Positive Psychology and the Wellness Model of Mental Health

The Disease Model focuses on the problem; the Wellness Model emphasizes the solution.

Clinical psychologists posit the need for wholesale and radical change, not only in how we understand mental health problems but in how we communicate positivity and collaboration with the client. This radical change, however, should not be a dissolution of approaches but an intense review of their efficacy, and repudiation of the one-size-fits-all stance within the mental health community. 

Certain fundamentals like language, perspective, and diagnosis demand drastic adjustment. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) abandoned the word neurosis in 1980 but it remains the go-to term in the mental health community. One only needs the American Psychological Association (APA, 2020) definition of neurosis to comprehend the pathographic focus of the disease model. Neurosis is any one of a variety of mental disorders characterized by distressing emotional symptoms, such as persistent and irrational fears, obsessive thoughts, compulsive acts, dissociative states, and somatic and depressive reactions. The symptoms do not involve gross personality disorganization, total lack of insight, or loss of contact with reality (compare psychosis). In psychoanalysis, neuroses are generally viewed as exaggerated, unconscious methods of coping with internal conflicts and the anxiety they produce.

Establishing new parameters of wellness calls for a reformation of thought and concept. In 2004, the World Health Organization began promoting the advantages of the wellness over disease perspective, defining health as a state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The World Psychiatric Association has aligned with the wellness model and it has become a central focus of international policy.  Evolving psychological approaches have become bellwethers for the research and study of the positive character strengths that facilitate the motivation, persistence, and perseverance helpful to recovery. As positive psychologists point out, “psychological wellbeing is viewed as not only the absence of mental disorder but also the presence of positive psychological resources.” Wellness must become the central focus of mental health for the simple reason that the disease model has provided grossly insufficient results

Health experts define mental illness as a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria that can produce functional impairment which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Any disorder that results in 30 or more days of role impairment at work, home, or in social relationships seriously impacts one’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life. 

The pathographic or disease model of mental healthcare has been the modus operandi for centuries and it has been the overriding psychological perspective for over a century, with an insular focus on biological and neurological origins of mental illness. In Scientific American, psychologist Kinderman argues, 

We must move from the disease model, which assumes that emotional distress is merely symptomatic of biological illness, and instead embrace a model of mental health and well-being that recognizes our essential and shared humanity. Our mental health is largely dependent on our understanding of the world and our thoughts about ourselves, other people, the future, and the world.

Positive Psychology

The wellness model’s chief facilitator is positive psychology (PP), which originated with Maslow’s seminal texts on humanism, and was legitimated by Seligman as American Psychological Association president in 1998. The focus of positive psychology and other optimistic approaches is on virtues and strengths “not only to endure and survive, but also to flourish.” PP describes recovery  as people “(re-) engaging in their life on the basis of their own goals and strengths, and finding meaning and purpose through constructing and reclaiming a valued identity and valued social roles.” Positive psychology is a relatively new field (since 1998) that ostensibly complements and supports rather than replaces traditional psychology. “Positive psychology serves as an umbrella term to accommodate research investigating positive emotions and other positive aspects such as creativity, optimism, resilience, empathy, compassion, humor, and life satisfaction.” 

PP has been defined as the science of optimal functioning, its objective is to identify the inherent strengths, virtues, and attributes individuals and society need to live a productive life. Cultural psychologist Levesque describes optimal functioning as the study of how individuals attempt to achieve their potentials and become the best that they can be.

Research has shown that positive psychology interventions  “improved well-being and decreased psychological distress in mildly depressed individuals, in patients with mood and depressive disorders, [and] in patients with psychotic disorders.” Studies support the utilization of positive psychological constructs, theories, and interventions for enhanced understanding and improvement of ‘mental health. 

A range of approaches promoting wellbeing has been tested in intervention research. A recent study found positive psychology interventions showed “significant improvements in mental well-being (from non-flourishing to flourishing mental health) while also decreasing both anxiety and depressive symptom severity.” Continuing research suggests that a positive psychological outlook not only improves life outcomes but enhances health directly. A meta-analysis of 51 studies with 4,266 individuals utilizing therapies focusing on mindfulness, autobiography, positive writing, gratitude, forgiveness, or kindness, found PPIs “significantly enhance well-being . . . and decrease depressive symptoms.“

The academic discipline of positive psychology continues to develop evidence-based interventions that focus on eliciting positive feelings, cognitions, or behaviors. Independent research shows PPIs “decreased psychological distress [in individuals] with mood and depressive disorders [and] patients with psychotic disorders . . . improving quality of life and well-being.” Positive psychology offers promising interventions “to support recovery in people with common mental illness, and preliminary evidence suggests it can also be helpful for people with more severe mental illness.” 

Disease (Medical) Model

  • Pathography/etiology
  • DSM intractability
  • Systemic pessimism
  • Disease, deficit and denigration
  • One-size-fits-all recovery programs
  • Doctor-client power relationship
  • Rampant Misdiagnosis

Wellness Model

  • Communication
  • Optimal functioning
  • Emerging research data
  • Positive language, perspective
  • Client strengths and abilities
  • Program integration
  • Individual dynamics

Positive Psychology

  • Optimal human functioning
  • Support and enhance traditional psychology
  • Emphasize character strengths & attributes
  • Evidence-based interventions
  • Balanced, holistic perspective

Positive Psychology 2.0.  One of the early challenges of positive psychology was its inattention to the negative aspects of the individual. Recognizing this imbalance, psychologists advocated a more holistic approach to embrace the dialectical opposition of human experience. Positive Psychology 2.0 (PP 2.0) evolved as a correction to this singular focus on optimism so that it could “move forward in a more inclusive and balanced matter, incorporating both positive and negative aspects of the holistic individual. As one critical psychologist wrote, “people are not just pessimists or optimists. They have complex personality structures.” PP 2.0 recognizes the individual achieves optimal human functioning by living a meaningful life that comes through full engagement. PP 2.0 is a balanced approach,  one that “equally considers positive emotions and strengths and negative symptoms and disorders.” 

The positive psychology perspective maintains that individuals with a ‘mental disorder can live satisfying and fulfilling lives regardless of symptoms or impairments associated with the diagnosis. Positive psychology aims “to emphasize the positive while managing and transforming the negative to increase well-being.”

Positive psychology focuses on enhancing wellbeing and optimal functioning rather than ameliorating symptoms. By emphasizing wellness rather than dysfunction, the positive-psychology movement aims to destigmatize ‘mental’ illness. Positive psychologists believe “the constructive use of positive psychology perspective is generally needed in contemporary research to complement the long tradition of pathogen orientation.” 


Why is your support essential? ReChanneling is dedicated to the research and development of methods to alleviate symptoms of physiological dysfunction and discomfort. Our vision is to reshape the current pathographic emphasis on diagnoses over the individual, which fosters a deficit, disease model of human behavior. Treatment programs must disavow ineffective, one-size-fits-all approaches and target the individual personality through communication, empathy, collaboration, and integration of historically and clinically practical methods. All donations support scholarships for workshops and practicums.

[i] Mayer, C.-H., & May, M. (2019). The Positive Psychology Movement. PP1.0 and PP2.0. In C-H Mayer and Z. Kőváry (Eds.), New Trends in Psychobiography (pp. 155-172). Springer Nature Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-916953-4_9.

[ii] Kinderman, P. (2014). Why We Need to Abandon the Disease-Model of Mental Health Care. (Online.) Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/why-we-need-to-abandon-the-disease-model-of-mental-health-care/ 

[iii] Slade, M. (2010). Mental illness and well-being: the central importance of positive psychology and recovery approaches. BMC Health Service Research 10 (26), 1-17 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6963-10-26 10(26)

[iv] Schrank, B., Brownell, T., Tylee, A., & Slade, M. (2014). Psychology: An Approach to Supporting Recovery in Mental Illness. East Asian Arch Psychiatry, 24, 95-103 (2014).

[v] Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depressive Symptoms with Positive Psychology Interventions: A Practice-Friendly Meta-Analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 65(5), 467–487 (2009). doi:10.1002/jclp.20593

[vi] Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4): 370-396 (1943). doi.org/10.1037/h0054346; Maslow, A. (1954). Motivations and Personality.  New York City: Harper & Brothers; Early edition.

[vii] Mayer, C.-H., & May, M. (2019). The Positive Psychology Movement. PP1.0 and PP2.0. In C-H Mayer and Z. Kőváry (Eds.), New Trends in Psychobiography (pp. 155-172). Springer Nature Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-916953-4_9.

[viii] Schrank, B., Brownell, T., Tylee, A., & Slade, M. (2014). Psychology: An Approach to Supporting Recovery in Mental Illness. East Asian Arch Psychiatry, 24, 95-103 (2014).

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Carruthers, C., & Hood, C. D. (2005).  The Power of Positive Psychology. Parks and Recreation.  .file:///C:/Users/rober/ OneDrive/ Pending/New%20Psychobiography/carruthers%20x.pdf 

[xi] Levesque, R. J. R. (2011). Optimal Functioning. In Levesque R. J. R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Adolescence. New York City: Springer. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1695-2

[xii] Chakhssi, F., Kraiss, J. T., Sommers-Spijkerman, M., & Bohlmeijer, E.T. (2018). The effect of positive psychology interventions on well-being and distress in clinical samples with psychiatric or somatic disorders: a systematic review and metaanalysis. BMC Psychiatry 18:211, 1-17 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1739-2.

[xiii] Carruthers, C., & Hood, C. D. (2005).  The Power of Positive Psychology. Parks and Recreation.  .file:///C:/Users/rober/ OneDrive/ Pending/New%20Psychobiography/carruthers%20x.pdf 

[xiv] Schotanus-Dijkstra, M., Drossaert, C. H. C., Pieterse, M. E., Walburg, J. A., Bohlmeijer, E. T., & Smit, F. (2018).  Towards sustainable mental health promotion: trial-based health-economic evaluation of a positive psychology intervention versus usual care. BMC Psychiatry 18:265, pp. 1-11 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1825-5

[xv] Easterbrook, G. (2001). Psychology discovers happiness. I’m OK, You’re OK. The New Republic, Article 27,  6

[xvi] Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depressive Symptoms with Positive Psychology Interventions: A Practice-Friendly Meta-Analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 65(5), 467–487 (2009). doi:10.1002/jclp.20593

[xvii]  Schotanus-Dijkstra, M., Drossaert, C. H. C., Pieterse, M. E., Walburg, J. A., Bohlmeijer, E. T., & Smit, F. (2018).  Towards sustainable mental health promotion: trial-based health-economic evaluation of a positive psychology intervention versus usual care. BMC Psychiatry 18:265, pp. 1-11 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1825-5

[xviii] Chakhssi, F., Kraiss, J. T., Sommers-Spijkerman, M., & Bohlmeijer, E.T. (2018). The effect of positive psychology interventions on well-being and distress in clinical samples with psychiatric or somatic disorders: a systematic review and metaanalysis. BMC Psychiatry 18:211, 1-17 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1739-2.

[xix] Schrank, B., Brownell, T., Tylee, A., & Slade, M. (2014). Psychology: An Approach to Supporting Recovery in Mental Illness. East Asian Arch Psychiatry, 24, 95-103 (2014).

[xx] Wong, P. T. P., & Roy, S. (2017). Critique of positive psychology and positive interventions. In N. J. L. Brown, T. Lomas, & F. J. Eiroa-Orosa (eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology, pp 142-160. London, UK: Routledge.

[xxi]  Miller, A. (2008). A Critique of Positive Psychology— or ‘The New Science of Happiness.’ Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(3-4), 591-608 (2008).  

[xxii] Rashid, T., Anjum, A., Chu, R., Stevanovski, S., Zanjani, A., & Lennox, C. (2014). Strength based resilience: Integrating risk and resources towards holistic well-being. In G. A. Fava & C. Ruini (eds.), Increasing psychological well-being in clinical and educational settings (Vol. 8, pp. 153–176). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

[xxiii]  Slade, M. (2010). Mental illness and well-being: the central importance of positive psychology and recovery approaches. BMC Health Service Research 10 (26), 1-17 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6963-10-26 10(26)

[xxiv] Mayer, C.-H., & May, M. (2019). The Positive Psychology Movement. PP1.0 and PP2.0. In C-H Mayer and Z. Kőváry (Eds.), New Trends in Psychobiography (pp. 155-172). Springer Nature Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-916953-4_9.

[xxv] Ibid.

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