Dispatches from the Frontiers of Happiness

By Kelly Erickson | July 25, 2011 | 1 comment

Highlights from the first half of the 2nd World Congress on Positive Psychology.

The International Positive Psychology Association is currently hosting its second World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia. The four-day conference kicked-off on Saturday and continues until Tuesday. Greater Good editorial assistant Kelly Erickson is reporting on the Congress; below are her dispatches on highlights from the first two days.

Saturday, July 23

Its no coincidence that the Second World Congress on Positive Psychology is taking place in the heart of Philadelphia, not far from the University of Pennsylvania, where positive psychology founder Martin Seligman launched the Positive Psychology Center well over a decade ago. Since its launch, positive psychology has taken off—as detailed in the conference’s program (which can be easily downloaded here). The International Positive Psychology Association’s student division (SIPPA) and positive psychology masters programs are growing, and positive psych publications and books have jumped in number. This year’s conference boasts 1,200 attendees from 62 countries, 50 symposiums and workshops, 400 posters, and 22 speakers from around the world.

Although the opening session wasn’t until this evening, there were some sessions during the day today. Of particular was Robert Biswas-Diener’s morning workshop, “Strengths Interventions for Work and Relationships,” in which Biswas-Diener challenged positive psychology’s focus on personality, stressing the importance of our environment in shaping our well-being. He related this idea to positive psychology’s notion of personal strengths. He encouraged the audience to expand their vocabulary of strengths, going past the generic definitions found on strength assessment tests (such as “awareness”) to inventing and defining our strengths in our own words. His point was that if our vocabulary of strengths is limited to the 24 words on a strengths assessment, than those are the only strengths that we are going to be able to identify in ourselves and others.

After stressing the importance of identifying strengths and the cognitive and emotional benefit of doing so, he went onto address the problems/limitation of strengths: that they have to exist within a social context, there are situational requirements, and that strengths can set people up for greater failure. However, he offered ways for mental health professionals and others to address these limitations, such as by talking with clients about failure’s possible benefits.

He stressed that strengths are not fixed traits; they can change, grow, and be modified—if we maintain a “growth mindset.” His take-home message for the morning was that we all live in microcultures: Each of us—as teachers, therapists, and friends—has the ability to create an environment that can facilitate this growth mindset. The success of an intervention, Biswas-Diener said, relies on the creation of the right microculture for the intervention.

9:00pm: Just after the Opening Session

I just emerged from the Congress’s opening sessions, led by Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and Christopher Peterson. It was uplifting to hear about the amount of growth in the field and all the new directions on the horizon.

After inspiring introductions from IPPA staff and the awarding of seven Fellow Honors to pioneers in positive psychology—including Seligman, Diener, Peterson, Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi, and George Vaillant—the three session leaders discussed “New Directions in Positive Psych.” Here are some highlights:

Ed Diener: What’s new in the research on “subjective well-being” (aka happiness)

  • Subjective well-being results in more wealth, longer life, increased fertility, healthier babies, greater chance of getting married and staying married, etc.;(!)
  • Money is important, BUT social support, social trust, mastery (of new things/using skills), and control of one’s life are better predictors of subjective well-being in every region of the world;
  • An un-Maslow finding: All aspects of the Maslow pyramid are important at all times and need to be addressed at all times;
  • Meaning and purpose predict life satisfaction: Even if happiness is low, as long as meaning and purpose in life are high, life satisfaction will be high.

Chris Peterson: New directions that he sees in the field

  • Increasing study of positive psychology in neuroscience;
  • The application of positive psychology interventions tailored to different cultures (i.e., positive psychology has a very individualistic focus in the US and needs a more collectivist focus in Asian cultures)
  • Great quote: “There are very few differences among people, but those that exist are important.”
  • The expansion of positive psychology into fields such as child psychology/developmental psychology, the military, and applications at the macro level.

Martin Seligman: “I will be talking about the state of my mind—what I have been thinking about and what I see as possibilities”

  • Positive psychology in the army: working to address PTSD and suicide, teaching drill sergeants positive psychology and resilience, measuring military subjective well-being through the GAT (Global Assessment Tool) and other assessments and to get a better sense of who’s most at-risk for suicide and who will raise in ranks;
  • Can we create positive psychology cities? What measurements are needed and what needs to be done to have wellbeing in cities?;
  • Positive psychology in education: teaching positive psychology and well-being in kindergarten through 12th grade, both directly in the curriculum, and indirectly throughout all curriculum;
  • Positive humanities: infusing the arts with PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment);
  • Positive journalism: journalism that uncovers what is hidden as well as praises what is worthy;
  • Vision: to “see human beings drawn into the future as well as guided by the past” and “all of us being a part of creating a greater human flourishing.”

Much more positivity to come over the next three days! 

Sunday July 24

As I unwind from a long day, I’m struck by how truly international the Congress seems to be: At the first session today, I sat next to a woman writing in French. In the second session I conversed briefly with a few people in Spanish. A few sessions later I was sitting next to a women writing from right to left in Hebrew.

Today was another energizing and inspiring day, as I contemplated Karen Skerrett’s proposal that our society would be transformed if all members applied qualities of resilience to couples relationships, along with Philip Friedman’s forgiveness intervention and Kirk Brown’s session on mindfulness and “The Integration of Bright and Dark Sides of the Human Psyche.” 

The day drew near a close on an exceptionally high note with the father-son team of Mihaly and Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s dialogue on “Happiness Across Time and Space: An Easter-West Dialogue.” Father and son sat in big armchairs in front of all 1,200 attendees, discussing Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in relation to Western views of happiness. Both men conversed at ease; just as if they were sitting around their dining room table having a discussion.

They focused their dialogue on early Chinese approaches to The Good Life by looking at the “The Three Traditions” (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) with a focus on those traditions’ commentaries on solitude. Research today largely finds that solitude leads to decreases in happiness and well-being and a whole host of negative consequences such as depression, learned helplessness, decreases in learning, etc.

In a similar vein, Mark has found in his studies of Chinese scripture that Confucianism warns of the “dangers of being alone”; as a result, most activities at the height of Confucianism took place in the company of others. For example, poets would get together to write their own pieces, instead of doing their creative thinking alone.

Buddhism, on the other hand, warns of the danger of groups and the ways in which they prevent enlightenment, cause us to neglect our goals, and lead to the dangers of intimacy. Thus, with the introduction of Buddhism into Chinese culture, the meaning of solidarity changed.

Finally, covering Daoism, the Csikszentmihalyi’s looked at Li Bo’s poem “Drinking Alone by Moonlight.” In the poem, a man drinking by himself invites the moon and his shadow to join him, increasing his gathering to three. Mark wondered how this is different than us sitting alone but texting friends. Mihaly proposed that the difference comes from the idea of the moon and shadow as a created “companion,” as opposed to having friends who already exist in one’s network.

In the end, they couldn’t come to any definitive conclusions about how solitude relates to The Good Life—and they apologized for the lack of clear answers, eliciting chuckles from the audience.

After this session, we were treated to a screening of the documentary Happy, which is currently making its way to theaters across the country—be sure to check its website (www.thehappymovie.com) for its screening schedule and for clips. And if you don’t see it coming to a town near you, the filmmakers—and I—encourage you to suggest it to your local movie theater. Click here for a Greater Good interview with the film’s director, Roko Belic.

Finally, my day truly came to a close at a reception featuring masters programs in positive psychology. Two years ago, there were about six such programs. Today, there are at least 15 from around the world, with two more starting up this year. In addition to the two programs (and soon to be more) in the United States, programs can be found in Africa, Denmark, Poland, Mexico, Venezuela, Korea… the list goes on.

It has become quite evident that positive psychology truly is an international movement, influencing all areas of life, from education to workplaces to government policy. More on this movement tomorrow…

 

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About The Author

Kelly Erickson is a Greater Good editorial assistant.

  

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Great article Kelley. Many implications for health care delivery in chronic illness. Thanks!

Jocelyn Bessette Gorlin | 9:18 am, August 2, 2011 | Link

 
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