We live in a world that needs our help.
— James Pawelski, Director of Education and Senior Scholar at the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania, just before asking for a moment of silence for the victims of the terrorist act in Norway.
From July 23rd through July 26th, the International Positive Psychology Association’s second congress took place in Philadelphia. Two years ago, during a particularly miserable time in my life, my best friend, Professor Joel Morgovsky, suggested we go to the first congress together.
I wasn’t in the mood.
But I went, and I was sitting in talk after talk and workshop after workshop; mostly they were interesting, but please, when do we get to go home?
Then I heard Barbara Fredrickson speak. There are a few transformative lectures I have been to in my life. This was one of them.
Barbara Fredrickson is the author of Positivity, and one of the leading researchers in the exploding field of positive psychology. She was able to harness the research on something called the Losada ratio and was able to demonstrate unequivocally that we can measure the ratio of positive to negative thoughts. When that ratio can be enhanced to a 3 to 1 positive to negative ratio there is a shift in our way of thinking that changes everything; a tipping point, if you will. Couples, individuals, businesses, students, all of us who can operate at this level of positivity can experience much greater well-being in their lives, greater productivity and profit in their business, and better grades. You can take her free test online to check your own positivity ratio. But more than this was a prescription for enhancing the ratio and getting yourself to the tipping point.
From that moment on I made a decision to change my ratio. I was just below 2 to 1 at the time. I made changes about how I used my gratitude journal, changed the approach to my practice to include more positive interventions for my clients, and began systematically reviewing the research on well-being and positive psychology. This led to my writing this blog for PsychCentral.
In March I made a formal application to the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program and was accepted. I begin my studies in September. I am now going to become one of “them.”
This year’s congress drew more than 1,200 researchers and practitioners from every continent. The MAPP was the first program in the world to offer a degree in Positive Psychology. This year more then a dozen programs from around the world were featured from Africa, London, South Korea, Australia and Mexico, just to name a few.
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the author of Flow: The Pychology of Optimal Experience, was there with 20 students fro hs new PHD program at Claremont University.
The workshops gave hands-on experiences based on evidence-based research. The poster sessions gave new, exciting research in eduction, the arts, the military, disabilities, community development, and terrorism and many other topics. A good many publishing houses and programs were showing their materials at the exhibitors hall, including Smart Strengths, a unique book identifying research and interventions to build character, resilience and relationships in youth.
There were many extrodinary featured presentations and research as plenaries or keynotes by such luminary figures as Ed Deci,, Chris Peterson, and Ed Diener, that inspired the international crowd. But there are two of the top people, Dr. Martin Seligman and Barbara Fredrickson who gave particularly intriguing information on new directions in the field.
If you don’t know the name Martin Seligman, you should. He is former president of the American Psychological Association and the person responsible for changing our understanding of depression. He pioneered the work on Learned Helplessness and in the mid-1970s pointed the world in the direction of treating depression by helping people feel less helpless and more in control of their lives. He then turned his attention to Learned Optimism, and began in the early 1990s teaching us how to harness the elements of optimism. He is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founding director of the Positive Psychology Center.
In 2005 he released a book called Authentic Happiness that brought positive psychology to the forefront, and earlier this year he published Flourish, a book that anchors positive psychology squarely in the history of psychology. This book offers an amazingly comprehensive review of the most impressive research in positive psychology and Seligman and his colleagues’ role in implementing it in such diverse areas as the military, suicidology, education, clinical psychology and community development. From his presentation two initiatives stood out, the first from his work with the military.
“We’ve never had enough people who have committed suicide who have taken the same test,” said Seligman. This intriguing fact puts the issue of research and applied uses squarely in front of us. Dr. Seligman explained that his work with the military, where 1.1 million soldiers are taking the same exams, has already yielded some interesting results. Eighty-four people have committed suicide and the preliminary analysis of their testing shows that it seems a profile emerges that can identify high-risk individuals. Could there be any more useful data than information that has the potential to save a person’s life?
Seondly, Seligman discussed the research behind our use of positive and negative words, and that there is a direct link between the kinds of words we use and our well-being in just about every sector. He is working with Google to measure the lexicon of the Internet, essentially a way to measure positive and negative words and their reflection, and perhaps prediction, of human behavior.
The Barbara Fredrickson spoke. What is she working on? She is tackling the most complex of all human emotions:
In a stunning one-hour presentation she identified the elements of what love is, and isn’t. This got our attention. Dr. Frederickson made it clear that love is not: Sexual desire; a special bond; commitment; lasting (no emotion is meant to last forever); nor unconditional.
She offered that love is: “Investment in the well-being of the other for his or her own sake.” To this she presented research showing that this investment in the well-being of others can be understood as an interpersonal situation with socially shared experiences and one or more positive emotions.
There were many features of her research, such as how smiles are interpreted, and the biochemistry of love and something she referred to as “biobehavioral resonance,” concluding that her research is going in the direction of seeing love as “a single act performed by two brains.”
She put forward the idea that there is a positivity spiral that may be more powerful that the kind of negativity spiral we see with depression.
Attendees of the congress left with hope and inspiration. Everyone seemed eager to bring their findings back to their country and get busy. Perhaps this was because they knew Dr. Pawelski was right: the world needs their help.
Check here more information on the International Positive Psychology Association