Positive Psychology - a new way forward
A New Focus for Psychology
Until the development of positive psychology in the 1990s psychology had been largely focused on finding ways to ‘treat’ people with problems or deficits. If you imagine people ranked on a continuum from -10 to +10 with people at the +10 end being fully actualised and leading fulfilled and happy lives, then traditional psychology has been mainly interested in people in the -5 to -10 range. The concepts and interventions that have been developed have been designed to help people deal with difficulties in their lives, important of course but they haven’t always been helpful to everyone.
Positive Psychology asks the question ‘How can psychology help those who have no major problems and are doing ok in life?’ This has opened up a whole new area of research and has led to interventions that are more orientated towards helping people to grow and fulfil themselves. Potentially quite different to helping people to address deficits.
In his new book ‘Flourish’ Martin Seligman describes the 5 elements that come together to enable people to flourish. They are positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, a sense of meaning in your life and achievement.
Negative, downward spirals
What we know of the impact of negative emotions, ie the emotional responses that are there to protect us from threats, is quite worrying in the current organisational climate. When we face a threat our prehistoric brain takes over and prepares us to fight or flee. We experience a massive rush of cortisol and our cardiovascular systems pumps oxygenated blood to our large muscles. Helpful yes, if we are faced with a sabre toothed tiger but less useful in today’s complex and unpredictable organisations. This is because this reaction seems to cause us to become blinkered, shutting down our creativity and perspective. In effect leaving us with only 2 choices – fight or flight, when we are faced with scenarios of great uncertainty. This can lead to a downward organisational spiral: -
• Stress causes people to choose from only 2 options, increasing the chances of making ineffective decisions
• The results of poor decisions make people feel worse• Feeling worse enhances this blinkering effect, narrowing down options still further
• And so the spiral heads downwards
The 3 to 1 tipping point
A question positive psychologists have asked is ‘what is the point of positive emotions?’ The responses to stress outlined above lead to action. There didn’t seem to be the same link to action from positive emotions such as joy and contentment. However research seems to suggest that the impact of positive emotions is to broaden people’s perspective, both physically and mentally, making us better able to access our imaginations and breadth of vision. Exactly what is needed in organisations seeking to re-build, post credit crunch.The key to opening the door to the possibilities this can create, seems to lie in developing a ‘credit’ balance in your life of more than 3 positive experiences for each negative. To achieve this we can create more positives, eg by thanking or complimenting colleagues or giving them positive feedback and doing things that we love doing; or by re-framing negatives eg as a wakeup call or learning experience. It is not about denying that bad things happen, but recognising that we have power to choose how we react to those situations and being aware that we have the potential to create more positives for ourselves and others. I think this idea potentially explains why some coaching clients achieve life enhancing, life changing results whilst others struggle to make small incremental improvements or drift back to their original starting point over time. Maybe it is the effect of clients making a number of simultaneous changes, which are all aligned towards their overall goal, which creates really amazing results.
Strengths Based Development
Another route to accessing the benefits of positivity and progressing to the magical 3 to 1 tipping point, lies in the idea of strengths based development. Focusing on what we are good at, have a passion for and enjoy doing – and concentrating on what gives us a sense of meaning in our lives is energising and motivating. We need to be in engaged with activities that draw energy from us if we want to create a sustainable and fulfilling future.
Positive upward spirals
This can then have the effect of reversing the flow of downward spirals mentioned and create positive upward spirals as outlined below: -
• Getting the balance of positives over negatives above 3 to 1 enables us to access the enhanced confidence and creativity of a positive mental state.
• This increases the chances of better decisions being made and generates the energy and drive to put them into practice.
• When this leads to better results, this contributes to enhanced positivity and well being, tipping the balance further in a positive direction.
Creating a state of flow, achieving a state of peak performance and peak experience, seems to be a major pay off from increased positivity. Being in a positive state reduces the amount of friction and resistance in people’s lives enabling them to flow towards their objectives with much less effort and energy than they may have expended previously. The energy saved can be reinvested to enable people to achieve more with less. This works equally well at a team or organisational level.
Another key benefit of positive psychology is that it seems to have a magnetic quality. It is not just a reflection of health and success - it creates it. When people/teams /organisations/progress to this level of positivity it seems to attract opportunities and opens up brilliant new relationships.
All the above is complementary to, and in tune with, the principles and ideas flowing from coaching, NLP and a whole raft of other personal development models. Positive psychology has also added lots of new interventions that can enable people, teams and organisations to fulfil their potential – to flourish. Maybe most importantly, it is has also provided the research data which begins to explain how and why they work. As we respond to the impact of the credit crunch and budget cuts it offers a new way forward.
Be the best you can be - if you don't it's not only you that loses, we all lose. The world deserves to see you at your vibrant best.
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