Positive psychology aims to enhance the aspects of the human experience that make life (and work) worthwhile – making us more resilient in the process.
Eeyore should look away now.
Positive psychology is the science of happiness – psychology with a positive orientation.
Rather than focusing on escape from unhappiness – ‘the absence of misery’ – positive psychology aims to understand what makes life worth living, prioritising the pursuit of wellbeing, contentment and meaning. It can also build much-needed resilience.
Its recent foundations in the humanistic movement and an emphasis on human strengths and potential, rather than neuroses and pathologies. However, it has roots lie in ancient virtue ethics and stoic philosophy.
When applied to the workplace, positive psychology involves shifting the emphasis away from what is dragging us down at work – negative elements such as job insecurity, stress and burnout – towards strengthening what uplifts and inspires, to create a productive working environment, characterised by engagement, connection and shared purpose.
For example, happiness at work can be fostered through interventions such as encouraging a sense of meaning; promoting collaborative relationships; championing work-life balance, and providing opportunities for creativity, exercise and meditation.
From learned helplessness to learned optimism
The term ‘positive psychology’ was coined by Abraham Maslow, and the discipline involves the work of multiple psychologists. Well-known names include Carl Rogers (pioneer of the ‘person-centred approach’), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who developed the concept of ‘flow’), Ed Diener (aka ‘Dr Happiness’) and Barbara Fredrickson (of ‘broaden and build theory’ fame).
However, it is professor Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania who has become known as its figurehead or ‘father’. In 1998, he chose positive psychology as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association, making a landmark speech at his inauguration.
According to Seligman, positive psychology has three tenets:
- Psychology should be as concerned with human strength as with weakness.
- It should be as interested in building strength as in repairing damage.
- It should be as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with nurturing high talent.
Ironically, his work began with research into pessimism and the theory of learned helplessness (with fellow psychologist Steven Maier): when animals or people have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering or discomfort, they start to believe they have no control over it and will stop trying to avoid it, even if there is an opportunity to escape it.
This learned helplessness is associated with stress and anxiety and often results in outcomes such as negative health symptoms, aggravated depression and burnout. However, Seligman also discovered that about a third of the animals and people who experience inescapable shocks or noise never become helpless.
These findings led him to wonder whether other mindsets and perspectives could be learnt in order to achieve positive traits, higher attainment and better health. They culminated in his theory of learned optimism: people can learn to develop a more optimistic perspective and behaviours.
Addressing cognitive distortions
Optimism is beneficial because it has been shown to improve physical and mental health, including immunity, and even to reduce mortality. It can enhance motivation and performance, contributing to career success while boosting resilience to life’s setbacks.
This ‘power to bounce back’ is positively associated with happiness, as resilient people are able to work through whatever life throws at them. In our increasingly uncertain world, resilience is a key skill for life and work. In the words of Seligman: “Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.”
Or, as Monty Python put it:
“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best”
While pessimism is “highly heritable”, it is “also modifiable by specific exercises”, according to Seligman. To gain a baseline of your own optimism, you can take his test, adapted by Stanford University, before tackling some of the cognitive distortions that affect it.
Cognitive distortions are false and inaccurate patterns of thinking that have the potential to cause psychological damage. These ‘thinking traps’ (ranging from ‘black and white thinking’ to generalising or labelling) lead us to interpret reality in unhelpful ways; however, there are ‘antidotes’ available if we know the recipes.
Seligman represents thinking traps with his ‘three Ps’:
- Personalisation: while pessimists attribute a setback or failure to internal factors, blaming themselves, optimists will look to external reasons and remain hopeful that next time might be better.
- Pervasiveness: pessimists catastrophise, tending to view negative events as pervasive, all-encompassing and affecting other aspects of their lives. Optimists are more likely to see positive events as pervasive.
- Permanence: while pessimists perceive negative situations as permanent (“I’ll always be terrible at presenting”), optimists tend to view them as temporary and changeable (“I was having a bad day, but my next presentation will go better”).
His ‘antidote’ is an ABC technique (based on Dr Albert Ellis’ original ABC Technique of Irrational Beliefs) which can be used to note which of the ‘three Ps’ come into play for you when you shift from A (the adversity) to B (how your beliefs affect your response) and move on to C (what happens in consequence).
Adversity: Falling out with a colleague.
Beliefs: I never get on with anyone at work; nobody will ever
Consequences: You don’t try to resolve the situation because you don’t
think you can change who you are or how you are.
Just paying attention to the way we think and explain experiences to ourselves can help us to identify and address pessimistic tendencies.
Other practical interventions to help puncture defeatist thinking include challenging negative self-talk and practising gratitude (counting our blessings); for example, via regular journaling. The Best Possible Self exercise, devised by Laura King at the University of Missouri, has been found to increase positive emotions and optimism when done daily for a fortnight. This involves spending around 15 minutes writing about an ideal future life up to 10 years from now, focusing on your potential rather than past failures or shortcomings.
Strategic pessimism: a strategy
[Re-enter Eeyore] “We can’t all, and some of us don’t.”
Despite the resilience-building potential of all this positivity, it should be noted that pessimism also has its uses. For anxious people, strategic (or defensive) pessimism is a cognitive strategy that helps us to manage our anxiety and work productively. By lowering our expectations to help prepare ourselves for the worst, we run through in our minds all the bad things that might happen.
Identified by Nancy Cantor and her students in the mid-1980s (but harking back to the stoic practice of premeditatio malorum – premeditation of evils), this technique can be used in a variety of areas. For example, imagining the potential pitfalls of public speaking: forgetting your speech; struggling with accompanying tech; having a dry throat. Identifying these pitfalls in advance can help us to pre-empt them: writing cue cards; practising the technology, and ensuring they have a glass of water close by. Doing this preparation may alleviate our anxiety and improve our performance.
Bear in mind, though, that strategic pessimism is not to be confused with actual pessimism (an internal, global and stable attribution style); rather, this is a conscious cognitive strategy.
A focus on flourishing
Seligman concluded, from extensive research, that the happiest people are those who recognise and make use of their unique combination of signature strengths. He identifies six classes of virtue – wisdom and knowledge; courage; humanity; justice; temperance and transcendence – that make up 24 character strengths.
In this, we can see the influence of both ancient virtue ethics and stoic philosophy: while Aristotle believed the ultimate purpose of existence was ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia – actively expressing virtue), the Stoics held that virtue is the only real good, and so is both necessary and sufficient for living a ‘good life’.
Similarly, Seligman argues that honing and exploiting our strengths and virtues is the key to leading a ‘good’ (or ‘engaged’) life, which can translate to a ‘meaningful life’ where we use these talents in the service of a greater good. Over time, his focus has also shifted from attaining ‘authentic happiness’ to the more stoic-friendly concept of achieving wellbeing.
“When I started my work in positive psychology, my original view was closest to Aristotle’s – that everything we do is done in order to make us happy – but I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless,” wrote Seligman in his book Flourish, in 2011.
Seligman no longer believes that positive psychology is about happiness, or about a quest for increasing life satisfaction through “positive emotion, engagement and meaning.”
Shifting his focus to wellbeing (over “happyology”), he now argues that the goal of positive psychology should be to increase flourishing, which rests on five pillars, each of which should be valued for its own sake, not merely as “a means to some other end”. Positive emotion, engagement and meaning are three of the pillars, but they cannot do the ‘heavy lifting’ of supporting human flourishing by themselves. Among other things, this new thinking takes into account the discrepancy between what makes people happy and fulfilled in the long term, versus ‘happiness’ in the immediate term. For example, parenthood tends to bring people a long-term sense of wellbeing, but can be exhausting and even miserable, day to day.
Putting PERMA into practice
Seligman’s evidence-based model for the ingredients of wellbeing is denoted by the mnemonic PERMA. He asserts that once we understand these elements, it is easier to live a meaningful life.
- Positive emotions: feeling good about ourselves and others
- Engagement: complete absorption in activities so that time flies by/flow
- Relationships: being authentically connected to others
- Meaning: a purposeful existence that goes beyond personal needs
- Achievement: using our skills and strengths to gain a sense of accomplishment
Applying PERMA as a ‘formula for employee happiness’ in the workplace involves looking at each of these in turn. For example, could we promote positive emotions in our organisation by encouraging self-reflection? Might reducing the number of meetings and creating dedicated quiet spaces enable people to gain a sense of absorption or ‘flow’ when working on specific projects? Would dedicated mentorship schemes enhance human connection? How can we articulate our organisational purpose to give workers a sense of meaning in the work that they do? If we take team members’ personal ambitions into account when setting goals, will this give people a greater sense of accomplishment?
In Seligman’s biggest ‘workplace’ intervention around wellbeing, PERMA was used to increase resilience in the US Army. Brought in by the chief of staff during the Iraq War to make soldiers “as psychologically fit as they were physically fit”, Seligman taught 40,000 drill sergeants strategies to boost their mental toughness and resilience. The aim was to prepare them for demanding deployments, enabling them to experience post-traumatic growth rather than post-traumatic stress.
The army has since incorporated Comprehensive Soldier Fitness into its programme as a long-term and enduring initiative, which is “continuing to evolve as the army community’s resilience develops and its needs change”.
Of course, psychology as a whole is continuing to evolve, responding to new insights and fluctuations in the world around us. The science of wellbeing is increasingly valued in our interconnected, fast-changing and complex world, dominated by advancing technology.
Positive psychology is working hard to keep pace, as articulated in a recent blog by The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley:
“New insights coming out of the field promise to be more nuanced, practical, and personalized – recognizing individual differences among people and cultures, differentiating between specific practices, acknowledging pitfalls and downsides, and investigating the role of environment and context,” its author pledges.
After all, Gen Z will be aiming for far more than ‘an absence of misery’ in their future careers. But they might also continue to look on the bright side, focusing on the resilience-building power of positivity and bearing in mind the words of the 17th-century Japanese poet and samurai Mizuta Masahide: “My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.”
Take the test
- The Learned Optimism test, adapted by Stanford University
- Quiz: Are you a defensive pessimist?
- The VIA Character Strengths Survey
Test your understanding
- Outline Seligman’s three tenets of positive psychology.
- How many classes of virtue does Seligman identify in his flourishing model? Name three of them.
What does it mean for you?
- Reflect on Seligman’s three Ps. Can you think of a recent example when you might have fallen prey to one of his thinking traps? How might a better awareness help you to build better resilience in a similar situation in future?
- Consider how strategic pessimism might be a useful tool for you, or a colleague. How might it manifest itself?
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