Using Positive Psychology to Enhance Recreation Therapy Programming

A relatively new psychology movement is gaining a lot of attention lately. Positive Psychology is changing the way we view mental health and wellness by focusing on people’s strengths instead of what is “wrong” with them. Recreation Therapists and other Activity Professionals have unique opportunities to apply Positive Psychology principles into their programming.

What is Positive Psychology?

Simply put, positive psychology is the “scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” The field believes people want to live meaningful lives and bring out the best in themselves to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.

Does it sound a little similar to our Recreational Therapy ideals?

Martin Seligman is a pioneer of Positive Psychology, although Abraham Maslow coined the term. His work involved using the scientific method to explore what really makes people happy. Using “exhaustive” questionnaires, Seligman found the most upbeat and satisfied people discovered and used their unique “signature strengths” such as humanity, courage, and persistence. Seligman concluded happiness had three dimensions:

  • The Pleasant Life is realized when we learn to savor and appreciate the basic pleasures in our lives. These could include companionship, the natural environment, and our bodily needs. This dimension is about feeling good rather than doing good or being a good person. Some people could happily stay in this dimension throughout their lives.
  • The Good Life involves discovering our unique virtues and strengths then using them creatively to enhance our lives. By finding the things we are good at and using them to help our career, leisure, or relationships, we achieve the good life. Some of the virtues include capacity for love, courage, forgiveness, and interpersonal skills.
  • The Meaningful Life is when we find a deep sense of fulfillment using our strengths and talents for a purpose greater than ourselves. This allows us to find meaning in our lives by being of service to others. Virtues included in this dimension include: altruism, civility, tolerance, social responsibility, and work ethics.

Seligman defines strengths as moral traits that can be developed, learned, or that take effort. Talents, on the other hand, are inherent and could only be cultivated from what exists in the person.

Why is Positive Psychology Important?

Mainstream psychology as well as other medical disciplines often are concerned with what is wrong with the person.

According to Positive, prior to the Second World War, psychology had three main tasks:

  • Curing mental illness
  • Improving normal lives
  • Identifying and nurturing high talent.

After the War, resources and funding for psychological studies were drastically reduced. With the lack of resources, psychology narrowed its focus to treating psychological illness and psychopathology. The field began operating within a disease model. This model has helped bring effective treatments to several mental illnesses like depression, personality disorder, and anxiety. Unfortunately, the focus on improving normal lives and nurturing talents fell by the wayside.

Positive Psychology seeks to revisit improving normal lives and identifying and nurturing talents as part of normal psychology practice.

Think of it like this. If you told a friend you were going to see a psychologist, what would their likely response be?

Maybe…”Oh, what’s wrong?”

Positive Psychology is trying to change the stigma of getting help so your friend’s response would be more like:

Oh, that’s great!. You’re working on self-improvement.”

Implications for Recreation Therapy

Luckily, I think Recreation Therapy in general has followed a similar mindset with our interventions. We take activities and experiences our participants enjoy and use them to help heal and build independence. After all, Recreation Therapy can help our participants address any of the three dimensions mentioned above. For example:

  • The Pleasant Life: We provide experiences giving our participants satisfaction, joy, and companionship through outings and social events.
  • The Good Life: We help our participants use their strengths to discover, experience, and revisit fulfilling leisure activities.
  • The Meaningful Life: We empower our participants to use their strengths to cooperate and collaborate with others through team building, volunteering, and team sports.

Should we pat ourselves on the back? Sure, maybe for a little bit. Of course, there is always room for improvement.

If we are more mindful during our Recreation Therapy interventions, we could be even more effective at promoting a positive lifestyle for our participants. For example, in researching this article, I found one of the concepts of Positive Psychology involves having the person find meaning in an activity while they are doing it. This sense of immediacy could be beneficial, because if a participant realizes the benefits of an activity while they are doing it, they will probably have a more positive memory of the activity when reflecting on it. So while we are immersed in a Recreation Therapy activity, it is beneficial to do a brief “check-in” so a participant can describe his or her feelings in the moment.

Using Positive Psychology Techniques in your Recreation Therapy Programming

Here are a few common Positive Psychology Techniques and ideas for incorporating them in your Recreation Therapy groups and activities.


In a previous post, I talked about the importance of incorporating gratitude into the lives of our participants. Positive psychology also believes gratitude is an important key to living a happier life. Check out my post on gratitude for some ideas for your participants and facility.

the best gift is you image

Identifying Signature Strengths

A great tool to help your participants identify their personal strengths is the Signature Strengths Self-Rating Scale. This Word document is a self-assessment where participants determine the strengths they have and the ones they need work on.


The teens at my facility love doing personal assessments like this to find out more about themselves. I’m planning on trying this in the upcoming weeks. After completing the Signature Strengths Self-Rating Scale, participants determine their “top 5” strengths. My recreation therapy group idea involved them taking the assessment then creating a poster where they advertised their strengths with drawings, clippings for magazines, etc.

Certain adaptations will need to be made depending on your population. For example, I will probably read and explain each strength with the group and have my teens provide examples as they do the assessment.

Reflecting on Kindness

If your participants are capable of progressing to a Meaningful Life, encourage them to write or reflect on the kind acts they performed each day. By doing this, they become more mindful of the nice things they do and find new ways to show kindness to others.

Savoring Your Best Moments

If you are running a leisure education or processing group, consider having your participants think back to one of the best experiences in their life. Set up a comfortable environment with limited distractions where they could mentally replay that experience. Encourage them to re-experience it with all their senses–what they heard, tasted, smelled, felt, etc. Then have them process what they felt either by journaling or discussing it with the group. Brainstorm how they could open themselves up to similar experiences in the future.

Looking for more ideas?

Therapist offers a few more Positive Psychology techniques and group/individual activity ideas for you to try.


Hopefully this primer on Positive Psychology will inspire you to learn more about the topic. It could be a valuable tool to add to your large Recreation Therapy toolbox to improve the quality and diversity of your programming.



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