Depression - Buddhism Meets Positive Psychology

(Treat depression with positive psychology)

Dr. Aaron T. Beck, M.D., founded and developed cognitive therapy in the early 1960s as a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania. As researcher and scientist, Dr. Beck designed and carried out a number of experiments to test psychoanalytic concepts of depression. Fully expecting his research to validate these fundamental precepts, he was surprised to find the opposite, leading him to begin looking for other ways to conceptualize depression. Working with depressed patients, he found that they experienced streams of negative thoughts that seemed to pop up spontaneously. He termed these cognitions “automatic thoughts,” and discovered that their content fell into three categories: negative ideas about themselves, the world and the future. He began helping patients identify and evaluate these thoughts and found that by doing so, patients were able to think more realistically, which led them to feel better emotionally and behave more functionally. As a result, Dr. Beck began paving the way to the study of Cognitive Psychology.

In the fall of 2005, Dr. Beck had the unique opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama at the Göteborg Convention Center with about 1400 attendees at the International Congress of Cognitive Psychotherapy. Dr. Beck wrote about his meeting with the Dalai Lama in the Fall 2005 Newsletter of the Beck Institute of Cognitive Therapy. The Newsletter discusses their conversations regarding the similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and cognitive therapy.

In addition to a copy of the 1959 issue of Time magazine which had a cover picture of the Dalai Lama accepting numerous bouquets of flowers from his American supporters after his escape from Tibet to the United States, Beck also presented him with a hard copy of the book, “Prisoners of Hate,” which represented his own view that hatred imprisons the people who experience it.

Beck was impressed with his wisdom and his wit, but especially impressed with his ability to capture the essence of very complex issues. Dr. Beck began the dialogue by reciting the main points of similarity between Tibetan Buddhism and cognitive therapy (listed below).

Dr. Beck’s main challenge was to inform the Dalai Lama about the cognitive approach to human problems without taking away from the broad philosophy and psychology of Buddhism. Dr. Beck and the Dalai Lama agreed that both systems try to help people with their overattachment to material things and symbols. They discussed their distinction between pain and suffering. Dr. Beck suggested that people who are able to separate or distance themselves from their pain and view it more objectively had significantly less distress. The Dalai Lama agreed with this concept and later referred to cognitive therapy as being similar to “analytical mediation."

Dr. Beck asked the Dalai Lama how he thought his message could really take root in the world. He replied that education was an answer and then expressed his own philosophy. Although people of different faiths could embrace the values that he expressed, such as total acceptance of all living things, he did not feel that religion was a necessary instrument for this. He reiterated the essence of the cognitive approach, namely self-responsibility rather than depending on some external force to inspire ethical standards. When asked by the Dalai Lama about his view of human nature, Dr. Beck expressed the belief that positive thinking (focusing on positive and good things) was the way to neutralize the negative in human nature. This is a similar philosophy to what is described in several of the Reflective Happiness Positive Psychology exercises.


I. Goals: Serenity, Peace of Mind, Relief of Suffering

II. Values

(1) Importance of Acceptance, Compassion, Knowledge, Understanding (2) Altruism vs. Egoism(3) Universalism vs. Groupism: “We are one with all humankind.”(4) Science vs. Superstition (5) Self-responsibility

III. Causes of Distress:

(1) Egocentric biases leading to excessive or inappropriate anger, envy, cravings, etc.; (the “toxins”) and false beliefs (“delusions”) (2) Underlying self-defeating beliefs that reinforce biases (3) Attaching negative meanings to events

IV. Methods:

(1) Focus on the Immediate (here and now)(2) Targeting the biased thinking through

(a) Introspection(b) Reflectiveness(c) Perspective-taking(d) Identification of “toxic” beliefs(e) Distancing(f) Constructive experiences(g) Nurturing “positive beliefs”

(3) Use of Imagery(4) Separating distress from pain(5) Mindfulness training

Buddhism, one of the world’s oldest religions, and Cognitive Therapy, a newer form of psychology, are both dedicated to the pursuit of the deepest knowledge of the human capacity for growth and happiness. Both are rooted in the ideal of empowerment through the exercise of reason, intentional action, and learning about the human condition. Given the many challenges our world faces today, there is much to learn from both practices both aimed toward happiness, peace and human understanding.

Dr. Beck is currently the President of the non-profit Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research, and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. The Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research was founded in 1994 as a natural outgrowth of Dr. Aaron T. Beck's original Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, which has served as a critically important training ground for both cognitive and cognitive-behavior therapists