Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU psychology professors receive grant to study positive thinking

Kateri McRae and Iris Mauss, DU assistant professors of psychology, have received a  $180,000 grant from the Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation.

McRae and Mauss plan to study people who have been through stressful situations, such as a loss of a job or recent divorce. The study group will be taught how to do something called “reappraisal,” which is where someone thinks of something either less negatively or more positively.

They will be shown negative pictures and then told to think of them in less negative or more positive ways. Researchers will capture brain images using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

“The scans will tell us which parts of the brain are getting increased oxygen,” McRae says. “This is an indirect measure of how active the brain is, so we can look at the emotional brain.” 

Half of the study group will train for five weeks on how to be better positive appraisers. Researchers will then compare and contrast the reactions between the group that received training and the group who responded naturally to the negative images.

“We hope to learn how to help people better recover from a stressful life event,” McRae says. “I can’t think of anything more interesting than working on something that might improve people’s lives.”

The study will last two years. Mauss and McRae hope to start training graduate students this fall.

“Research has shown that positive emotions and interventions can bolster health, achievement, and resilience, and can buffer against depression and anxiety,” says Martin Seligman, professor and director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center.

Seligman founded the quickly-growing field of positive psychology in 1998 based on the notion that what is good in life is as worthy of scientific study as what is disabling in life.


  1. Cara Jacy says:

    I lead several mental health support groups, and part of our mission is to help patients explore ways to combat depression without medication, or at the very least, assist in providing additional coping mechanisms. So many people in our city are turning to antidepressant medications without exploring alternative therapies. We use “therapy dogs” as an adjunct treatment in some of the groups I lead, and the difference I see in patients after just 5 minutes with a companion animal is absolutely amazing. Positive thinking” is another avenue that we’ve been discussing, but I haven’t found much definitive research on that method (even though we believe it works!) Have the results of this study been published yet? It’s encouraging to see people at the university level advocating healthy, natural ways to combat stress and depression. Best, Cara

  2. Kateri McRae says:

    Thanks for your words of encouragement! We began collecting this dataset this winter and spring and plan to complete the data collection by the end of this calendar year. We will certainly try to let the public know when the results are published!

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