by Fiona Trembath
In his book Flourish, Martin Seligman devotes an entire chapter to the master of applied positive psychology program (MAPP) and the “magic” of the course content and student experiences. So, in 2014, when I learned that my application for MAPP at the University of Melbourne was successful, I was ecstatic. MAPP was, according to Seligman, “fun,” “personally and professionally transformative,” and “extraordinary.” Needless to say, I felt incredibly privileged and excited to be part of such a prestigious and innovative program. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Unfortunately, and contrary to my expectations, early on into my full-time MAPP experience I began to fall into a downward spiral of depression, a longtime condition I had managed to hold in abeyance for the past three years, thanks to my positive psychology learnings and interventions. But the reality of the workload and high intellectual engagement were stronger than my positive self, and very quickly I felt overwhelmed. Learning and navigating the technology was complex, and the reading list was insurmountable. And as someone who’d failed miserably at math in the ’70s, I couldn’t get my head around statistics at the same rate as others who seemed to breeze through it. I also couldn’t retain the fast-paced, high-tech information and research data that was being thrown at me. I felt inadequate and out of my depth.
I wasn’t having fun and there was no magic.
And so, despite pulling every positive psychology intervention out of my hat, I fell—stumbled, hurled—into the pits and fits of a major depression, the worst I’d experienced in 20 years. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t translate thoughts into words. There were many days when I barely functioned. It took superhuman strength for me just to get through each day; even showering took enormous effort. I’d never felt such despair in all my life—dark, utter, frightening despair.
The irony and hypocrisy of the situation didn’t pass me by: Me, a “master” of positive psychology? What a joke. I felt like a fraud.
As the months went on, and my depressive state continued to worsen, I questioned the science and research that validated positive psychology interventions as a treatment for depression. Over the years, I’d read and cited many studies supporting the theory. Hey, up until recently, I was living proof that it worked! So why was I now such a failure at the thing I believed in the most?
I continued to apply intervention after intervention, yet nothing helped ameliorate my symptoms. In fact, they made me feel worse, and even more incompetent: I couldn’t summon gratitude, I cried on my daily walks, I stifled sobs during yoga. Little by little, depression robbed me of all pleasures: music, dancing, singing, yoga, meditation, writing, baths, massages, laughing, crosswords, photography, Scrabble. Each precious nugget of my joyful past self was stripped away.
Fast forward to now, and I can say that, at last, I’ve come out the other side. I’m back to my resting state of okay-ness. The journey was long and hard. It took many health-care visits, a plethora of vitamins and minerals, good and bad therapy, many trials of antidepressant medication and some left-of-center approaches before I finally stabilized. (In the midst of all of this, I still managed to successfully graduate with my master’s.)
The most profound thing I have learned on this journey—after extensive research and reading—is that positive psychology interventions, though effective in improving symptoms of non-clinical and/or mild depression, are not as effective (or in my case, completely ineffective and detrimental) for severe depression. A review of the literature on such interventions showed that the majority of positive psychology and well-being interventions have been conducted with non-clinically depressed to mildly depressed individuals. More specifically, in the 27 studies I researched, involving almost 6,000 participants, only two studies—totalling 70 participants— were experiencing severe depression.
I wish I’d known this sooner, and that the term “depression” was qualified when studies were cited, instead of being used as a blanket term. Depression can be low-grade, non-clinical, clinical, moderate, major, and severe. Depression exists on a spectrum; it is not one-size-fits-all. Also, depression is more than just a mood. In fact, according to science writer and lecturer Rita Carter, depression is not just a single disorder but a symptom of several different conditions, each of which probably has slightly different brain abnormality at its root.
Given this information, practitioners and practicers of positive psychology need to be mindful when claiming that positive psychology interventions alleviate depressive symptoms, remembering that 98 percent of the evidence refers to non-clinical, minor, or moderate depression. We must tread carefully and respectfully and, if the diagnosis is one of clinical or severe depression, positive psychology interventions should complement—not replace—drug and psychotherapeutic treatment.
My MAPP experience might have been far from magic, fun, or positively extraordinary, but it was, in hindsight, professionally and personally transformative. I have become a better friend, confidante, and practitioner to those who experience depression, whether it be non-clinical, clinical, mild or severe. But, most of all, I am more gentle with myself in living with depression, and now fully appreciate and understand the trinity of good therapy, good medicine, and good interventions on the often complex and challenging path to well-being.
Fiona Trembath, BA (Hons), MAPP, a strengths educator and facilitator, teaches and presents to schools, parent groups, and individuals. She offers a comprehensive range of resources for teachers and children to encourage strength-spotting and strength development within the classroom. She is passionate about looking for “what’s right” (rather than “what’s wrong”) as a first step toward optimum health and well-being. Author of the junior fiction novel, Crackpot, Fiona is also a writer, editor, teacher, presenter, and regular guest on ABC (Australia) Radio Overnights program. fromstrengthtostrength.com
Thank you so much for posting this. I personally experienced mild to moderate depression and went searching for a way to focus on what is right instead of what is wrong. That worked for me, but my mother went through at least two major depressions during my childhood and as I look back I cannot imagine that many of our mantras alone would have helped her. I remember an occasion when in an attempt to cheer her up my father brought her a beautiful bunch of flowers. Instead of being lifted, she was desolate. She could only focus on the fact that they would die all the faster for having been picked.
I believe that even some of the studies that Tal quotes during the CiPP course reference the fact that meditation, mindfulness and gratitude may only be possible after medication and other interventions. Your post is a great reminder that it is not always that simple and that one size certainly does not fit all.
Thank you for being brave enough to share your story and to be the balanced voice in the room.
Thank you Fiona for your bravery and honesty. Having experienced depression in the past, your uphill battle truly resonated for me. There are undoubtedly different ways to come at such a struggle, and no one can truly understand unless they’ve walked in your shoes. I can only imagine your relief after discovering your personal trinity and what works for you.
Hi Fiona. When I started to read the into to your blog, about how ecstatic you were about having been accepted to the MAPP program, I almost stopped reading. Having been rejected – not once, but twice – by MAPP, has been a sore spot for me, especially since I have never experienced academic rejection before. As a TA now for CiPP5, sometimes I get desperate emails from students crying, “I feel like I’m failing Positive Psychology!” Just like you can’t “fail” at meditation, or “fail” at yoga, you can’t “fail” Positive Psychology, either. Or can you? And I started to think about MAPP. During my interview, I let out my fear of failing statistics. Oops. When Positive Psychology is an academic subject, then of course, you can fail at it. CiPP, on the other hand, is a program which you really can’t “fail”. CiPP is not designed to be externally studied as much as it is to be internally lived. And that’s a very individual process, which continues to unfold long after the last module of the course and the final hug at the end of the second immersion. I am so glad you are on the other side and can call this field out on it’s broad brushing a very important topic, and the harm that can cause. And so for the greater good, your experience is very important. As for me, it’s a reminder that I am where I need to be, where I can thrive, integrate and grow on my timetable, and I don’t have to worry about passing statistics.
P.S. When I was doing holistic wellness coach training a few years ago, the whole class had to take a very comprehensive assessment and our scores were shared. The two lowest scoring students were me and another woman – both of whom are lawyers. Apparently, it’s not unusual for lawyers to tank that assessment. The difference between us, however was that she was a graduate of the MAPP program, and I was surprised to see what an unhappy camper she was, plagued with crippling self doubt and esteem issues, despite being a litigation partner at a law firm and MAPP graduate. And so I can see how the “magic” didn’t happen for her either. And so once the “magic trick” fails, where do you go from there? I was happy for her that she was in a program with me to restore some mental health and balance in her life. And yet I still applied…like a moth…
Thank you Fiona! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your truth and vulnerability. I was in CIPP1 with you and have been so impressed and inspired by your work with youth. I can relate to your struggles. PP has changed my life for the better and yet the last two years have brought a the kind of sorrow and challenge that no interventions can fix. I have learned to appreciate the more subtle positive emotions….as in, I am OK, and grateful for a relief of anxiety with even a touch of serenity or hope. It has given me the ability to counsel others to “turn toward the light” even in the face of great suffering. And that connection is more authentic than ever…..which actually makes me very happy!