Looking on the bright side in therapy: clients’ and therapist’s understanding of the use of positive psychology principles to address emotional eating
This study examined whether principles of positive psychology including strengths-based work might usefully be applied in counselling psychology practice and psychotherapy, and sought to understand the process of therapy incorporating such elements. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) define positive psychology as ‘the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.’ As the medical field begins to appreciate the value of positive psychosocial factors in the prevention and management of pathology, positive psychiatry and psychotherapy (Rashid, 2009; Jeste, 2012) are emerging, and this study aims to further understanding of this. Specifically, this study sought to ascertain whether, and how, such an approach might assist when applied to one area of psychological difficulty: emotional eating. Emotional eating is conceptualised as eating in response to negative affect or distress (Kubiak et al, 2008). The research used a case study approach to track three individuals’ experiences of applying positive psychology principles (called the ‘Positive Slimming’ programme) to their eating patterns over a period of 20 weeks. The therapy initially focused on strengths-based work, then evolved during the course of the 20 weeks to become a more holistic approach incorporating wider positive psychology principles as the clients responded well to this broader approach. Qualitative and quantitative data were collected and analysed. Clients reported that changes occurred during the course of therapy, including overcoming emotional eating and developing intuitive eating habits, and weight loss for all participants. Thematic analysis and principles of grounded theory were used to analyse the qualitative data on the clients’ and the therapist’s understanding of how changes came about. These perspectives were compared, and differences and similarities were incorporated into one joint theoretical model supported by the findings. It is hoped that this model will offer counselling psychologists and psychotherapists a structure for incorporating positive psychology principles into their practice when working with clients who seek help to change their emotional eating patterns, and will also offer a basis for considering how positive psychology principles may be useful to help address other psychological difficulties.