Intensive Interaction and Positive Psychology – an article by Jana Standford

I was recently in some discussion with a psychologist who was wanting to look at Intensive Interaction from a ‘therapeutic’ and positive psychology perspective. I was then reminded of a article we published in our Intensive Interaction Newsletter (Issue 35) by Jana Stanford who was then working in a voluntary capacity for our Leeds & York Partnership NHS Trust. Although I still find it quite an intellectually challenging read, it does contain some very keen and worthwhile insights e.g. about being able ‘to explore the self-perspectives of people with learning disabilities on their own happiness’! 

I have copied this article below, as on rereading it I felt it still holds a lot of relevance for our approach looking forward into 2021 and beyond – perhaps particularly so in framing the perspectives of future Intensive Interaction research. So here it is (and, like me, you may want to read it a couple of times to get its full effect):


A review exploring the links between positive psychology and Intensive Interaction 

By Jana Sandford 

In the book ‘Understanding Intensive Interaction: Context and Concepts for Professionals and Families’ Berry (2010) points to the connections between the emphasis of Intensive Interaction upon building fulfilling relationships and positive psychology’s emphasis upon the importance of relationships in promoting optimal functioning. 

Berry sees Intensive Interaction as consistent with the positive psychology framework, especially in the shared emphasis on practitioners observing and assessing a person with intellectual disabilities in terms of their interactive capabilities and ‘strengths’, and the production of a ‘Strengths and Needs Plan’ (p. 133 & 168). This is concerned with building on a client’s existing repertoire of skills and looks to develop areas where a person’s skills are less evident but potentially available within a responsive social environment. Berry emphasises that this positive approach can help to counter the tendency to see people with a learning disability only in terms of deficits.

Harding and Berry (2009) present Intensive Interaction as consistent with humanistic psychology, attachment theory and positive psychology, as all these approaches share a belief that positive human relationships are crucial to our sense of self-worth, our ability to realise our potential and our psychological well-being. In Harding and Berry’s view, Intensive Interaction has the potential to become a therapeutic intervention for people who experience difficulty in the use of words to express their emotions and who struggle with social interactions. 

Important in the background of these discussions is the work of Seligman (2002) who proposed three roads to happiness. Firstly, the ‘pleasant life‘ – positive emotions based on sensory pleasures or momentary emotions. Secondly the ‘good life‘, Peterson and Seligman (2004) – achieved through the application of a number of virtues and strengths: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Along this road, people use their strengths and personal talents each day, working, playing and relating to others. Thirdly, the ‘meaningful life‘ is achieved when a person’s strengths are used in the service of something larger than the individual. Seligman suggested ‘flow’ as another road to happiness.

The concept of ‘flow’ was developed by Csikszentmihalyi through his studies of the creative process. Flow can be described as the moments when we ‘lose track of time’ through being engaged and absorbed in working on a task at the right level of challenge to our skills. For Csikszentmihalyi (1988) ‘the universal precondition of flow is that a person should perceive that there is something for them to do and that they are capable of doing it. Optimal experience requires a balance between the challenges perceived in a given situation and the skills a person brings to it. […] To remain in flow, one must increase the complexity of the activity by developing new skills and taking on new challenges. […] People describe flow as a process of discovering something new. […] Flow typically occurs in clearly structured activities in which the level of challenges and skills can be varied and controlled.‘ (p. 30-31)

Linking the fields of positive psychology and learning disabilities, Dykens (2006) published the first review exploring the relationship between positive internal states of people with learning disabilities and the emerging science of positive psychology. Dykens suggested that future research and practice could be based on positive internal states, including happiness, contentment, hope, engagement and the strengths of people with learning disabilities. Dykens showed how aspects of positive psychology could be applied to research and practice in the field of learning disabilities.

Dykens summarised the concepts and approaches of positive psychology. Contrary to the usual focus on ‘what is wrong with people’, positive psychology asks questions about what contributes to people being happy, thriving and doing well. Dykens briefly describes the major movements in learning disabilities research and practice and reviews how those contribute to happiness. The Quality-of-Life Movement’s examination of internal satisfaction has the potential to influence the study of happiness in people with learning disabilities. Where the Dual Diagnosis Movement focused on identifying and improving negative behaviours and symptoms, Dykens emphasises the importance of examining the well-being of people with learning disabilities, how they might become hopeful, grateful, engaged and happy. 

The Personality-Motivation movement linked research on intrinsic and mastery motivation, which could lead to a deepened understanding of issues of well-being and happiness. Family Research focused on families with children with learning disabilities revealed that the ‘stress-and-coping model’ (perceiving that families are stressed and are coping as best as they can) fits better than a psychopathology model (with the assumption that families are psychopathological). Family research found many positive aspects, including some families’ descriptions of positive transformations for themselves and their family, views that having a child with learning disability is not easy, but leads to a fuller and richer life. Positive psychology might be able to contribute to explanations and further research assessing the full range of effects associated with having a family member with a learning disability.

Dykens’ contribution, linking positive psychology and learning disabilities research and practice, includes a number of questions and suggestions for further research directions e.g. to explore to what extent people with learning disabilities show flow, engagement, and strengths. In Dykens’ view, flow holds much promise in thinking about interventions and motivation. Dykens suggests that if people with learning disabilities were provided with opportunities that invite flow, then growth and happiness might result. The first step is to identify where, when, how often and under what conditions flow occurs. Dykens invites positive psychologists to work together with researchers and practitioners in learning disabilities in order to evaluate the happiness and well-being of people with learning disabilities, who are often excluded from mainstream studies. Dykens suggests that such collaboration might lead to valuable research findings related to positive emotions, engagements, strengths and virtues. 

Dykens identified that, regardless of their aetiology, positive emotions, flow and strengths exist in people with learning disabilities and suggested the need to develop novel tools to explore the self-perspectives of people with learning disabilities on their own happiness. Dykens asks questions relating to the ‘meaningful life’, positive psychology’s path to happiness for people with learning disabilities. 

Dykens challenges positive psychologists and Learning Disability researchers to explore what combination of intellect, heart, soul, and strength are necessary to leading a meaningful life and to evaluate the happiness and well-being of people with learning disabilities. Dykens suggests that such collaboration might lead to valuable research findings related to positive emotions, engagements, strengths and virtues.

In conclusion, a review of the above literature suggests that positive psychology can offer a number of valuable insights and questions that could usefully be explored in relation to Intensive Interaction, most especially the concept of flow and the emphasis on strengths.

By Jana B. Sandford, MSc, volunteer at the Intensive Interaction project, Leeds.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, I., (1988). Optimal experience. Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: CUP.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity. Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Dykens, E. (2006). ‘Toward a Positive Psychology of Mental Retardation’. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 76, (2), 185-193.

Firth, G., Berry, R. & Irvine, C. (2010). Understanding Intensive Interaction. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Harding, C. & Berry, R. (2009). ‘Intensive interaction as a psychological therapy’. Psychologist. 22, (9), 758-759.

Seligman, M. (2002), Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M., Steen, T. A., Park, N. & Peterson, Ch. (2005). ‘Positive Psychology progress’. American Psychologist. 60, (5), 410-421.

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