The Rise of Positive Psychology: Linking the Movement to the 6th Kondratieff Cycle

One very interesting question about Positive Psychology is: Why now? Meaning: Why is it booming at this point in time, why is it gaining so much momentum, why is it turning into a – sort of – movement, attracting the attention of thousands of researchers (plus: institutions that fund research) and practitioners in business, education, healthcare – and elsewhere?

An easy answer could be: Because Marty Seligman chose it as the central topic of his tenure as president of the APA in 1998. Apart from being a brilliant researcher, Marty has proven to be a very good “salesman” and is also highly skilled at securing grants and other third-party funds. But I guess this response is too simple.

The core ideas of Positive Psychology (first and foremost: looking at the “positive” side of the continuum that comprises human behavior and development) have been around for a while, starting with some of the Greek philosophers – and leading all the way up to 20th century humanistic psychologists such as Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Maslow. They all do have their well-deserved spot in the psychology hall of fame – and they are widely respected for their (theoretical) contributions. But they did not really manage to turn their ideas into a widely-accepted and especially well-researched “field”, a broad and comprehensive sub-domain of the academic community.

All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come. (Victor Hugo)

Turns out it may not be their fault after all. There is a good chance that they were simply introducing their ideas to the world…too early. Positive Psychology may be booming during this era of economic development (and human development in general) because it could be the decisive force to spur growth and well-being over the next 50 years (or so…).

Positive Psychology and the sixth Kondratieff Wave

Enter Nikolai Kondratieff (1892-1938). Kondratieff devised an economic theory that today is known as Kondratieff Cycles (often called „theory of the long waves“). They are a concept in macro-economics that describes the development (expansion, stagnation, recession) of entire economies. Yet in contrast to most modern economic theories, Kondratieff did not focus on cycles that last for a few years. He tried to describe waves that last approximately 50-60 years.

A core concept of the theory is the notion of “basic innovations”: Kondratieff posited that a wave arises from the clustering of technical innovations that consecutively serve to launch technological revolutions that in turn create leading industrial or commercial sectors (please see the following graph taken from a research report created by German insurance giant Allianz for a basic overview of the first five cycles – and a projection for the upcoming sixth cycle):

Kobdratieff Waves

As you can see our economy is depicted as entering the sixth wave since the first industrial revolution. What you can also see is a list of candidates for the basic innovations that are projected to drive economic growth during the upcoming cycle (e.g. nanotechnology, biotechology, green-tech).

But there´s another important candidate on the list that is also elaborated on in the Allianz whitepaper – but was introduced to the public a lot earlier through the book The Sixth Kondratieff by Leo Nefiodow (which has recently been reissued in a 6th edition): Holistic health. This encompasses all those products and (medical) services that cater to the needs of an aging society. But it also decidedly incorporates all the services that cater to the psycho-social wellbeing of the workforces in our organizations.

This is where Positive Psychology as a growth driver may tie in. Phenomena such as the burnout syndrome have been on the rise for at least the past 15 years – resulting in billions and billions lost for corporations and society as a whole as a result of absence from work and medical costs (…and I´m not even trying to incorporate the “psychological costs”; and the “social costs” for families, friends, communities). And according to Gallup, the U.S. economy loses some 450-550 billion Dollar per year due to a disengaged workforce (for Germany, the number is depicted at around 130 billion Euro).

Positive Psychology (especially positive organizational scholarship) offers well-researched and at the same time practical solutions for (a lot of) these problems, at the individual and organizational level. For an overview, you might want to check the recently published book How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact by editors Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer. Other valuable books can be found on this list.

To sum up: I propose Positive Psychology may be the decisive basic innovation of the 6th Kondratieff wave.

What do you think of this?

Systems Intelligence: Getting to Super-Productivity via not “Holding Back”

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Esa Saarinen´s work on individual and organizational well-being is based on a Systems Intelligence approach (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004; Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2007; Saarinen, 2013). Systems intelligence, in turn, is based on systems theory/systems thinking (Von Bertalanffy, 1968) which was introduced into organization and management sciences by researchers such as Russell Ackoff (1972; 2006). Systems Intelligence is defined as “intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback. A subject acting with Systems Intelligence engages successfully and productively with the holistic feedback mechanisms of her environment. She perceives herself as part of a whole, the influence of the whole upon herself as well as her own influence upon the whole” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2004, p. 9). Pertaining to underlying idea of man, the approach is grounded in “a deep belief in the human potential. In its positive overtones and strive towards flourishment […] Systems Intelligence runs parallel to Positive Organizational Scholarship and to Positive Psychology” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2007, p. 4).

What fascinates me most about Saarinen´s work is the concept of “holding back”. On an abstract level, this describes a situation where people choose an “inferior non-cooperative equilibrium solution even if a jointly dominating solution would also be available by cooperation” (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004, p. 35). For instance, a boy and a girl both hesitate to say “I love you” out of fear that the statement could remain unrequited. In this spirit, Hämäläinen and Saarinen (2008, p. 824) describe “‘Systems of Holding Back’, and of ‘Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance’. The subject holds back what would benefit the other because the other first holds back from me what would benefit me.”

While I can obviously relate to this concept by way of personal experience, I believe it also markedly extends my understanding of a psychological phenomenon I investigated a while ago (Rose, 2010; 2012). I administered a questionnaire to a German sample of more than thousand people and asked them (among other things) to rate themselves on the following items pertaining to their overarching life goals:

  • Sometimes I doubt that I am allowed to reach my goals.
  • Sometimes I believe that I do not deserve to reach my goals.
  • Sometimes I believe that somehow I am not permitted to reach my goals.

Participants that answered in the affirmative displayed a significantly lower level of satisfaction with life (r = -.48) as measured by the scale of Diener, Emmons, Larsen, and Griffin (1985). Now the question arises: Why should somebody think (or feel) that she is not allowed to reach her goals? Where should this permission come from? Who could issue such a permission – or should have given it in the first place? At the present moment, my intuition is that this could be a structure of anticipatory (internalized) form of holding back: A person expects to be exposed to “holding back” via an external agency and therefore decides to evade the associated “pain” by “not trying” in the first place.

At the other end of the continuum, Hämäläinen and Saarinen (2007, p. 27) believe that “to the extent there are microbehaviours of holding back and a phenomenon of holding back giving rise to Systems of Holding Back, there is also the opposite possibility.” If there are (micro-)behaviours of holding back, there should also be occasions of uplift and elevation.

Bigger PictureSuper-Productivity

One important facet of Systems Intelligence is the investigation and description of a phenomenon characterized as “Super-Productivity” (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004) – which is a result/by-product of systems’ propensity for synergy and emergence. This concept signifies an optimal state of system functioning which in everyday speech is oftentimes described by the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. It could be likened to Csíkszentmihályi´s concept of Flow (1990) – but where Csíkszentmihályi´s notion is concerned with an intra-individual phenomenon, Saarinen and his co-author refer to an inter-individual manifestation, a flow between different elements of a system, for instance, the members of a management team or an orchestra.

I am very intrigued by this conception since I have experienced it numerous times in my career as a corporate manager. It rarely happens,* but when it does, the results can be spectacular. By way of example, upon my initiative, Bertelsmann has entered in a joint recruiting project by the name of “Gap Year” ( with the German branch of McKinsey, the headquarters of German financial/insurance giant Allianz, and Germany´s leading FMCG producer, Henkel. In spite of being opponents in the so-called “War for Talent” (Chambers, Foulon, Handfield-Jones, Hanklin, & Michaels, 1998), we all swallowed our (corporate) pride and created a cooperative program for recent bachelor graduates. Candidates have to apply only once, and if successful, they enter a 12-months schedule where they complete first-rate internships with three out of the four partner companies. The program has been immensely successful. Not only does it attract the best candidates the market has to offer, it was also awarded several times, and featured in more that 30 (mostly top-tier) articles in the German business press.

In the beginning, there were a lot of doubts about the feasibility and practicality of this project. All parties had to overcome the inherent “free-market egotism” and tune into the needs and requirements of the partner companies. Looking back, I believe that a high amount of interpersonal trust was the key ingredient that has led to successful execution. It would have been easy to “hold back”, to sabotage, or pull out of the project completely. But we decided to see it through – and we were richly rewarded.

* But in real life, the opposite seems to be true. At the lower end of the continuum, there has to be a kind of hypo-productivity: “Most corporations and business schools are less than the sum of their parts.” (Ackoff, 2007, p. 127).


Ackoff R. L., Emery F. E. (1972). On purposeful systems. Chicago, Il: Aldine-Atherton.

Ackoff, R. L. (2006). Why few organizations adopt systems thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 23(5), 705-708.

Ackoff, R. L., Addison, H. J., & Bibb, S. (2007). Management F/Laws. Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press.

Chambers, E. G., Foulon, M., Handfield-Jones, H., Hanklin, S. M., & Michaels, E. G. (1998). The war for talent. McKinsey Quarterly, 3, 44-57.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper-Perennial.

Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(1), 71-75.

Hämäläinen R.P. & E. Saarinen (2007). System intelligent leadership, in R.P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), System intelligence in leadership and everyday life (pp. 3-38). Helsinki: Systems Analysis Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

Hämäläinen, R. P., & Saarinen, E. (2008). Systems intelligence – the way forward? A note on Ackoff’s ‘why few organizations adopt systems thinking’. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25(6), 821-825.

Rose, N. (2010). Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit [License for Satisfaction]. Kommunikation & Seminar, 5, 12-15.

Rose, N. (2012). Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit [License for Satisfaction]. Paderborn, Germany: Junfermann.

Saarinen, E. (2013). The Paphos seminar. Elevated reflections on life as good work. GoodWork Project Report Series, 80, Harvard University.

Saarinen E., & Hämäläinen, R. P. (2004). Systems intelligence: Connecting engineering thinking with human sensitivity, in R. P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), Systems intelligence: Discovering a hidden competence in human action and organisational life (pp. 9-37). Helsinki: Systems Analysis Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

Von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York, NY: George Braziller.