The scientific study of optimal performance and wellbeing is contributing new insights and strategies to help individuals, organisations and communities thrive and excel.
A breakout field, positive psychology has spread rapidly across social and human sciences over the past decade or so, offering a fresh lens to address some of today’s most pressing issues. By challenging traditional psychology, which has focused largely on the negative, positive psychology aims to cultivate flourishing by moving people toward the positive.
The Langley Group’s new white paper, The Science and Practice of Positive Psychology, distils key principles and theories of positive psychology. In this excerpt, we explain five principles that underpin positive psychology.
Positive Psychology applies an abundance lens to help people, organisations and communities flourish and excel—focus on what is working well and how it can work even better. It views people as creative and self-determined with access to inner resources, able to actively create the outcomes to which they and others aspire, rather than as passive victims of external forces. Thus it seeks to answer questions such as: “What makes some people succeed?” “Which activities broaden and build people’s resources” and “How can we create environments where people perform at their best?”
It shares much with the abundance and solution-focussed field of coaching psychology, which has grown alongside positive psychology to facilitate positive outcomes and performance.
2. Virtues and strengths
Concepts of strengths and virtues have infused human history across many cultures. They shape our character, our identity and our capacity to flourish. Aristotle extolled us to strive to “live in accordance with the best thing in us” if we want to attain a good life.8 In other words, to amplify and refine our virtues and strengths.
The strengths approach at the heart of positive psychology shifts the focus from fixing weakness to identifying and building on what people do well and enhancing their potential to develop. It assumes strengths are part of human nature; everyone has them and deserves respect for them. It also suggests we can only address our weaknesses when we also make the most of our strengths.
Positive psychology itself can be seen as taking a virtuous or ethical stance by advocating that the desire and capacity to improve is latent within people and human systems and should be further activated.
3. Positive deviance
Striving to be exceptional, daring to go against the grain, and looking for solutions that may not be accessible from a problem or deficit focus are all part of positive deviance—a key concept in positive psychology.
Why is positive deviance so necessary or advantageous? Our brains tend to have a bias toward the negative. There are more negative emotions that positive; their intensity is often stronger and we respond more powerfully and automatically to negative events.
Neuroscientists call this the ‘walk towards, run away’ theory. We want to act first and fast to minimise perceived threat, yet we approach situations and people that will reward us more leisurely. In many cases our negative focus is an evolutionary hangover that leaves us with an opportunity cost and keeps us from devoting energy, time and effort that may be better spent building resources and moving toward greater wellbeing and success. A key goal of positive psychology is to help reset our bias from negative to positive and spark flourishing by amplifying the impact of positive emotions, experiences, influences and practices.
4. Flourishing v. languishing
Positive and negative are commonly seen as polar opposites. Yet this notion can create an artificial dichotomy when it comes to understanding flourishing—a state characterised by generativity, growth and resilience. Corey Keyes, studying the relationship between mental health and mental illness, concluded that the absence of mental illness does not equate to the presence of mental health. Treating or preventing mental illness will not by itself result in greater mental health as the two exist on different spectrums.
The opposite of flourishing is in fact “languishing”—a state where positive emotions appear too low to stimulate flourishing, and emotional distress, social impairment or lack of fulfillment are present. Both need to be understood and addressed holistically.
5. Happiness and wellbeing
Positive psychology has traditionally conceived of happiness as comprising two forms of wellbeing:
- Subjective wellbeing (SWB) —hedonic experience, satisfaction with life, matched with a high level of positive emotions and low level of negative emotions;
- Psychological wellbeing (PWB) —eudaimonic experience, the more enduring sense of fulfillment we get from personal relationships, living a meaningful life and developing as a person.
These are measured by different instruments, although recent scholars have questioned whether these concepts are truly distinct.
You can make a significant impact to happiness and wellbeing by reseting the bias we often hold toward the negative and sparking upward spirals. While positive psychology covers many disciplines and areas, many scholars and practitioners have focused on maximising the benefits of five factors essential to happiness and wellbeing: positive emotions, engagement, meaning, relationships and accomplishment (often known as PERMA). These positive factors, though not the only beneficial ingredients, can be seen as building blocks or drivers that maximise wellbeing and gear people and human systems toward greater flourishing.
This vibrant field is evolving, yet for those who want to make the most of it, the message is clear. Focus on what is working well and how it can work even better. Find ways to activate the potential for health, happiness and excellence within all people by guiding them to take positive actions and supporting them to succeed. Do this without being blind to weaknesses, the realities of negative experience and the full spectrum of human emotions.
For more about the science, practice and impact of positive psychology on happiness, performance and wellbeing, download the Langley Group whitepaper. We delve into the history of this flourishing field and current issues facing practitioners and explore critical ingredients that make the most impact on individual, group and collective wellbeing.