A Look Back at the World Congress on Positive Psychology
Last week we attended the Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. It was a very interesting and inspiring congress that clearly shows that the field is evolving and changing. With the general public, Positive Psychology still has the image of being “Happiology”, but in fact it is not and has never been. This year at the congress it was more obvious than ever that Positive Psychology is of course intending to make individuals flourish, but that this is ultimately supposed to lead to a better society.
David Cooperrider gave the first keynote address on “Mirror Flourishing: Appreciative Enquiry and the Designing of Positive Institutions”. Appreciative enquiry is a different approach to analysis, decision making, and change. It focuses on what goes well and what we imagine the future to look like rather than concentrating on problems. He gave a few examples in which different parties of a conflict started talking to each other using this approach, for example different religious leaders. As such, the approach seems to be a powerful one.
In the keynote address at the end of the first day, Jonathan Haidt looked at how “Capitalism, Values, and Large Scale Flourishing” are connected. His key message was that capitalism has the potential to make people’s lives better since it has done this in the past, but that values are clearly required.
The first keynote address on Saturday was really impressive. It was given by multiple bestseller author Tom Rath. He has a genetic pre-disposition that leaves him with an increased risk of developing cancer and he lives with all kinds of cancer in his whole body, but still is immensely productive and positive. He talked about “Fully Charging Your Work and Life”, and this really meant how we can fully charge our batteries so that we can be productive. In order to be fully charged, he argues, we need to create meaning in our work and life, we need to have positive relationships, and we need to look after our health. This might sound pretty basic, but the fact is that many people are just not there. Neither in terms of meaning (which shows in the high levels of disengagement surveys find over and over again) nor in terms of relationships (people feel lonely or they have superficial relationships and meaningless conversations) or health (people maintain unhealthy diets).
The closing keynote address for Saturday was given by the physician Rollin McCraty and was on “Heart-Brain Dynamics: The Role of Self-Regulation and Psychophysiological Coherence in Optimal Functioning”. He talked about how one measure of physical and mental health, heart rate variability, and the mind are closely connected and how they impact each other. He sees this interconnection as key to emotional self-regulation and cognitive functioning. Moreover, he explained that our heart beat creates an electro-magnetic field around us and how heart rate and brain waves of closely related individuals (these can be mother and child, but also man and dog) synchronise. He even connected earth and ionosphere frequencies to the frequencies of the human heart, autonomous nerve system, and brain.
Barbara Fredrickson gave the morning keynote address on Sunday on “Positivity Resonates”. She introduced a new element into her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. She had looked at what makes people take up healthy habits like a good diet or exercising and found that one key factor seems to be what she calls prioritising positivity, a non-conscious motive. People who pursue a healthy lifestyle seem to have this motivation to look for positivity, and once they exhibit healthy lifestyle behaviours there is this positive feedback, which then encourages them to pursue their effort further and thus enter an upward spiral of well-being.
The closing keynotes of the congress were given by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on “Positive Psychology and the Importance of Culture” and James Pawelski on “The Positive Humanities: A New Approach to Human Flourishing”. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi pointed out that there are cultural differences in terms of well-being, but that there is also change, depending on how wealthy individuals within cultures are and how well-developed and trusted their institutions are. James Pawelski calls for a movement similar to Positive Psychology in the humanities such as literature, music, art, movies, philosophy, history, religion, and other cultural domains, so that they can be used to understand and cultivate well-being.
In addition to the keynote addresses there were various symposia, workshops, and panels. One panel for example discussed the critiques that are often raised against Positive Psychology. A lot of them originate in a misunderstanding of its idea, which researchers and practitioners are both trying to change. Of course there are methodological shortcomings, but they are not worse than in other fields of psychology. And yes, of course in our effort to make those that are already prosperous flourish we must not forget the underprivileged. Also we are moving away from prioritising positive emotions only and moving towards a less “black and white” picture, where negative emotions are also seen as appropriate and necessary, for example when they trigger the motivation to change something. Many of the things Positive Psychology studies have been part of philosophy or religion, such as for example Buddhism. Thus, researchers are also integrating their findings with what has been good practice for centuries.
We also presented a poster on how different emotions impact performance on an online reasoning test. In ability testing, the assumption is that the tests measure cognitive ability. However, performance on such tests has been found to be influenced by positive versus negative mood. In spite of this, there are no studies on the effects specific emotions like joy or anger and no studies in unsupervised online settings. Therefore, the present study investigates the impact of the emotions joy, contentment, anger, and sadness on performance on a reasoning test in an unsupervised online experiment. A diverse sample of 429 participants completed an online reasoning test: one time before and one time after one of five emotional states (joy, anger, sadness, contentment, or neutral) had been induced via short film clips. The induction procedure evoked distinct emotional states. Contrary to the hypotheses, however, the experimentally manipulated emotions did not affect performance on the online reasoning test. This might be attributable to reasoning tests being less susceptible to the influence of emotions than other types of tests. Another possibility is that participants entered a state of flow in which thoughts or feelings do not interfere with the task. During the congress we got in touch with a few researchers and we discussed some follow-up studies that will shed light into these questions.
Of course there are still a few studies like for example the one on designing a workshop to make people happier. Seriously. Who believes in a single workshop having the capacity to create a lasting change when change of behaviour takes months at least, if not even years? But the majority of talks and posters were really far beyond that, and it is good to see that Positive Psychology is growing and becoming more mature some 20 years after starting off as a small movement.
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