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