Strengths Based Counseling and Positive Thinking / Learned Optimism

Strengths Based Counseling (link to Positive psychology: the science of happiness and human strengths by Alan Carr) focuses on what is going right in a person’s life. The counselor and client work together to find past and present successes and use these to address the challenges being faced.

Assets identified may include:

1. Physical Health, 2. Social Supports, 3. Emotional Resilience, 4. Spiritual Outlook, 5. Vocational/Financial, and 6. Intellectual/Giftedness.

You can use the Whole Health Inventory to identify these.

Positive Thinking or Learned Optimism is about learning a new perspective. Instead of projecting what can go wrong, the client is encouraged to focus on what can go right – since it’s all speculation anyway. Key questions are “What can I learn from this?” and “What good can come from this?” In this way, a negative situation is not a total defeat – it’s a temporary setback, a learning experience.


"Founder": Martin Seligman (1942 - )

Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think. - Martin Seligman


Practitioners of these particular modes of counseling assert that we should be:

• as concerned with strength as with weakness

• as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst

• as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology

• outspoken about the research supporting a Strengths Based approach, and the anecdotal evidence of people who practice Strengths Based or Positive Thinking / Learned Optimism. Constructive or hopeful people fare better in almost all aspects of life.

Some will argue that the Law of Attraction is a current version of Positive Thinking. Others put LOA in a category on its own.


There are a variety of Strengths Based techniques. You could do a whole health inventory to look for strengths to build on, and use these to address a particular problem or challenge. The question becomes, “What resources does the client have to address this problem?” For example, a single father wants to return to school. His resources may include OSAP and a bursary, the in-laws for child care, public housing for lower rent, and used books to save money.

Another example. The challenge is the family matriarch who is 90 and wants to stay in her home, even though she no longer drives – plus she has no family in town. What are the supports for her? It could be that a member of her church will take her to and from church for Sunday service and the mid-week meeting. She can take a taxi to get groceries and her pharmacy will deliver her medication. For Christmas the family has decided to buy her the services of a cleaning lady once a month. Home care will come in to assist her with her personal care.

Two Helpful Easy Exercises


This is strengths based exercise for self-esteem building - you simply ask the client to come up with ten things s/he likes about her/his self. Counselor Joan did this with client Mary in Sample Session Four.

In counseling we spend so much time on what isn’t working and neglect what is working. When we feel more empowered by taking a strengths based approach we are better able to take on our problems.

If the client is really struggling with ideas, you can ask, “What would your friend _____ say if I asked her/him?” Then you can ask about the possible response of partner, parents, and – as a last resort – good things you know about the client.

I make it into a poster and give copies to the client to place where s/he can see them daily!


Another worthwhile undertaking is the “Gratitude Journal”.

Part One – Day End

At the end of the day the person is asked to list four things that she/he is grateful for, that went well. And they must always be stated in the positive. Here is what I might write down even on a day where lots of things have gone wrong:

• Really good cup of coffee at 10 am

• Rode my bike to work, there and back

• Watched a you-tube video about a cat that made me laugh and laugh and laugh

• Hubby made a great salad at suppertime

A person doesn’t have to limit the list to four things – I aim for ten.

Part Two – Day Beginning

Over their breakfast your client can be encouraged to write down four things she/he has to look forward to today. Again, here is how my list might look even if my day is likely to be very stressful:

• Am going to watch a movie tonight

• Will have peanut butter and banana sandwich at lunch – yum, yum

• Ellie (a colleague) and I will have a lunch time walk

• Can listen to classical music today while writing (overdue) reports.

At the end of Session Four, Joan makes this suggest to Mary.

When I give a journal to clients I include an unusual pen – just to jazz things up a bit!

Further Reading and Videos

Positive Psychology


“Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” by Martin E. Seligman, Simon and Schuster, 1998

"Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths" by C.R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez, SAGE, 2006

"Attitudes of Gratitude" by M. J. Ryan, Red Wheel, 1999


Here is an entertaining presentation on Strengths Based psychology.

Have some fun with this one! It’s about Learned Optimism.

This one on Gratitude is a little less entertaining.

Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity. - Louis Pasteur

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