Power of Positive Thinking Is Psychology's Latest Focus
Positive Psychology: 5 areas of life where a positive approach can produce positive results
Philadelphia got an injection of positivity when the leading authorities in the field of positive psychology descended on the City of Brotherly Love for the First World Congress on Positive Psychology.
Roughly 1,500 practitioners, researchers, and other professionals from around the globe convened to present their latest findings and to describe efforts to disseminate the principles of the discipline. The four-day event was the inaugural conference of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), just a year old.
Positive psychology itself is a relatively nascent field.
Formally founded a decade ago by the University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman, the emphasis of positive psychology is on what goes right with people was a sea-change from psychology's traditional preoccupation with what goes wrong -- from depression and anxiety to mental illness of all flavors.
Positive psychology explores the factors that make life worth living, such as happiness, through the study of positive emotions, positive character strengths, and positive institutions. But it shouldn't be confused with self-help.
"It's easy to misunderstand as a kind of happyology ... 'Take some positive pills, and then you'll feel good,'" says James Pawelski, executive director of the IPPA and director of education and senior scholar at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center.
In reality, positive psychology is much broader and deeper than that -- and it's scientific, he says. "It's not just about the latest fads in what will bring a smile to your face. It's about randomized controlled trials about what leads to human flourishing."
Several conference presenters shared their research and insights. Here are five areas of life where positive psychology can have an impact:
1. Getting ahead at work
How can people truly flourish at work?
That question has been at the center of Michael Frese's positive psychology research for years, and the professor of organizational psychology at Germany's University of Giessen believes he has identified an answer: what he calls "active behavior," which is akin to personal initiative. His studies of employees suggest that people who engage in a high degree of active behavior at work are more successful on the job -- they gain more empowerment, meaning they have greater control over their work and their work is more complex; they gain even more personal initiative; and they find new jobs more easily if they become unemployed.
Those findings hold true across many different workplaces and countries, he says. And active behavior not only pays off for the individual, he's found, but can change the workplace environment for the better, even boosting a firm's income.
Active behavior is comprised of three components, says Frese
The first is self-starting behavior; self-starters do things not just because a boss demands it, but because they see those things as being important.
The second component is proactive behavior, or actions that people take when they think of future opportunities and prepare for them now.
The third is persistence in the face of professional obstacles.
These three things must all be done together, he says, to lead to positive effects. "Every job you can imagine" -- from blue-collar to starchy white--"can be discussed and described in this way," says Frese.
2. Raising resilient kids
Adults can help kids by encouraging them to think positively.
Psychologists Karen Reivich and Jane Gillham aim to use positive psychology on the youngest members of society to prevent them from later struggling with anxiety, depression, or other psychological problems. An estimated 2 million or so 12- to 17-year-olds experience clinical depression annually, and Reivich and Gillham have found that building resilience in younger children can help thwart depression before it starts. The pair has developed school-based curricula that teach educators, parents, and ultimately kids the core skills of resilience and other tenets of positive psychology.
The Penn Resiliency Program, which they run at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, has been shown by 17 studies of nearly 2,500 middle-school students to prevent or reduce depressive symptoms, effects that last at least a year after the program ends. That success, they say, is what's led them to bring the program to schools in the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as to others in the United States. They are among the leaders of the new field of "positive education."
A key resilience-building skill they teach is how to identify the link between self-talk—in essence, what's playing on kids' "internal radios"—and kids' feelings and behaviors, says Gillham. Negative self-talk can create self-fulfilling prophecies, leading kids to behave in ways that create new situations that only reinforce the negative thoughts they have about themselves. Say, for example, that a child does poorly on an algebra test. That may prompt her to think, "I can't do math," fueling feelings of discouragement and sadness. Because of those thoughts, she stops studying and then bombs the next exam. A downward spiral ensues.
"A lot of what we're trying to do is interrupt that process," says Gillham. Her approach to positive psychology teaches teachers and parents how to help kids challenge negative self-talk and see disappointments from other angles. Perhaps the hypothetical girl did poorly on the algebra test because it's an area of math that she finds difficult, though she excels at fractions; perhaps she felt groggy during the exam because she didn't sleep well the night before. Once the faulty link in those thought patterns has been identified, adults can encourage kids to come up with ways to best tackle the problem. Positive education also encourages kids to identify and embrace their strengths.
Gillham advises parents and teachers to model these techniques, since kids are more likely to imitate what they see adults do than what they hear them say. Unless parents set the example, she says, "children are really unlikely to follow."
3. Building solid relationships
Close relationships is one area of life where using positive psychology can make a big difference.
According to Shelly Gable, associate professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, an important key to understanding a relationship's strength is how it works in good times, not just whether it withstands the bad.
Gable has been researching what goes right in close relationships for years.
By studying hundreds of couples, she's found that when romantic partners disclose positive news, how the other reacts matters -- a lot. In fact, partners' reactions to each other's good news can better predict the quality of a relationship--and whether it will endure -- than can partners' reactions to bad news, says Gable.
"Reacting in a positive way not only reinforces bonds, but it also shows that person that in negative times you'll be there," says Gable.
Positive reactions also magnify the uplifting effects of the good news for the partner who's doing the sharing, she notes. A negative or semi-positive response to a partner's good news, however, can undercut all the benefits derived from disclosing in the first place, such as fostering trust, intimacy, and satisfaction with the relationship, she says.
Surprisingly, Gable has found that out of four possible ways to respond to a partner's positive news, only one -- an "active constructive response" -- is good
Couples whose partners respond in any of three less positive ways are at greater risk of calling it quits down the line.
Consider the following example she often gives to illustrate:
Your significant other comes home, beaming, and announces that he just got a great promotion at work. You could react with:
1. An active constructive response
"That's great, you've earned it, I'm so proud of you!" followed by questions. This conveys enthusiasm, support, and interest.
2. A passive constructive response
"Great job, honey!" then shifting to the next topic. Like dinner.
3. An active destructive response
Gable dubs this "finding the cloud in a silver lining response"
"Wow! Does this mean you'll be working later hours? Are they going to be paying you more? I can't believe they picked you out of all the candidates." Just generally deflating.
4. A passive destructive response
Can take either of two forms: "Wow! Wait until I tell you what happened to me today," which is very self-focused, or, "What's for dinner?" which ignores the event altogether.
4. Increasing your happiness
Psychology Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky says 12 positive activities can boost your happiness
You can thank your parents -- in part -- for how happy you are; roughly half of human happiness is genetically determined.
Another 10 percent comes from your life circumstances, like how happy you are with where you live. But because people quickly adapt to changes, swapping Midwest winters for West Coast warmth, say, won't lead to a lasting boost in life satisfaction, according to longtime happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside.
What can give us a lasting boost is how we think and behave, she says: About 40 percent of our happiness is under our conscious control.
Happiness, as she and other researchers define it, is comprised of two main components:
A cognitive component -- that is, how you think about your life, how satisfied you are with your life, and whether you feel that you are progressing towards your life's goals.
An affective component, which has to do with how often you experience positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions, though fleeting, are arguably the hallmark of happiness, she says, and can lead to upward spirals in mood and behavior.
In Lyubomirsky's 2008 book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, she discusses 12 activities that science suggests can lay the groundwork for increasing and sustaining happiness by creating bursts of positive emotions.
These range from practicing acts of kindness to savoring positive things, like your morning pastry, a hot shower, or time with your kids. Because not all of these activities will suit your goals and values, Lyubomirsky advises people to take her Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic before choosing which to practice.
Several other factors influence how much they'll work, such as how often you do them, the effort you put in, and how motivated you are to get happier--people motivated to increase their happiness got more benefit from such interventions than those randomly selected to try them, Lyubomirsky found in a recent study.
"Happiness takes work," she says. "But over time these strategies will become habitual."
A new iPhone app that launched this month is based on Lyubomirsky's research and her book. The $6.99 Live Happy app allows users to track their happiness levels and practice some of her strategies -- gratitude, for example, can be practiced by texting, emailing, or calling someone from your contact list. While Lyubomirsky is not profiting financially off the new app, she will be using it to study how her recommendations work in the real world.
5. Balancing positive and negative emotions
Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson says we need 3 positive emotions for every negative emotion
Joy. Interest. Love. Serenity. Awe. Amusement. Pride.
Such positive emotions, fleeting feelings that last just seconds or minutes, are the subject of Barbara Fredrickson's research.
Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, examines how they can alter our thoughts and actions for the better. She finds, for example that when we're under the influence of positive emotions, our awareness expands.
"We literally see more," she says. "Our peripheral vision is expanded." (Negative emotions, on the other hand, narrow our thinking.) She also finds that people who increase their "daily diet" of positive emotions develop closer connections with others, their resilience and optimism strengthens, and they become less depressed and more satisfied with life, compared with people who do nothing to experience them more frequently.
This isn't to suggest it's necessary to strive for constant euphoria -- even mild positive emotions can impact a person's growth and outlook over time, she says. Nor must negative emotions be banished. In fact, doing so would be unhealthy, she adds. Instead, Fredrickson has identified a "prescription" for attaining balance between those polar feelings, the amount of each people need to flourish.
On average, "we all need at least three positive emotions to lift us up for every negative emotion that drags us down," she says, a "positivity ratio" that arose from work she and a colleague published in 2005. People truly in the "flourishing zone" surpass that mark, although most of us clock in at 2 to 1 or even lower, she says.
The good news, says Fredrickson: "There are multiple ways to raise your ratio."
You can increase your positive emotions, you can decrease your negative emotions, or you can do both, she says.
Learning to meditate, for example, can boost positive emotions, Fredrickson has found, though a run in the woods, dancing, or reading a new cookbook work best for her.
Evidence suggests that there's a correlation between experiencing positive emotions in life and living longer, says Fredrickson, who encourages people to visit her free website and track their positivity ratio nightly for two weeks to see what their average is. Doing so might help you learn the sources of your positive emotions and the triggers for your negative ones.
"The truth emerging from the science is that feeling good is a wise investment in our future," she says.
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