Positive Interventions Part 2: The Body and Positive Psychology

“I must admit that when I began my investigation, I, in common with most people, conceived of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ as separate parts of the same organism, and consequently believed that human ills, difficulties and shortcomings could be classified as either ‘mental’ or ‘physical’ and dealt with on specifically ‘mental’ or specifically ‘physical’ lines. My practical experiences, however, led me to abandon this point of view and readers of my books will be aware the technique described in them is based on the opposite conception, namely, that it is impossible to separate ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ processes in any form of human activity.”

                                                                                    F.M. Alexander


For F.M. Alexander there was no separating the body from the mind, just as there is no separating the body from the mind in positive interventions.  Our readings support this view.  Shusterman (2006) argues that not only is the body essential to all human performance but that its improvement can improve our virtue.  He goes on to delineate and elaborate on the four categories of somaesthetics which can assist in creating virtue: analytic, pragmatic, performative and practical.  Mutrie and Faulkner (2004) overlap with the latter two of Shusterman’s categories.  They iterate the tangible positive effects of physical activity.  And, finally, Ryff and Singer (2002) analyze the physical effects of their six dimensions of psychological well-being.  From these readings I will argue that the body is essential to positive interventions in three ways:  in theory, in practice and in measuring effect.

Using the term ‘body-mind’ to express their union and their separateness, Shusterman describes the body as a series of opposites:  object and subject, “shared species being and individual difference” (p. 4, 2006), possibility for excellence and frailty, freedom and constraint, knowledge and ignorance.  Perhaps because of these contradictions, the body has been largely ignored.  The Greeks, rather than ignore the body, saw it as an essential ingredient in the ability to improve our virtue.  Diogenes said that bodily training is essential for “the knowledge and discipline needed for wisdom and the good life” (Shusterman, p. 19, 2006).  Contrary to focusing on the body to the exclusion of the mind, Shusterman argues that “strengthening the body helps develop the mind, which it nourishes and informs through its senses” (p. 9, 2006).  He gives us a framework with which to view the body in his four categories of somaesthetics: analytic – which is theoretical and descriptive; pragmatic – which proposes meaning to improve certain facts by “remaking the body and social habits and frameworks that shape it”; performative – i.e. weightlifting or martial arts; and practical – like engaging in some program of disciplined, reflective, corporeal practice (Shusterman, p. 14, 2006).  Shusterman’s article bridges the first two aspects of physicality in positive interventions – theory and practice.

Mutrie and Faulkner (2004) highlight the practice element of my theory of positive interventions.  As building strength is a key principle of positive psychology, Mutrie and Faulkner assert that physical activity can prevent mental illness, foster positive emotions and buffer individuals against stress.  In addition, they argue that physical activity can increase the social capacity of communities.  The data they present to support their theories sounds like a list of positive interventions.  Physical activity is a popular and effective treatment for alcoholism, depression and mental disorders.  There are also green cape effects for physical activity.  It improved subjective well-being “both from a single bout of exercise (acute effects), as well as…more enduring effects (chronic effects)” (Mutrie and Faulkner, 2004, p. 153).  Aerobic activity also improves psychological quality of life and positive well-being, self-esteem, quality and duration of sleep, and cognitive functioning.  They even include a ‘dosage’ suggestion and list of physical positive interventions.

Ryff and Singer (2002) incorporate the physical in an entirely different way in their article.  Instead of including physical exercise or another aspect of movement in their dimensions of psychological well-being (where I believe it belongs) they use biology to test each specific characteristic of well-being for effectiveness.  Those specific characteristics are:  self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth.  Ryff and Singer further delineate the study to analyze effects based on age, gender and socio-economic status.  They test each aspect’s effect on allostatic load – “the cumulative wear and tear on numerous physiological systems” (Ryff and Singer, 2002, p. 548).  In addition to differing effects for men and women, studies revealed that positive relationships could help offset the “likelihood of experiencing high allostatic load if one was on the negative economic pathway” (Ryff and Singer, 2002, p. 590).  Although Ryff and Singer missed the physical element in the characteristics of psychological well-being, they have added to the field by examining our biology as a test for effectiveness.  This is the final element of the physicality of positive interventions.

All of these articles support the fact that the body is an essential to human functioning and it has long been neglected by modern day scholars.  “The body is an essential and valuable dimension of our humanity… (a) crucial topic of humanistic study and experiential learning” (Shusterman, p. 1, 2006).  If we are to engage in positive interventions we must know that they cannot be separated from the physical in theory, practice or effect.

“. . . . . for Nature does not work in parts; she treats everything as a whole.”   F. M. Alexander




Mutrie, N. & Faulkner, G. (2004). Physical activity: Positive psychology in motion. In    Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 146-164).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (2002). From social structure to biology: Integrative science in    pursuit of human health and well-being. In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 541-555). New York: Oxford University    Press.

Shusterman, R. (2006). Thinking through the body, educating for the humanities: A plea for somaesthetics. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 40, 1-21.


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About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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