    University of Washington  (via How Can I Be Happy Blog) has published a study about five parentng programs that work to help raise healthy and happy teenagers:

    Nurse-Family Partnership sends registered nurses to visit young, first-time, single mothers at least once every two weeks during their first pregnancy and until their child is 2 years old. Nurses help expecting moms reduce smoking, drinking and drug use. After the child is born, nurses help mothers create safe environments for their children and develop strategies for dealing with difficult behaviors.

    Positive Parenting Program is a flexible system of programs that focuses on five main goals: promoting safe and engaging environments, creating positive learning environments, using effective discipline, creating clear and reasonable expectations, and self-care for parents.

    The Incredible Years teaches children ages 3-6, their parents and teachers skills and strategies for handling difficult situations. Parents participate in group sessions; children take part in therapist-led group sessions, which help children develop skills such as problem solving, making friends, and cooperating with others. (This program was developed by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, now director of UW’s Parenting Research Clinic.)

    In Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14, parents learn about risk factors for substance use, parent-child bonding, consequences for not following parental guidelines, and how to manage anger and family conflict. Their children learn effective communication, problem solving, and how to resist peer pressure.

    Staying Connected with Your Teen helps children 12-17 years old avoid risky sexual activity, drug use, and violent behavior. The program helps parents set strong norms with their teen against antisocial behavior by increasing parental monitoring, reducing harsh parenting, and rewarding teens to promote family bonding.

    The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality

    “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality,” so explains Andrew Solomon in this Ted Talk. He chronicled his how experiences in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

    Strengths Mined: Zest, Positivity, Optimism

    There is a growing body of research that suggests connections to using your strengths regularly and higher levels of wellbeing. Here are some specific examples regarding Depression:

    • Using one’s signature strengths in a new and unique way is an effective intervention: it increased happiness and decreased depression for 6 months (Seligman, Steen, Park, Peterson, 2005). 
    • Using one’s signature strengths in a new way and three good things increased happiness for 6 months and decreased depression for 3 and 6 months, respectively. The early positive memory group and not the early memory group had similar benefits increasing happiness and decreasing depression for 3 months each (Mongrain & Anselmo, 2009).
    • The use of one’s top strengths leads to a decreased likelihood of depression and stress and an increase in satisfaction in law students (Peterson & Peterson, 2008).
    • Three good things (writing down three positive things that happened during the day) is an effective intervention: it increased happiness and decreased depression for 6 months (Seligman, Steen, Park, Peterson, 2005).
    • Using one’s signature strengths in a new way increased happiness and decreased depression for 6 months (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2012).
    • The use of one’s top strengths leads to a decreased likelihood of depression and stress and an increase in satisfaction in law students (Peterson & Peterson, 2008).