March 29, 2008

Positive psychology, the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach

Several years ago, I viewed the strengths perspective as an approach which had great overlap with the solution-focused approach. This article from 2002 reflects my understanding at that time. Gradually however, my view has changed a bit. I have become more aware of the importance of some of the differences between the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach. On this blog I have written about this shift in my thinking before in this post How important is the concept of strengths really? and in this post It is essentially about what has functioned well (not about strengths). In these posts I have argued that that being effective is essentially more about doing what works than about identifying and applying strengths. The shift in my thinking was stimulated further by the research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues (especially the research mentioned in this post PROCESS PRAISE more effective than TRAIT PRAISE). This research made me worry that the strengths perspective could easily promote a fixed mindset which has some known negative impacts (see here).

This week, I was discussing the issue with a few colleagues and I reflected on this afterwards. I realized that the strengths movement and positive psychology on the one hand and the solution-focused approach on the other differ in some dimensions, which might be described as follows:

1. Standardization versus idiosyncratism
: the strengths movement and most positive psychologist currently seem to rely rather strongly on standardization by developing taxonomies and questionnaires. The solution-focused approach relies on an idiosyncratic approach in which there is no need for standard labels and constructs. Instead, each case is viewed as unique.

2. Plan+implement versus Try+learn: positive psychology and the strengths movement usually seem to rely on first measuring, analyzing and diagnosing and then following certain predesigned steps forward. This is a rather linear process relying on explicit knowledge. The solution-focused approach however can be characterized more as a try and learn approach in that it involves taking one step at a time, and respond to the consequences of the actions taken. This is circular and iterative process relying on implicit knowledge. (more about this dimension here).

3. Applying strengths versus doing what works: the strengths movement focuses much on identifying and developing strengths as a route to fulfillment and success. In this sense it seems the strengths movement is rather individualistic in its focus. The solution-focused approach focuses more on the interaction between individual and context. The focus is more on doing what works than on applying strengths per se. Doing what works does not have to involve strengths at all. Doing what works can also simply involve using some situational feature or help by other people or just doing something which helps in that situation (without it having to be some core personal strength).

Having said this, I feel that the solution-focused approach and positive psychology differ more on a practical than on a principle level. If the goal of positive psychology is to understand how individuals and institutions thrive (and to promote this) this would NOT imply a need for high standardization, plan+implement and strengths focus. The goal of positive psychology could also be accomplished by following an idiosyncratic, try+learn and doing what works approach. Granted, the types of generalizable knowledge that would be produced would probably be different.....(hmm, interesting... how would it be different?) Gosh, I would like that... to see a group of positive psychologists who would follow this approach.


  1. Dear Coert,

    I agree with your blog on this and your point about trying things to find what works. In my experience, people want questions and suggestions customized to their unique needs in a given situation.

    As for strengths, your points are well-taken. I would add that, for me, the most important messages are that everyone has strengths and that all strengths are created equal-- it doesn't matter which ones you have.

    Thanks for posting this,
    Christine (MAPP '07)

  2. Thanks Christine, I really appreciate your thoughtful comment!

  3. I just read the article on your blog titled, "Positive Psychology, the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach,"
    and although I recognize that your points seem accurate, I guess the reason I am writing is that I just don't understand what the argument is...I just feel like maybe you are not embracing the larger perspective of what is going on. Why do the two (or, three) approaches - SFC, and Strength-based or Positive Psychology - have to be pitted against each other. I think you are making an error in doing so. In fact, perhaps these perspectives may do each other better by collaborating rather than quibbling ...

    Let me see if I can illustrate my point, If a client is depressed, as a therapist or helper we must think about facilitating client change toward more positive thinking (e.g., positive psychology). Or, if a client is trying to figure out what their vocational calling is, or how to better communicate and work with others, they probably need to assess their strengths and, at least in part, focus on those. Or, for example, in attempting to help a client involved in a therapeutic relationship, one needs to explore whatever problems surface during that relationship and therefore be solution focused.

    So to conclude, I would say that in some senses these are just different ways of looking at problems using perhaps semantic differences for saying that our intent, our goal is to help the client move in a positive direction. The way I look at it is that only in recent time are we now coming to realize that the disease model, both in mental healthcare and allopathic care, is wrong. I think that Selligman and others who are contributing to the view of positivity have made some amazing contributions. All three of these approaches, SFC, and Strength-based or Positive Psychology, are great advancements in the way, both practical and theoretical, we view and practice mental health. One of the things I love about mental health is that the theoretical and practical really cannot be separated. Personal change requires thinking, and a therapist cannot do that (his or her thinking) for the client, so in some senses a client is also a counselor for themselves.

  4. Good post on positive Positive psychology.

    karim - Positive thinking

  5. Coert,

    Another great post. I think the most important thing you brought up is the fact that focusing on and labeling strengths could foster a "fixed mindset." Couldyou write a post in which you talk about that specifically as I'm not sure most people know about Dweick's work in this area.

  6. I would add that, for me, the most important messages are that everyone has strengths and that all strengths are created equal-- it doesn't matter which ones you have.

  7. Yes, there are differences and it's tempting in assessing the differences as an audit of which is better. I'm guilty at times!! I've even had the chance to tell Marty Seligman personally about, '…what PP could do better!'

    In a world of problem-focused reviews, analysis and the 'end of humanity' mindset thank goodness we have PP, SF, AI, et al to point us towards a more purposeful outlook. I think the larger task is to get all of these approaches out into the mainstream.


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner