Positive Psychology and Cancer

I am currently getting my PhD in Positive Developmental Psychology with the goal of applying what I have learned in order to help foster well-being in AYA cancer patients and survivors. I genuinely believe that, when applied thoughtfully, Positive Psychology can act as a useful framework when trying to create programs for AYAs. Before I get into why, I want to first introduce Positive Psychology by attempting to answer the following questions: What is Positive Psychology? What is it not? After answering these questions, I will move in to how Positive Psychology may be useful for AYAs.

So, what exactly is Positive Psychology anyways?

In the past, Psychology as a discipline was focused on the vital task of treating pathology.1 It was concerned mainly with helping an individual with some deficit return back to a neutral level of functioning. It did not, however, allocate as much consideration into what helps an individual move from a neutral level of functioning to a more optimal level. Recognizing this gap, researchers Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “Positive Psychology”, introducing a field within the larger discipline of Psychology that focuses on the study of human strengths and virtues.2

One of the founders of Positive Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi stated that one of the first times he recognized a need to focus on human strengths was when he was a child living in Europe and observing the effects that World War II had on people.1 He noticed that although many of the adults that he knew became helpless when the war took away their social supports, a few adults “acted as a beacon of light, keeping others from losing hope”.1 They were able to keep their purpose during this time of incredible hardship. This left him wondering how these people kept going; what sources of strength were they drawing on?

Positive Psychology seeks to answer questions like the one above. Positive Psychology, then, is the science of human strength and resilience. It is the study of what makes life worth living. Its aim is “NOT to erase the work on pathology and distress, but to build up what we know about human resilience, strength, and growth to integrate and complement the existing knowledge base”.2 Positive Psychology does not imply that the rest of psychology is “negative” nor does it ignore the distressing aspects of life. While fully acknowledging that suffering and hardship exist, it focuses on how to increase and sustain human resilience, growth, and positive experiences and relationships in different contexts.

(If you are interested in learning more about Positive Psychology, please see the links below. They feature the two founders of Positive Psychology speaking about the field)

Interview with Csikszentmihalyi:

Seligman’s TED talk:

How can Positive Psychology be used to help AYAs?

1. We can use Positive Psychology to help increase psychological strength and resilience in AYAs.        

Because Positive Psychology is focused on cultivating strengths, resilience, and growth, it may be especially useful for AYAs who inevitably face adversity. The cancer experience is far from easy, and Positive Psychology may be used to foster and promote both post-traumatic growth (the positive psychological change that happens after significantly traumatic life events) and resilience (the ability to cope with negative emotions that come from a stressful experience) in AYAs, who, by the way, commonly report at least some posttraumatic growth and resilience.3 We can use Positive Psychology to help increase psychological strength and resilience in individuals facing various adversities4, like cancer.  

2. We can use Positive Psychology to help foster other positive psychological processes and well-being in AYAs.

Positive Psychology research focused on fostering positive psychological processes can help to inform interventions and program for AYAs. For example, Positive Psychology has paid increasingly more attention to mindfulness, or “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”.5 In fact, practicing mindfulness has actually been found to improve cancer patients’ psychosocial adjustment.6 Positive psychological processes, such as mindfulness, can be fostered in AYAs to improve their overall well-being.

I feel as though it is important to emphasize again that using Positive Psychology to help AYAs does not mean that suffering/negative mental states are ignored. It does not encourage one to look at the world through unrealistic, rose-colored glasses. Rather, it seeks to apply what we know about fostering human strengths and resilience during times of adversity, acknowledging and accounting for the difficulty of the situation.


  1. Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist55(1), 5-14.
  2. Sheldon, K. M., & King, L. (2001). Why positive psychology is necessary. American Psychologist, 56(3), 216-217.
  3. Greup, S., Kaal, S., Jansen, R., Manten-Horst, E., Thong, M., & van der Graaf, W. et al. (2018). Post-Traumatic Growth and Resilience in Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Patients: An Overview. Journal Of Adolescent And Young Adult Oncology7(1), 1-14.
  4. Reivich, K. J., Seligman, M. E. P., & McBride, S. (2011). Master resilience training in the U.S. Army. American Psychologist, 66(1), 25-34.
  5. Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present and future (Commentary). Clinical Psychology, 2003; 10 (2):144–156
  6. Ledesma, D., & Kumano, H. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and cancer: a meta-analysis. Psycho-Oncology18(6), 571-579.

3 thoughts on “Positive Psychology and Cancer

  1. Thanks for sharing this post on positive psychology! I think that your assessment of what the field is and how it can apply to cancer patients is very informative. For example, I do think that a positive mindset throughout things like treatment may help the body with its immune function, and so knowing more about positive psychology can be of benefit to cancer patients. I really enjoy writing posts pertaining to positive psychology in my own blog in order to help people learn what our current understanding is of living a meaningful and fulfilling life. Feel free to check out the content, and I welcome any contributions that you may have. Great post, and keep up the good work!


    1. Hi! Thank you for your comment–its exciting to see that someone is reading my posts! I appreciate the time you took to check it out and will be sure to give your blog a look. Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sure thing! I really enjoy making connections with people who have similar passions. Thank you, and keep up the great work!


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