The Role of Positive Psychology in Oncology Practice


By Claire Grainger-Valvano, LCSW, OSW-C, Clinical Supervisor

What if you were to learn that you have the potential to change, choose, and decide your mood; challenging negative thought patterns, which tend to be heightened during a crisis of cancer.

Positive psychologist and author Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky studies happiness and its influence. Her findings reflect that while 50% of happiness is in our genetic code and 10% is based on our life circumstances, 40% is self-determined and lies within each of us. Dr. Lyubomirsky also suggests that this 40% is underutilized, and we indeed have the ability to bring this 40% to its optimal level of functioning.1 Grasping the concept that we can guide our minds to a more positive perspective of our own volition is empowering!

Positive psychology, while relatively new, is a burgeoning field. Degrees are now offered in reputable universities around the world. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, and considered the Father of Positive Psychology, has written a plethora of books on the subject. His concepts include “learned optimism.” Its tenet is that joy can be cultivated and that making an effort to choose a positive mindset has many benefits, both mentally and physically.2 He reports that pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity and/or to suffer from depression. He invites them to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. What can one learn from disappointment? Can it be something you grow and derive a benefit from?

To see adversity with a potential of being beneficial can help boost that 40% happiness factor that Lyubomirsky speaks of. To explore the idea and engage in positive self-talk, “This may not have turned out as I would have liked, but what might I learn from this?” Finding meaning from difficulty can enhance our happiness potential.

By understanding the work of Seligman and Lyubomirsky, we can begin to explore that our mood potentially lies greatly within our own minds. We may blame others or our situation for our emotional state, but believe we hold the key to boost our own mood and impact how we respond to a situation. With this potential, we still remain aware of the impact of genetics as well as life’s circumstances.

What can nurses do to significantly improve the chance of a positive mood within their patients? Studies and books by Seligman, Lyubomirsky and Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D., are a good start. The Nun Study, a longitudinal study initially conducted by the University of Minnesota, is an example of how immersing oneself in mind-broadening activities can keep the brain young, active and agile - and perhaps even ward off signs of dementia.3

So, becoming interested in life, its choices, even and in spite of its challenges, are helpful for a positive outlook and an interesting life. What can nurses do to increase the chance for this happening with the patients and families they work with, as well as themselves? The answers are available to most of us.

  • Take a class. Today, you can do this online from your own home if mobility is an issue. has its University without Walls, which offers educational courses via telephone and TED Talks provide a wealth of encouraging and interesting information on a wide range of subjects. If mobility is not an issue, a nearby art school, community college or Y might have classes of interest, often times with tuition scholarships for cancer patients. An educational program or class can boost your mood, along with your self-confidence at a time it’s sorely needed. According to studies at Central Connecticut State University, your brain chemistry changes and your learning speed increases when you take on a new task, When we learn, we grow, and we achieve! And even better, we feel good about it.4
  • Get your sleep. Sleep is vital to our mental and physical care. Detach from your electronics an hour or two before you sleep, keep your room dark at night, remove the TV from your bedroom. Look into some of the effective sleep apps and devices.
  • Try a news or technology fast. You might not only find that you’re calmer, you might also note a stronger connection to others, thereby decreasing isolation, an unfortunate side effect of treatment. Choose media wisely. Happy and positive movies, books and television will have you fueling your mind with uplifting information. Just as watching negative shows about negative people will probably drag your thoughts downward.
  • Eat well! Think of food as medicine. Eating well may allow you to tolerate treatment more effectively as well as lift your mood. Cancer treatment and caregiving can impact the appetite. So do your best to eat sensibly. Websites such as Cook for Your Life ( can offer easy and nutritious meals to help tolerate treatment when there is often limited time to create a healthful meal.
  • Get moving! Cancer and its treatment can lead to a sedentary existence for patients and their caregivers. Not feeling well is hardly conducive to exercise, but pushing yourself into getting out there, and physically moving, can lift endorphins and mood. It does not have to be a trip to the gym Carving out 5 to10-minute snippets throughout the course of the day will add up to a viable workout, and chances are, you will begin to notice the difference in your mood. The American Cancer Society has a recent article of how exercise can impact the quality of cancer patient’s life.5
  • Surround yourself with beauty. Admire the flowers along the way. Sniff scented soap, which is an inexpensive mood elevator. Remember that color impacts mood. While you may not be able to paint your rooms to something peaceful or joyous today, you can buy an inexpensive pillow to brighten your décor and lift your mood.

Being happy in these chaotic times can be a challenge. While genetics play the majority role in our mood, we still have a 40% say in what our mood can be. These tools apply to nurses as well, who can succumb to burn out and exhaustion in the emotional and physical challenges in oncology. Maybe most of us can’t change all of our mood completely, but small shifts in perspective can help make gray skies a little more blue with a hint of sunshine.


  • Lyubomirsky S. The How of Happiness. USA,Penguin Publishing Group; 2007
  • Seligman M. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. USA, Vintage Books, 1990.
  • Snowdon, D. Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study teaches Us about Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. USA, Bantam Books, 2002
  • Central Connecticut State University Office of Continuing Education website Accessed January 16, 2019.
  • American Cancer Society website. Accessed January 16, 2019.

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