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Positive Art Therapy

Positive Art Therapy:

Envisioning the Intersection of Art Therapy and Positive Psychology

Gioia Chilton and Rebecca A. Wilkinson

The George Washington University

[This article was published in 2009 in Australian New Zealand Journal of Art Therapy, 4(1), 27-35, printed here with minor typographical changes]


Art therapists returning from the International Positive Psychology Association’s (IPPA) World Congress identified the intersection between art therapy and positive psychology. The following viewpoint considers how positive psychology, the “science of happiness,” can enhance the art therapy profession and suggests how art therapy contributes to human “flourishing”–a state in which individuals and communities function with high levels of emotional, psychological, and social well-being A new term “Positive Art Therapy” explores the interplay between art therapy, positive emotions, positive character, and positive communities. Suggestions are presented to integrate positive art therapy practice, research, and training. It is proposed that by combining the strengths of positive psychology and art therapy, “Positive Art Therapy” can be pivotal in increasing human flourishing.

Authors’ Note: The authors would like to acknowledge Rachel Schreibman, BA, Tarquam McKenna, PhD, AthR, Poppy Scheibel, MS, ATR, and the students in the 2008 Positive Psychology and Art Therapy course held at the George Washington University Graduate Art Therapy Program, Washington, DC, for contributing to the development of this paper. We are especially grateful to Lani Gerity, MA, DA, whose online course, “The Artist’s Happiness Challenge” directed the authors to the field of Positive Psychology. Gioia Chilton, MA, ATR-BC can be contacted at and Rebecca A. Wilkinson, MA, ATR-BC, can be contacted at


Recently, art therapists who attended the First World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia, PA, USA in June of 2009 learned that art therapy has much to offer and much to gain from cross-fertilization with the emerging field of positive psychology. The following viewpoint explores this intersection. It asks how art therapists will contribute to ‘human flourishing’—a state in which individuals and communities experience high levels of emotional, psychological, and social well-being (Keyes, 2002) and how positive psychology can positively influence and enhance the field of art therapy.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology, the science of happiness, is the study of positive emotions, positive character, and the positive institutions and communities that facilitate their development. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), in their seminal article Positive Psychology: An introduction, maintained that the prevailing model of psychology, with its focus on illness and symptoms, does not reflect a balanced view of human potential. They noted that, although the study of mental illness has successfully led to the identification, classification, and treatment of many disorders, it has neglected to account for what has become increasingly evident: the improvement or absence of psychiatric symptoms does not necessarily increase well-being and that increased happiness is a treatment imperative in and of itself. “The relief of suffering does not lead to well-being, it only removes the barriers to well-being. Well-being is a process over and above absence of depression, anxiety, and anger” (Duckworth, Seligman, & Steen, 2005).

Empirical research has revealed that positive emotions and positive experiences are worthy treatment outcomes–they serve to counteract and buffer against disorder (Fredrickson, 1998). Positive emotions have both a “broaden and build effect” of increasing resilience against future stressors and an “undoing” effect on negative emotions and experiences. Positive emotions also have a beneficial impact on well-being–higher optimism, personal control, and a sense of meaning have been linked to reducing the risk of medical disease, better adaptation to and survival from physical illness, as well as to speeding recovery from illness (Cohen, 2006; Kivimaki et al., 2005; Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, & Grunewald, 2000; Sternberg & Gold, 1997).

Positive psychology seeks to build upon the strengths and virtues that enable human thriving. It urges that we be “as concerned with strength as with weakness, be as interested in building upon the best things as in repairing the worst” (Seligman, 2009). Positive psychology tries not only to understand and encourage those factors that allow individuals, communities, and societies to flourish (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) but to take this inquiry beyond theoretical discourse and into the measurable and teachable realm of scientific investigation and institutional support (Duckworth, Seligman, & Steen, 2005).

What is happiness and what makes people happier?

“Happiness” is an elusive concept to define and measure. Seligman (2002) suggested that happiness could be quantified as a life that maximizes positive experiences and minimizes pain. Diener (2000) proposed the term “Subjective Well-Being,” which could be determined by weighing the general presence of positive emotion in relation to negative emotion, by a global judgment of one’s life and by satisfaction with important domains (e.g., work, relationships). Diener ascertained that across most cultures, wealth beyond the subsistence level and status contribute much less to happiness than do social support and engaging in meaningful endeavors.

Seligman (2002) outlined three domains in which people experience happiness: the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life. The first domain, the pleasant life, involves increasing positive emotions about the past, the present, and the future. Increasing positive emotions about the past includes access to pleasant memories, forgiveness, and gratitude. Increasing positive emotions about the present includes savoring positive experiences, mindfulness practice such as the principle of “the here and the now”, and increasing enjoyment. Increasing positive emotions about the future includes accessing hope, optimism, and faith. The pleasant life maximizes these positive emotions and reduces negative emotions.

The second domain, the engaged life, involves talents and strengths of character. Seeing a need to develop a taxonomy to categorize these positive human traits, Seligman and his colleague Peterson compiled Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), a comprehensive universal classification of virtues and strengths. Peterson and Seligman suggested that Character Strengths and Virtues serve to counter the focus on pathology and transitory symptoms that characterize assessment in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) and International Classification of Disease (World Health Organization, 1990). Peterson and Seligman went as far as contending that psychopathology may be the absence of strengths rather than the convergence of negatives. They propose that identifying, developing, and exercising “signature strengths” leads to more satisfied “engaged life.”

The third domain, the meaningful life, involves applying one’s strengths and practicing engagement for concerns larger than the self. Meaning occurs most through belonging to and serving positive institutions. Interestingly, at the IPPA World Congress, it was identified that this was one of the domains in which the growing field of positive psychology, itself, had been most challenged. Although positive psychology has made significant strides in its first two missions–to bring focus to positive emotions and experiences and to help identify and foster character strengths–it has effected the least change in the “third pillar” of positive psychology, positive institutions. With this in mind, Seligman (2009) challenged that by the year 2051, fifty-one percent of humankind should be flourishing by clear criteria and suggested three immediate endeavors to jump start this call to action: 1. “Positive” education, 2. Preventive healthcare, and 3. Funding of research into “positive” neuroscience.

General Clinical Applications

Positive psychology suggests that the role of the therapist must now shift from the paradigm of relieving suffering to a more proactive role of helping clients experience more pleasant, meaningful and engaged lives. Therapists can focus more on helping clients determine how they approach and experience happiness. Assessment can shift to balancing diagnosis of pathology with more systematic assessment of strengths and aptitudes. This is particularly important because a significant source of happiness derives from exercising one’s strengths and applying them toward meaningful endeavors (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005).

A broad range of positive psychology interventions have empirically proven to be effective (Lyubomirsky & Sin, 2009), among them activities which focus on gratitude, mindfulness, cognitive optimistic skills, and positive writing. However, at the IPPA World Congress, Vella-Brodrick (2009), observed that much of the research on interventions had focused primarily on verbal and/or writing activities, and she suggested that other interventions might be more appropriate for populations such as children or those with limited writing skills.

It was noteworthy for art therapists that many of the presenters at the IPPA World Congress alluded to or described expressive techniques they were employing in their practice. (Frederickson, Lyubomirksy, & Pawelski, 2009; Henderson, Rosen, Sotirova-Kohli, & Stephenson, 2009; Ronen, & Rosenbaum, 2009; White, 2009). Art therapy was actively acknowledged at the World Congress when Poppy Scheibel, ATR-BC, was invited to host an art therapy focus group. There art therapists met with a range of other clinicians, business coaches, and educators interested in the convergence of art therapy and positive psychology.


Also highlighted at the IPPA World Congress was the importance of promoting experiences of flow, a well-documented strategy for inducing and enhancing “optimal experience” and “deep enjoyment” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi interviewed athletes and artists, among others, to examine “peak” human experiences and determined that these individuals frequently entered a state which he coined as “flow.” Flow involves the focused and yet seemingly effortless application of one’s signature strengths into mastering challenges. Csikszentmihalyi observed that flow emerges most frequently when there is a balance between skill and level of difficulty, so that the participant does not become bored with the activity and obstacles are challenging but can be surmounted. Flow both requires and induces engagement and absorption which have more enduring positive effects than momentary satisfaction and pleasure. Seligman (2002) suggests even further that flow states, like the experience of positive emotions, build emotional capital for the future.

Others have continued to explore the connection between art-making and flow states. (Kaplan, 2000; Gerity, 2007; Malchiodi, 2007, 2009; Perry, 2008; Voytilla, 2006). In 2006, Voytilla incorporated Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory into art therapy research in order to better articulate what happens during art making. Voytilla discovered that a significant number of participants in an art therapy open-studio setting measurably experienced flow during the art making process.

Can art making promote happiness? What does art therapy bring to positive psychology?

Fordyce (1977) found that positive behaviors such as engaging in enjoyable activities can boost happiness (as cited in Lyubomirsky & Sin, 2009). “Feelings of self-esteem in particular, and happiness in general, develop as side effects of mastering challenges” wrote Seligman in his book, The Optimistic Child (1995, p. 33). Hallowell states that “repeated experiences of mastery helps build an attitude of optimism.” (2002, p. 138). In providing opportunities for mastery and flow, art-making promotes happiness and optimism.

More current research confirms other benefits of art therapy in enhancing human experience. For example, Manheim’s study of the relationship between the artistic process and self-actualization (1998) revealed that art students experienced an increase in openness and self-acceptance after engaging in the art process. Henderson, Rosen, Sotirova-Kohli, and Stephenson (2009), in their study on creating mandalas, determined that those who were drew a mandala with the instruction to focus on “love and joy” experienced more positive affect.

Perry (2008), in his research of brain activity, identified that the arts, play, and imagination positively regulate the core functions of the brain which affect heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. He further suggested that “non-traditional” arts modalities are so enriching because they activate healing in parts of the brain that are not as responsive to traditional therapeutic interventions.

Envisioning “Positive Art Therapy”: The Intersection of Art Therapy and Positive Psychology

The empowering nature of the creative process is almost inherent to portrayal of the art therapy profession. National and international art therapy associations promote this aspect of art therapy. For example, the American Art Therapy Association suggests that art making is “healing and life enhancing.” The Australian New Zealand Art Therapy Association proposes that art can be used therapeutically toward “the improvement of human welfare.” The British Art Therapy Association states that art therapy effects “growth on a personal level.” The International Art Therapy Organization suggests that through art “we find a path to health and wellness, emotional reparation, recovery, and ultimately, transformation.” Peterson and Seligman (2004) observed that “creativity is often seen as a sign of mental health and emotional well-being. In fact, various art and music therapies have emerged that promote psychological adjustment and growth through creative expression” (p. 96).

“Positive Art Therapy” seeks to bring focus to those aspirations by exploring the interplay among art therapy, positive emotions, positive character, and positive communities. In this vision of Positive Art Therapy, we see three immediate areas of focus: 1. Practice; 2. Research; and 3. Training. We present suggestions in these areas and invite others to contribute to this discourse.

Although it is established that art making and the creative process helps clients experience more pleasant, meaningful and engaged lives, we challenge art therapists to focus even more on promoting these therapeutic goals by developing and researching art-based directives that include the elements of effective positive psychology interventions. These positive art therapy interventions may provide a broader repertoire of strategies for promoting positive emotions and inducing engagement and flow. Figure 1 provides a list of some possible positive art therapy interventions.

Furthermore, art therapists can reaffirm their commitment to identifying clients’ strengths through art making. One way of doing this would be to develop evaluation tools or modify existing art therapy assessments to correspond to Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) classification of strengths and virtues. Using clear criteria to frame the strengths we observe, we may be able to advocate for our clients more effectively.

In positive art therapy, research opportunities abound. Art therapists can partner with positive psychology researchers to explore the efficacy of positive art therapy interventions and positive art therapy assessments. Art therapists can mine other fields for and build upon existing research that establishes the efficacy of creativity and art-making. Art therapists can, as McNiff (1998) and Kapitan (1998) encouraged, create new art-based research methods that play to their strengths. In positive art therapy, research can be approached with a sense of curiosity, not fear.

Art therapists can explore the unique strengths that bring them to the practice of art therapy. Riddle and riddle (sic 2007) already began this inquiry when they researched strengths among male art therapists using the VIA Signature Strengths Survey (available at:, an online tool that derives from Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues (2004). The results revealed that male art therapists scored highest in curiosity, interest in the world, and appreciation of beauty and excellence. We urge other art therapists to take this questionnaire to further identify the strengths they share.

In a positive art therapy educational paradigm, art therapy educators can also use the VIA Signature Strengths Survey to identify the strengths that bring them to education and art therapy and assist their students in doing the same. New models of clinical supervision that focus on strengths (Fialkov & Haddad, 2009) can also enrich the training of art therapists. Positive art therapy training would broadly expand areas of practice to create more opportunity for art therapy students to gain experience and employment. For example, this could include increasing attention to the development of community-based models, to exploration of innovative funding sources, to coaching models, and to use of the world wide web.

In theory and practice, art therapists operating predominantly from reactive archetypes, such as the “wounded healer” (Jung, 1954), whereby the therapist’s psychic wounds are activated in response to suffering, can shift to more proactive archetypes. Perhaps the “hero” who undertakes a personal journey of initiation to awaken an inner knowing or spiritual power and then returns to the world with something of value to contribute to all (Campbell, 2008). Or the “visionary” who imagine possibilities in the scope of individual life and that benefit all of society (


Those interested in learning more about positive psychology might begin by reading Positive psychology in clinical practice (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005) and The role of positive emotions in positive psychology (Fredrickson, 2001). They might also visit the Authentic Happiness website at, a robust online resource which provides surveys, questionnaires, and research tools focusing on positive psychology. Those interested in dialoguing with others about the intersection between positive psychology and art therapy can join a Yahoo group devoted to the topic at

“Positive Art Therapy” provides a paradigm to integrate the strengths of two complementary fields: art therapy and positive psychology. Positive art therapy can and should be pivotal to significantly increasing individual and social well-being. This is our response to Seligman’s (2009) challenge that by the middle of this century over half of humankind will be flourishing. Join us in accepting this challenge and applying positive art therapy to our clients, our work, our lives, and our communities.


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Table 1 Positive Art Therapy Interventions

identify signature strengths though artwork- what strengths have helped you survive & thrive?

illustrate using your greatest strength in a new way;

imagine and illustrate using your artistic strengths to serve something bigger than you are;

do art work employing one of your signature strengths/

create a family tree of strengths.

Practicing Gratitude:

make artwork about blessings/good things;

keep a visual gratitude journal;

visually draw letting go of grudges.

Practicing Kindness:

create artwork for someone else;

make a poster appreciating another person, place, or thing;

create a gift for someone in need.

Savoring & Reminiscence:

savor a pleasant visual sensory experience;

Fold a page into 5ths, draw a favorite sight, smell, sound, taste & touch;

draw your vision of a beautiful day;

create artwork about “you at your best”;

use art to replay your happiest life events.

Mindfulness and Acceptance:

practice acceptance of the physics of the art materials using watercolors;

experience flow by non-directed art making in positive studio settings;

create a mandala that illustrates love and joy.