You think being Successful will make you Happy? Science suggests it´s the other way round [Current Research]

Does Happiness Promote Career SuccessOnce I´ll reach x (…put in one of your personal or professional goals…) I´ll be happy. This is a popular equation many people believe in. It´s promoted by a lot of self-help books as well.

And it´s wrong – or at least incomplete.

One of the central tenets in Positive Psychology is that happiness (positive emotions) actually lead to success. Researchers Julia K. Boehm and Sonja Lyubomirsky gathered the extant scientific evidence supporting this hypothesis for an influential review article in 2008. Ten years later they revisited this article and integrated new findings that corrobate their initial stance: Does Happiness Promote Career Success? Revisiting the Evidence. Here´s an excerpt from the discussion section:

First, the cross-sectional literature supports a correlational link between happiness and various success-related outcomes. Happiness is positively associated with job autonomy, job satisfaction, job performance, prosocial behavior, social support, popularity, and income. Happy people also receive more positive peer and supervisor evaluations […].

Second, […] longitudinal research suggests that people who are happy at an initial time point are more likely to find employment, be satisfied with their jobs, acquire higher status, perform well, be productive, receive social support, be evaluated positively, engage in fewer withdrawal behaviors, and obtain higher income at a subsequent time point.

Finally, […] experimental research demonstrates that when people are randomly assigned to experience positive emotions, they negotiate more collaboratively, set higher goals for themselves, persist at difficult tasks longer, evaluate themselves and others more favorably, help others more, and demonstrate greater creativity and curiosity than people assigned to experience neutral or negative emotions.

A Definition of Positive Interventions

lauren-peng-43963The community of positive psychology researchers has yet to agree on a generally accepted definition of positive interventions. While there are several definitions available that display a considerable overlap, there is still a lot of space for conceptual clarification (Parks & Biswas-Diener, 2013). I posit the following definition:

A positive intervention is an evidence-based, intentional act or series of actions (behavioral strategy) meant to increase (away from zero) that which causes or constitutes well-being and flourishing in non-clinical populations.

I will explicate the elements of positive interventions in the order they appear in the aforementioned definition.

Positive

The term “positive” in positive interventions defines the contextual and methodical framework that positive psychology operates on. On the contextual level, the target group of positive interventions are “normal people”, meaning humans from a non-clinical population (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). This represents a crucial difference to most therapeutic interventions that are designed to improve the condition of people suffering from a psychological disorder such as a depressive episode (Gable & Haidt, 2005). At the same time is has to be noticed that, in spite of this, there are studies that investigate the effectiveness of positive interventions for clinical populations (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005). On the methodological level, positive interventions try to utilize positive phenomena of human cognition and emotion, such as pleasant feelings and memories, mindfulness, or the intentional use of character strengths and virtues (Peterson, 2006). Once again, this can be contrasted to interventions in clinical psychology, where “non-positive” methods such as the prescription of anti-depressants are custom. It is important to note that positive interventions (and positive psychology in general) do not prescribe a specific positive finite or ideal state of being. Rather, they can be characterized by a spirit that embraces constructive meliorism (Pawelski, 2005), the belief that humans can improve their condition no matter what. As such, positive psychology seeks to help people to reach their full potential, their individual best-possible life.

Evidence-based

Positive interventions are based on sound scientific research, ideally double-blind experiments using adequate control groups, as well as longitudinal evaluation studies (Seligman, 2002; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). This represents an important modification compared to adjacent disciplines, such as humanistic psychology. While both disciplines share a lot of common ground pertaining their phenomena of interest, values, and goals, humanistic psychologists tend(ed) to be somewhat dismissive of large-scale empirical research (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). It is not unreasonable to say that methods akin to positive interventions were by and large confined to the large body of self-help literature up to the onset of the third century. Through positive psychology, they have finally entered the academic discourse for good.

Intentional Activity

Positive interventions seek to foster human agency, autonomy, and self-efficacy (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). The “active ingredient” of each intervention should reside within the individual, not in some external sphere. Therefore, a certain level of willpower, self-regulation and effort are needed for carrying out a positive intervention (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2014). This postulate can once again be contrasted to the prescription of anti-depressants, where the desired effect is created by something that is external to the individual and cannot be influenced directly. This is a crucial aspect since many researchers try to find ways to deliver positive intervention in a “self-help” style, e.g., as an online assignment (Ouweneel, Le Blanc, & Schaufeli, 2013). Hence, it is paramount that positive interventions are relatively easy to carry out and rely on whatever resources an individual already disposes of before learning how to perform the intervention.

Away from zero/non-clinical Populations

This aspect once again alludes to the contextual domain of positive psychology. Interventions in clinical psychology are designed to help people reach a neutral (non-clinical) condition when they are perceived to be displaying a psychopathology. In short: their task is to relieve suffering (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). In a simple mathematical analogy, their aim is to get people from some negative number to (around) zero. On the contrary, positive interventions are meant to increase human well-being in the positive direction, away from zero. Yet, while this mathematical analogy is easy to grasp, it is also misleading to a certain extent. There is reason to believe that positive states (mental health, flourishing) and negative states (mental illness, suffering) are somewhat independent spheres of the human condition. It is not uncommon to experience elements of flourishing even when severely ill; and at the same time, it is also possible to display a lack of subjective well-being in spite of the absence of any psychopathology (Westerhof & Keyes, 2010). Therefore, when drawing on mathematical analogies, at the end of the day in may be more appropriate to assign a point in a Cartesian system to each person, rather than a point on a standalone continuum.

Causes or constitutes Well-being and Flourishing

Finally, positive interventions promote dimensions of human well-being, be it the psychological well-being model proposed by Ryff and Keyes (1995), Diener´s (2000) subjective well-being construct, or Seligman´s (2011) PERMA framework (or, for that matter, any adjacent concept). As such, the possible desired outcomes of positive interventions are manifold. They include positive emotions and cognitions such as happiness, satisfaction with life, autonomy and relatedness, experiences that foster engagement, e.g., the discovery and use of one´s character strengths, boosting the quality of one´s relationships, finding meaning and purpose in life, or higher levels of achievement. In addition, physical well-being should explicitly be included, since regular physical exercise is a viable approach to achieve psychological well-being as well (Fox, 1999).

The underlying Mechanics of Positive Interventions

While researchers in positive psychology have early on developed and empirically tested positive interventions (Seligman et al., 2005), the question of why and how these interventions actually work has only recently entered the academic discourse (Schueller, 2010). A current article by Lyubomirsky and Layous (2014) presents a preliminary model with regard to this question: The authors posit that encouraging people to complete positive interventions leads them to have higher levels of positive emotions, think more positive thoughts, and display more positive behaviors, which in turn results in increased well-being and improvement in life domains such as work, relationships, and health. While there seems to be a lot of truth to this explanation, it remains somewhat generic.

In this section of the article, I will therefore explicate my own outline of the mechanics behind positive interventions. This includes thinking about the underlying mechanisms as well as reporting some empirical findings on the question in what contexts and for which target groups they work best. To start, I´d like to repeat the definition of positive interventions given in the previous section: A positive intervention is an evidence-based, intentional act or series of actions (a behavioral strategy) meant to increase (away from zero) that which causes or constitutes well-being and flourishing in non-clinical populations. The most important part of this definition for the upcoming section is: “intentional act”. These words represent two of the general principles that underlie the functioning of all positive interventions: a) focusing our attention on a specific positive matter of interest; and b) getting us to actively change our behavior along the line of self-defined goals.

The importance of the first component – focusing our attention – was already proposed by the “father of American psychology”, William James (1890/1923, p. 424): “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will […] (1890/1923, p. 424). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that intentionally focusing our attention on the good things in life will result in an increased level of positive emotion. This relationship holds true for several variations of meditation practice, such as mindfulness-based meditation (Brown & Ryan, 2003) and loving-kindness meditation (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).

The beneficial effect of the second component – taking deliberate action – is equally backed by extant research. There is abundant evidence for the proposition that building one´s feeling of agency and being in control is accompanied by feelings of autonomy, which over time leads to an increase in well-being (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). Implicitly embedded in the notion of carrying out an intentional act is the connotation that there has to be some kind of goal that one strives to attain. Goal-setting theory (Locke, 1996) posits that having clear and attainable goals, and receiving goal-related feedback frequently, raises the likelihood of actually reaching our goals – which in turn leads to higher levels of self-efficacy (Maddux, 2009) – which then raises the likelihood of achieving one´s goals in the future. And attaining one´s personal goals, at the end of the day, yields a sense of accomplishment, purpose, and meaning in life (Brunstein, 1993; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Emmons, 2003).

In summary, the mechanics that underlie the efficacy of positive interventions can be integrated as follows: completing positive interventions leads humans to have higher levels of positive emotions, think more positive thoughts, and display more positive behaviors via focusing their attention on the good things in life, enabling them to attain meaningful goals, thereby strengthening their feeling of agency and self-efficacy, which nurtures their sense of achievement and purpose in life.

References

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848.

Brunstein, J. C. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(5), 1061-1070.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55(1), 34-43.

Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 629-651.

Emmons, R. A., (2003). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the well-lived life (pp. 105-128). Washington: American Psychological Association.

Fox, K. R. (1999). The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition, 2(3a), 411-418.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology?. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103-110.

James, W. (1890/1923). The principles of psychology. New York: Holt.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2014). The how, why, what, when, and who of happiness. In J. Gruber & J. Moscowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 473-495). New York: Oxford University Press.

Maddux, J. E. (2009). Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2nd edition (pp. 335-343). New York: Oxford University Press.

Ouweneel, E., Le Blanc, P. M., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2013). Do-it-yourself: An online positive psychology intervention to promote positive emotions, self-efficacy, and engagement at work. Career Development International, 18(2), 173-195.

Parks, A. C., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2013). Positive interventions: Past, present and future. In T. Kashdan, & J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Mindfulness, acceptance, and positive psychology: The seven foundations of well-being (pp. 140-165). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Pawelski, J. O. (2005). Mitigation and construction: Toward a balanced meliorism. Unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 139-170.

Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719-727.

Schueller, S. M. (2010). Preferences for positive psychology exercises. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 192-203.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: an introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 482-497.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467-487.

Westerhof, G. J., & Keyes, C. L. (2010). Mental illness and mental health: The two continua model across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 17(2), 110-119.

Foto credit: https://unsplash.com/@laurenpengg96

Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 49/2016

My favorite pieces covering Positive Psychology and adjacent from (roughly) the last seven days.

Greater Good Science Center: Is Your Empathy Determined by Your Genes? by Summer Allen


Psychology Today: The Happy Brain by Mark Banschick


Wall Street Journal: The perils of empathy by Paul Bloom


New York Times: How to Choose Happiness by Marie Kondo


Redlands Daily Facts: President Obama — our positive psychologist-in-chief: Guest commentary by Sonja Lyubomirsky


Gallup: What Strengths Tell Us About Men and Women by Jane Miller and Amy Adkins


Creativity Post: 3 Foolproof Ways to Prevent Work Burnout, Backed by Science by Emma Seppälä


Greater Good Science Center: Would the World Be Better Off without Empathy? by Jill Suttie


USA Today: Key to money happiness may be in how you spend it by Russ Wiles


Positive.News: Why now is the time for serious optimism by Seán Dagan Wood


Atlantic: Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self by Ed Yong


Heleo: Beyond Grit: The Science of Creativity, Purpose, and Motivation (feat. Angela Duckworth & Adam Grant), no author

IMG_7977-4

Hopes and Dreams: What the top-tier Positive Psychology Researchers wish for 2016

One day before New Year’s Eve, I sent an e-mail to some of the foremost researchers and experts in Positive Psychology and adjacent. I asked them to answer one of the following questions.

  • What do you hope for Positive Psychology in 2016?

  • What are your expectations of Positive Psychology in 2016?

  • What would be a breakthrough for Positive Psychology in 2016?

Positive Psychology Researchers - Mappalicious

While there obviously is a lot of variation in their answers, one common topic is the notion that Positive Psychology needs to shift its attention from individual wellbeing to a broader perspective: systemic or holistic wellbeing, so to say. The answers are displayed below in alphabetical order.

Shawn Achor, CEO of GoodThink Inc. and author of The Happiness Advantage:

I hope positive psychology continues to attract top talent inside and outside of academia, while re-embracing concepts like “happiness” which appeal to the non-academic population rather than going for jargon. I expect that positive psychology will take firmer hold inside of companies as more research comes out. We need a top company or celebrity to credit “positive psychology” (rather than individual interventions) for their success. I’d like to see a celebrity say positive psychology is so important they are donating money to spark the movement.

Robert Biswas-Diener, “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” and co-author of Upside of Your Dark Side:

What trends do I expect? 1) An increasing push to brand “positive” with different specialties (positive education, positive real estate, positive boxing, etc.). I think positive education has the greatest momentum so we will see more and more of this. 2) An increasingly “life hack” approach to disseminating positive psychology. For example, many bloggers, etc. will harp on single published studies or offer simplistic advice as a sort of low-cost cheat with big payoffs. I see this as akin to promoting effective communication by saying “use 3 hand gestures every minute.” Artificial, simplistic, dubious. I think this is a by-product of market forces on positive psychology. I think the real action– the important action– will happen in research (see below).

What I hope for: 1) This will take time but there are at least two labs that are undertaking very sophisticated intervention studies. Using careful methods, longitudinal sampling, careful controls, and consulting with academics such as clinical trial researchers to improve the quality of this research. 2) I think we will see an expansion in topics covered. Grit, resilience and happiness, to name three, have been popular, but I think we will start seeing more topics integrated: interest, friendship, hospitality, intelligence, attention, etc. 

Kim Cameron, professor at University of Michigan and co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations:

My expectation is that the international membership* will double, and that in 18 months we will have as many non-USA members as we do members from The United States.

* This reply somewhat confused me. I conjecture that Professor Cameron is referring to the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA).

Angela Duckworth, professor at University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit:

My hope for Positive Psychology in 2016 is that there continues to be the scientific rigor that elevates this endeavor to something other than feel-good self-help!

Jane Dutton, professor at University of Michigan and co-author of How to be a Positive Leader:

I have one big wish: I hope for more serious research and consideration of how work and organizational contexts matter in limiting or facilitating human flourishing. My expectation (and deep hope) is that there will be an explosion of research in positive organizational psychology and that it will be used to foster humility and carefulness in how to apply positive psychology in work settings.  

Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Originals:

I hope for a shift in focus from the mind to behavior. Positive psychologists have paid a great deal of attention to cognitions and emotions, strengths and virtues, but far less to the actions that make our lives better.

Tim Kasser, professor at Knox College and author of The High Price of Materialism:

I hope that Positive Psychology will become less focused on trying to increase peoples’ personal happiness and instead recognize that a good life also includes living one’s life in ways that promote the well-being of other people and the ecological sustainability of the planet.

Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute, researcher and lecturer at Penn, and author of Wired to Create:

I’d like to see more research on Positive Communities, and deepen our understanding of their development and benefits. There’s so much of a focus on individual flourishing measured through self-report questionnaires. I’d like to see much more research on meaning as measured by the functioning of larger systems of people and community structures.

Dacher Keltner, professor at Berkeley and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center:

I hope that positive psychology will use its wisdom to tackle the costs of inequality and poverty.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor at University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness:

I hope for the label “positive psychology” to be retired. We don’t need it anymore!

Ryan Niemiec, Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character and author of Positive Psychology at the Movies:

I expect there to be an array of important published and forthcoming studies on positive psychology interventions with problems (e.g., conflicts, disorders, stressors, dark side).

Martin Seligman, co-founder and spiritus rector of Positive Psychology:

I hope that more exoplanets suitable to life will be discovered* and that David Mitchell will publish another novel.

* I guess Marty has answered my question in a more comprehensive way. Always dreaming big, I daresay.

Amy Wrzesniewski, professor at Yale and one of the world´s foremost experts on meaning at/in work:

I hope that we see more top tier peer-reviewed research that sheds helpful light on the antecedents and outcomes of people finding a sense of meaning in their lives! Am doing my best to help!

What´s your Favorite Positive Psychology Book? (Poll)

Today, I´d like to know which Positive Psychology Book you like best. I´ve provided a list with 10 of the most popular books (from my point of view). You can pick up to 3 books – or list other books that you prefer. Thanks a lot for your participation. Please share this post so others will vote, too!

Positive_Psychology_Books

Positive Psychotherapy: A Collection of 5 Research Articles

Positive PsychotherapyPositive Psychology was founded on the belief that there is (or at least has been) an imbalance with regard to the amount of attention researchers and practitioners in the field of psychology give to the positive versus negative phenomena in (human) life (for some insights on this, click here). For the first 100 years, psychological science has give much more attention to the negative continuum of experiences (e.g., how to get rid of depression) than to the positive side (e.g., how to lead and sustain a happy and fulfilled life).
Nevertheless, just some years after Positive Psychology’s “inception”, some researchers and practitioners took the newly developed theories, tools, and interventions from the subclinical arena – and tried to apply them in a clinical context, e.g., to help people who suffer from depressive disorders. Thus, Positive Psychotherapy was born.*

Here, you’ll find four of the most important articles charting this territory (links lead to PDFs). The fifth article is a very recent one, there’s no free PDF available as of yet. But if you’re interested: I’ve made very pleasant experiences by just e-mailing authors and asking for a copy. Enjoy!

*Even though Positive Psychology’s official year of birth is 1998 (when Marty Seligman was elected president of the APA), the term Positive Psychotherapy has been in use long before that time. If you’d like to learn more, please click here.

22 Positive Psychology-infused Articles every (HR) Leader should know

Positive Organizational ScholarshipPositive Psychology has a lot to offer for leaders, especially those people taking on a leadership role in human resources and people management. In this post, I´ve gathered 22 research articles infused by Positive Psychology (more specifically: Positive Organizational Scholarship) that, in my opinion, have tremendous value for aspiring as well as established managers and entrepreneurs.

The topics comprise desirable attributes and personality variables such as grit, character strengths, and core self-evaluations, how to create positive relationships at work, how employee motivation is created and sustained, how to find meaning and purpose in work, and several review articles, e.g., on the connection of positive emotions and job performance. Enjoy!

P.S.
This is my 300. post since I’ve started Mappalicious about two years ago. Giving myself a slight pat on the back right now…