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Positive Psychology and Incarceration: Can you promote positive emotion in inmates and staff?
By Joe W. Hatcher, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology
Published: 07/19/2010

Library Positive Psychology, or the study of the factors that produce and nurture positive emotion, is a relatively new but very popular field in Psychology. Championed by David Seligman, Positive Psychology has seen considerable use with so-called “problem” populations, such as children who are having difficulty in school. For the past year, my colleague Jean Redman-Zank and I have been running therapy groups based on Positive Psychology principles at a medium security men’s institution in Wisconsin. And it’s been fun.

Positive Psychology is easy to use in groups because it offers a number of “homework” exercises that can completed outside of the group and then be shared in group meetings. We begin with the “standard set” described in Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness. We start with a “What are my strengths?” exercise that asks group members first whether or not they believe that each person has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone says yes, and we then ask them to concentrate on their strengths, coming up with 5-10, along with ways that these strengths are displayed in their lives. Our second meeting is usually a bit tense at first, as inmates read their positive traits to the group, with group members who know the reader adding more strengths if they are aware of them.

We follow that up with a Positive Life Story, which asks inmates to write about a time in their lives when they were “at their best”. Other exercises involve writing a Gratitude Letter to someone who has contributed positively to their lives, listing ways that they get Pleasure, Engagement, and Meaningfulness in their lives, and writing a Life Legacy story of how they want the rest of their life to unfold. To these exercises from Seligman’s book, we have added a 33 Happy Moments exercise that requires them to write down 33 Happy Moments from anytime in their life, including some while incarcerated, and a Realistic Life Negative exercise where they write about something that is realistically negative in their life and how they could use what they have learned in the group to deal with it successfully.

We have now run approximately five groups of 5-9 inmates each and I think we can provide some answers to the question “does it work?”. First, we have measured positive and negative moods over the course of the group, and have in each group found an increase in positive moods and a decrease in negative moods from week to week. Second, we have had individual inmates who told us in no uncertain terms that they “had never thought like this” and that they found the process to be very helpful to them. Perhaps the best measure is that interest in our group has increased dramatically. From initially having trouble filling the group, we now have a waiting list.

Because of the abundance of negative feelings in prison, it makes sense that men who are incarcerated would welcome an opportunity to experience positive emotions. Jean and I have found the same process to work for the two of us. Dealing with the mental health needs of inmates can be a grinding experience, and negative experiences can easily outnumber positive ones. Our Positive Psychology group, however, is simply fun. The men share their stories and their thoughts, and we sit back and offer the occasional comment, with most of the “work” done by group members, as is the case in a good therapy group. Jean and I walk out of the group smiling each week. I mentioned to some of my colleagues today that my one day a week at the prison usually cheers me up. That may be too much to ask from a group that meets once a week, but since it works for me, I think it would work for others too. I would recommend this type of group to anyone; it’s easy to run, and the benefits run both ways between inmates and staff.

If anyone is interested in incorporating any of these materials into a group or in running a similar group, contact me at hatcherj@ripon.edu.

Other articles by Hatcher


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  2. pbmuenzmay on 11/28/2012:

    I do psycho educational groups of inmates classified in a Transitional Care (mental health) and are also close management in Florida. I am looking for group information that I oculd use with them to move their thought process in a positive direction.

  3. DATS168 on 07/24/2010:

    I am new to working in a correctional facility, but this idea has appeal for me. For years I worked in the mental health field and we were very strengths-based. I have wondered about using this approach with inmates. I have some flexibility in the groups I run and I always try to incorporate a positive message to instill belief in their ability to change their lives. While we cannot forget they they have been convicted of crimes, I think whatever role we can play in helping them turn in the right direction is vital. We as a society can only benefit if inmates begin to believe that they can close this chapter of their lives and begin to write a new story. In my life I have seen many people who were once trapped in alcoholism and addiction who have turned their lives around and now live happy, productive lives. I look forward to hearing more about this approach.

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