It’s Massage Awareness week here in New Zealand so we thought we’d write a little bit about massage. Touch has been found to be an absolute necessity for growing babies, and as we get older it doesn’t become any less important. Your mental health and wellbeing can benefit greatly from regular massage, whether it’s from a trained practitioner or a friend rubbing your tense shoulders. Read More
Perhaps because the word positive automatically brings to mind the insufferable yellow smiley face, the field of positive psychology is struggling to get the respect that it deserves. Two articles in the Fairfax press this year – (30 March and 1 September) – have reinforced common misconceptions about positive psychology – in terms of both what it is, and how it is applied.
Positive psychology is not and has never been a “positive thinking” movement. Rather, it’s the study of what allows people to operate at the peak of their potential: to live longer and healthier, participate in more satisfying friendships and marriages, and have more engaging and meaningful careers. It’s also the study of what makes communities and institutions stronger and more resilient.
In contrast to the way positive psychology is portrayed in the media, research within the area has explicitly debunked the notions that “putting on a happy face,” pursuing short-term pleasures and external rewards, or boosting self-esteem are effective means of creating long-term well-being at home, at work, or in schools. Positive psychology is more about finding meaning and lasting fulfilment.
But books such as The Secret and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People have bastardised positive psychology and regurgitated it into a crowd-pleasing and a multimillion-dollar “positive thinking” industry. And misunderstanding and ill-informed commentary have compounded the problem and produced a bitter backlash against the science. The source of this backlash’s power is easy to identify – it is ignorance about the field.
Positive psychology is focused on understanding what enables us to flourish and achieve our potential at home, at work, and in schools. The field contrasts with the majority of work in the discipline of psychology which has traditionally focused on the goal of reducing illness and negative states. While understanding and alleviating sickness and depression is a worthy goal, it only addresses part of the well-being equation.
Some of the findings are exciting and challenge our thinking on what it takes to live a happy and healthy life. One key set of findings is that the pursuit of money and status that so pervades our culture and political discourse is unhelpful in making us happy. People adjust very quickly to something that gives them pleasure or pain. A famous study of lottery winners and victims of spinal injuries found that while those who won the lottery were briefly much happier and those who became quadriplegics and paraplegics were briefly much less happy, everyone soon returned to their original levels of happiness.
Seeking extrinsic rewards, such as money and status, doesn’t build lasting happiness, it simply sets us up to run on an addictive “hedonic treadmill”, which keeps returning us to where we started. Positive psychology research has found that long-term well-being is driven by cultivating trusting and nurturing relationships, having interesting and engaging work, and setting meaningful goals and feeling yourself progress towards achieving them.
Another clear set of findings suggests that individuals gain at least as much, if not more, from building on their strengths as improving areas of weakness. Management research has found that even though problematic employees demand more attention, managers who invest the most time with their best people perform between two and three times better than managers who spend more time with their worst.
Similarly, managers who create environments allowing employees to regularly exercise their talents have more productive workers and lower turnover. The findings don’t suggest we ignore negativity but create conditions where individuals and groups can thrive.
These are only a few of the numerous findings from positive psychology that inform how we can arrange our lives, schools and workplaces to be more engaging, productive, and resilient. The express goal of the field is to bring an evidence-based approach to helping individuals cope with and grow from disengagement, isolation, depression, stress and trauma and take advantage of their collaborative ability, creativity, vitality to build wellness and to flourish.
People who know the field know that it is not a positive thinking movement and that it doesn’t even focus exclusively on the positive but extends to the study of adaptability, strength, and growth out of hardship and failure.
There are certainly legitimate critiques of positive psychology: the field is still relatively new and evidence is still being generated and integrated. And its focus to date has been on the individual and primarily in Western contexts. But most critiques have been levelled at the ways positive psychology is applied. As with any emerging movement, the tendency for some to sell services or write books under the guise of positive psychology but with only a cursory understanding of the field is ever present.
And as with any field, there are increasing numbers of poorly-trained practitioners and consultants claiming to practise positive psychology without truly understand the research or the challenges of implementing its conclusions. Such consultants are likely to promise too much, deliver too little, and create resistance to change that could have been beneficial if positive psychology principles had actually been understood and implemented.
But a few bad apples shouldn’t damn an entire field or the many qualified and competent researchers and practitioners who are implementing well-validated positive programs or testing new interventions to address some of the most pressing issues of the day.
Adam Barsky is affiliated with Applied Research Consulting which consults in the area of Positive Education and Positive Leadership, both are informed by Positive Psychology.
Michael Zyphur does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
When someone gets injured or unwell one of the most important things to do is act as soon as possible. It’s an obvious thing do to, but for a bunch of reasons it doesn’t always happen (or doesn’t happen comprehensively) in practice. However, when done, the health and cost-saving outcomes are significant.
The diagram below is a very simple way of illustrating the need for early intervention (no, it wasn’t done by my 5-year-old nephew; I did it on my iPad. Plus I’m much better at drawing than he is).
Here’s a typical story that this diagram sums up:
1. Jon injures his back
2. He takes time off work. He also stops exercising and no longer really does stuff around the house because he’s in a bit of pain. He also stops seeing his friends as often
3. After a number of weeks there are some changes in Jon:
He starts developing a mild depression. He feels alone and he doesn’t do anything with his days, so he doesn’t have the best view of himself
He’s fighting with his wife much more than he used to
He’s putting on weight and his fitness and strength are declining
4. This becomes the norm for Jon. His life is now much different than it was:
He’s obese and has early type 2 diabetes
He and his wife have divorced
He’s in pain most of the time
He’s clinically depressed
He never sees his family or friends
Not good. Not good at all. However, this outcome is often avoidable:
An important way to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome is to intervene as early as possible. This means instituting effective treatment for the injury, and as much as possible encouraging the individual to be active in all areas of their life – keep them in their job or at least in the workplace, ensure they are physically active, and encourage healthy levels of social interaction.
Naturally all the levels to which these are encouraged must be dictated by the individual’s impairment, so as usual it’s about individualising your approach while adhering to the fundamentals. But odds are, if you intervene early and comprehensively, everyone involved will benefit.
One of the challenges to maintaining a happy and productive workplace can be cultural misunderstandings – and given the highly cosmopolitan societies in which many of us now live, the opportunities for cultural misunderstandings in the workplace are surely higher than ever. So how is it that different cultures have come to approach life so differently in the first place?
Richard E. Nisbett explores this theme in his book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Nisbett traces the intellectual roots of the East and the West back to ancient China and Greece respectively, and shows how the differences between their ancient societies are still reflected in the world today. For example, the Greeks esteemed individual liberty as the ultimate ideal, whilst the Chinese valued family and harmony; the Greeks prized logic and the cut and thrust of debate, whilst the Chinese strived to find the middle road between opposing views.
So why was this?
Nisbett proposes that the societal differences between East and West can be traced back to the natural environments of China and Greece. For example, the fertile plains of China favoured agriculture, and agricultural societies need to work together well in teams. But the mountains and coastline of Greece favoured fishing, hunting, animal-rearing and trade – all reasonably individualistic occupations that required relatively little interaction with others.
The implication of this was that the Greeks came to see themselves as independent free-agents, who thought about the world in terms of individual objects, and who developed logic as a tool for settling social conflict so that the best view always prevailed. The Chinese, on the other hand, came to see themselves as interdependent parts of a greater whole, who thought about the world in terms of a series of complex interrelationships, and who favoured compromise for dealing with conflict.
Thus the Greeks invented rhetoric, and by extension science (though paradoxically, the ancient Chinese were far more technologically advanced), and the Chinese invented holistic healing.
So how does this affect the way that we think today?
Nisbett describes various laboratory tests that demonstrate how Easterners and Westerners respond differently to reasoning, attention and perception tests; Westerners generally tend to focus on objects, whereas Easterners like to consider the context as a whole.
In one test, American and Japanese subjects were asked to memorise the contents of an underwater fish scene. When asked to recall what they had just seen, the Japanese subjects made many more references to background elements such as rocks and seaweed, and on the relationships in the scene that involved background elements. They also tended to begin by describing the overall scene (“It looked like a pond”), whereas the Americans tended to focus on the main objects, such as the largest fish.
These different ways of viewing the world are also reflected in Eastern and Western languages. Western infants – born into a culture that tends to focus on individual objects – generally learn nouns much more rapidly than verbs, yet for Eastern infants – born into a culture that tends to emphasise the relationships between many objects – the reverse is true. This is because nouns are used to label individual objects, but verbs are used to describe the relationships between elements as they interact.
In fact, the Japanese have many different words for “I”, depending on the context of who you’re talking to; this is because the focus is not on the individual “me”, but on the relationships between “me when I talk to my colleague” or “me when I talk to my spouse”.
So what can we learn from all of this?
Yes, we are all different based on the culture into which we’ve been born. It’s important to understand that where a Westerner may value freedom or the ability to make up their own mind, an Easterner may value ties with family and friends or living peaceably. Depending on our backgrounds, we all have different approaches to leadership, teamwork and problem solving; but being aware of these differences is an important step towards developing a mutual understanding and creating a positive workplace environment where everyone feels at ease.
Check out a video of Richard E. Nisbett discussing cultural differences at an instinctive level: