Positive Psychology: Listening for the Rest of the Story

This is the second in a series of articles on Positive Psychology. I have written a longer, more referenced article on the subject which you can find here. To get the content hot off the press, sign up at the email link on the right column of this page or at my Facebook page. You can also search my archived content for other Positive Psychology articles by using the related subject tabs at the bottom of the article.


I am sure you have at least one job that you hated. One of my most-hated jobs was the year I was a co/apartment manager. My roommate Bob and I landed the job with no experience, no interview and no idea what the heck we were doing. I did not even own a hammer, and suddenly I was managing an apartment.

I thought it would be easy. Sit back, take rent checks and get free rent. Turns out we had to vacuum, take care of people’s plumbing issues, resolve conflicts and shovel a corner lot crap-tonne of snow. I hated it. It all came to an end when in the dead of winter, I turned the heat off in an empty apartment, thinking I would save money in between renters. DUMB IDEA. The apartment was on the outer edge of a complex and it was heated by wall-mounted, water filled radiant heaters. No heat, water freezes. Water freezes, pipes burst. Pipes burst, apartment flooded. I was not on my game that day. I should have just said “no” to the offer. I admit my mistake.

I have invested nearly half of my life in the practice of Psychology. I have an advanced degree in psychology, I have written and read more than I will ever be able to recall… and a little bit of it has actually been good. I am passionate about psychology because I love learning how people think and how they function. Mental Health, recovery, counselling, leadership and coaching are areas where I think Psychology has done a lot of good.

My respect for the profession also allows me to see the rest of the story. I think that as a on the whole, Psychology is missing part of the story. My apartment-managing job came to an end when I let a pipe freeze and it burst. I think that some branches of psychology are in the dead of winter and water is leaking all around. I worry that Psychology has become too problem focused.

As a counsellor, I am expertly trained to listen and ask questions that help me figure out what is wrong with a person and then I have a ‘tool bag‘ of strategies to help them. The process works great for plumbers and home renovators, mechanics and chiropractors. But in Psychology, asking about what is broken is only part of the story. We miss a great deal when we don’t ask about what is working, what is well, what is helping and where a person feels aliveeven a little.


Martin Seligman has written about the original goals of Psychology over the past 100 years:

  1. Cure mental illness
  2. Make our lives more productive
  3. Fulfill, identify and nurture high talent – bringing out the best in each of us, and also the high talent in the truly ‘talented’ among us

Psychology does a very good job on #1. The next two questions seem to be an afterthought. I think that we miss the best part of the story by focusing primarily on what is not working, by focusing on the illness within and the behavior that demonstrates that dis/function. I think there is more to life than being free of negative symptoms. Once we are free, then what? What kind of life do we want to live? What is our contribution? How can we thrive even though we are also not completely well?


Psychology is undergoing a revolution. Truth, it always has been in revolution. I admire that the profession is willing to grow and to change. Positive Psychology is one of the movements within psychology that is leading the culture change. I am excited how Positive Psychology is leading the profession to consider the rest of the story. Positive Psychology asks each of us:

  • Where are you suffering? Where are you well? Where are you resilient?
  • How can you become more well? What are you thankful for?
  • What are your strengths? What do you do to demonstrate grit and character?

A little while ago, I began a self-experiment. No electrodes or chemicals were involved. That would be fun and could have been interesting (mostly for you… I can do stupid things sometimes. See paragraph #1). I am using a few positive psychology tools that are making a difference. I am more thankful, more aware and a little happier. You have probably done them before, they are not unique ideas. But they work:

1. Towards the end of my day, I make a list of what I did. I take a few minutes to note how I helped my kids with their homework, listened to someone at work, completed a job posting and uploaded it, resolved one little part of a complex problem, wrote something for a blog post, exercised.

  • Writing it down makes me aware of what I really do and helps to counteract the feeling I get that I am not moving forward, not growing. It also reminds me of how many things I do for others and that is what really matters. I am more aware that little things like paying attention to a person when they are talking to me is a key part of my day.
  • I got this idea from James Altucher. He has an excellent article on how To Do Lists are Ruining the Planet. He makes sense to me because I feel overwhelmed when I make ever-growing To Do lists. I know that To Do lists are important to guide the work I will do, but they are terrible when I want to evaluate my progress. That’s why the I Did It list is way better!

2. The WWW (What Went Well) list or 3T’s (The Three Things). Most nights before bed, I take two minutes to write three things that I am thankful for and how I helped to make them happen. A few actual examples from my journal over the last few days:

  • Writing – I feel good about what I write, how I write and that I am having some success.
  • Staff issues – they are difficult and prickly. This is hard for me. I am blowing it regularly. But I am also succeeding. Leadership is Jazz. Not perfect, but risky. With risk is exposure – but only here is the growth!
  • My wife Rachelle – for her encouragement, her laughter and for how she has taught me so many things.

You may want to try one of these, or both. It is important to keep at it for a while to see if it really does anything for you. Let me know how it goes. I am interested in your experience.

I hope you enjoyed this piece. Stay tuned, I will continue writing about Positive Psychology and how it can help you and I to improve our lives.

“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, the darker, meaner self.”

Abraham Maslow

(As cited by Lopez & Gallagher)

Keep it real.

Altucher, J. (2014). To do lists are ruining the planet. https://www.facebook.com/james.altucher/posts/10152113974395636

Lopez, S.J. & Gallagher, M.W. (2009). A case for positive psychology. In Lopez, S.J. & Snyder, C.R. (Eds.) (2009). Oxford Handbook of positive psychology. (pp. 3) New York: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2001). Positive psychology, positive prevention and positive therapy. In Snyder,C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (Eds.) (2001). Handbook of positive psychology. (p. 3-9) Oxford University Press. http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/positivepsychotherapyarticle.pdf

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