Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The Happiness Workout

Here's an interesting article from the Guardian which includes 5 simple steps to improve your happiness. These are all supported by empirical research, so you can have confidence that they'll actually have an effect, unlike some of the techniques you find in many self-help manuals.

What is particularly important about this article is Stanford University Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky's comment that in order to be happy you have to work at it. Although some people do seem to be born with a smile on their faces, others really do have to work harder at being happy.

We often assume that happiness can be ours simply for the price of a bigger house, larger car or another promotion but there is evidence to the contrary. And the more I study Positive Psychology the more I believe that happiness is something you do, not something you have. The American Declaration of Independence talks about 'the pursuit of Happiness' after all, not the acquisition of it. So why not try out some (or all) of the five steps in the article everyday for a week and let us know how you get on?

Thanks to MAPP colleague Viv Thackray for the link

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Positive Psychology or Positive Social Science?

I hear it on good authority that at the recent Gallup Positive Psychology Summit* in Washington DC, Martin Seligman announced that Positive Psychology should now be known as 'Positive Social Science'.

Unfortunately I wasn't at the conference to hear the initial reaction, but I understand that the majority of delegates were somewhat shocked. As a science Positive Psychology is still in its infancy (the phrase having been coined around about the year 2000). People working in the field, whether psychologists, therapists, coaches or educationalists, are still getting used to the terminology. Others, it has to be said, are probably hoping that if they ignore it long enough, it will go away.

Well it seems that Seligman now wants this field of research to be known as "Positive Social Science". Those who support this idea believe it makes sense to take the study outside of the domain of just psychology, into health, neuroscience, economics and politics. The more I study the subject, the more complex it appears to become, and it does indeed touch our lives in many more ways than I originally thought. When you look at the make-up of the first UEL MAPP cohorts, you'll see that we're a very varied bunch, including GPs, therapists, coaches, trainers, business people, HR experts, journalists, teachers, social workers, economists and government policy makers. Yet all of us are taking something relevant from the course and applying it at work and individually. Positive Social Science seems a broad term to cover what is a very broad subject.

On the other hand, Positive Psychology is a young subject, and its students are relatively inexperienced when compared to those of traditional psychology. In the US, of course, it's much more firmly embedded (and accepted) in the world of work; here in the UK, it's only just taking off. Might changing its name at this early stage risk losing some of the enthusiasm and energy currently being poured into it?

We may get to hear all about Seligman's reasons at the forthcoming conference in a week's time. If so, I'll let you know what he says!

* Co-incidentally, the Gallup PP Summit has been renamed the Global Well-Being Forum, reflecting the their name change to the Gallup Institute for Global Well-Being.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Why you should be bad at something

Over the past couple of months I've written many times about the benefits of focussing on your strengths (e.g. here and here); most Positive Psychology literature (unsurprisingly) concentrates on what's good about using a strengths-based approach and mentions very little in the way of the downsides. I've come across the phrase "overusing strengths", but that's about it. You need to look quite hard at the VIA-IS, StrengthsFinder and Strengthscope websites to find anything suggesting there might also be disadvantages.

Carol Dweck's* research on fixed and growth mindsets made me wonder whether developing an inflexible view even of one's good points (e.g. strengths) might actually be a bad thing, and that's how I came to write my recent posting on Positive Psychology News Daily.

Anyhow, today I was sent a link to a post on the Berkun Blog, called "Why you should be bad at something". It's not just that being bad at something is OK, according to Scott Berkun it's an absolute necessity if you're going to learn something. How right he is. In order to learn you need to have a growth mindset, to try, and to keep trying over again when you fail. As a child you had a growth mindset - you'd never have learnt to speak, walk, read and write if you'd waited until you were good at it first.

What I like about Berkun's post is it links the themes of comfort zones (which we have also discussed before here), learning, ageing, mindsets and happiness.

Berkun says "This sounds idiotic but I think being good, as in proficient, isn’t good all the time... as I get older I realize how important it is for my soul to be bad or awful in at least one thing I do, and to take pleasure in it anyway. There is a way to take pleasure in things independent of my ability at them and I’m convinced that cultivating it will make me a happier person".

I dare you to be really bad at something!

* Carol Dweck (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success

Thanks to Neil for the link to Scott Berkun's blog.

Friday, 26 October 2007

When Is a Strength Not a Strength?

This article on today's Positive Psychology News Daily considers whether there is a potential risk in applying a strengths-based approach to people development in organisations.

If your organisation is using a strengths model (whether StrengthsFinder, VIA-IS, Strengths Deployment Inventory, Strengthscope or any other) at work, we'd love to hear about your experience.

The image is courtesy of June.C.Oka, Japan

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Standard Chartered's business case for focusing on employee strengths

According to Debbie Whitaker, Standard Chartered's Head of Sustainability, 'everyone has talents that we wish to leverage'.

This is a bold statement, considering Standard Chartered is a bank with over 60,000 employees in 56 countries. Their reasons for focusing on talent are fourfold:

i) greater growth potential
ii) better people performance
iii) increased employee engagement and
iv) attracting and retaining talent.

Many big organisations are sceptical of applying Strengths at work, yet Standard Chartered's experience shows that it can make sound business sense.

A strengths-based approach to management has been operating in the organisation for the past 7 years, using Gallup's StrengthsFinder tool. Whitaker describes a strength as the combination of talent, skill and knowledge, which motivation can transform into world-class performance. In her words, given equal skills and knowledge, talent is what differentiates superior performance from the rest.

So what does Standard Chartered actually do differently to other organisations? Well StrengthsFinder wasn't designed for recruitment purposes, but it can be used to ensure good role fit and that's exactly what has contributed to Standard Chartered's success.The essentials for a salesperson, for example, are good product knowledge and to be able to negotiate and close a deal. But if the salesperson has the additional talents of competitiveness and building rapport with customers, they can become a world-class performer. Not only does Standard Chartered look for specific skills and knowledge, they take innate talents into account too.

It has to be said that there are several definitions of a strength, and the one used here is based on Gallup's research. The VIA-IS or CAPP definitions are different; as always you need to be clear what you are trying to measure.

Standard Chartered also focuses on building employee engagement, and like Royal & SunAlliance which we featured here, they take volunteering seriously, offering two days paid leave for staff to contribute to voluntary organisations.

What the Standard Chartered story shows is that focusing on strengths can make a big difference to the business and to the people who work there. And applying Positive Psychology at work shouldn't be something you do in addition to everything else. Look at your existing people-related processes (e.g. recruitment, development, coaching, mentoring and so on) and see how a strengths-approach would make a positive contribution.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The Paradox of Choice

In the developed world, choice is taken for granted, it's generally considered to be A Good Thing. Naturally you might therefore assume that having more choice was A Better Thing, but would you be right?

Next time you go supermarket shopping, take a few minutes to have a long hard look at the shelves in each food aisle - how many types of coffee, breakfast cereal and butter are there? Research by psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that more choice isn't necessarily beneficial, especially if you're a maximiser.

Basically a maximiser is someone who, having decided to buy e.g. a digital camera researches all the models extensively on the internet to compare features and prices, talks to the assistants at the local camera shop, reads Which?, asks friends for their recommendations and buys copies of every photography magazine that they can find, before creating a spreadsheet listing their Top 10 favourite models and weighting all the required functions, the price and guarantee terms before they decide which to buy.

I kid you not, I have known someone do this.

The problem is that this person wasn't actually happy with the camera they ended up buying; they worried that it wasn't as good as the alternatives that they didn't choose. They wondered whether they should have waited before buying anything when a newer, more up-to-date model came on the market a month later... This is what Schwartz refers to as "maximising", i.e. trying to make the best choice out of the tens or hundreds of available options, when in reality not only is this extremely difficult to achieve, but one is left feeling regretful about 'the one(s) that got away'.

Satisficers, on the other hand, are those people who accept a 'good enough' choice. If they were buying a digital camera, they might decide on the price range and the must-have features, then buy the first camera that fitted this bill. So maybe they might not get the very best model, but their decision is made more quickly and relatively painlessly.

Is the research on how people react to choice relevant to business? Over 10 years ago when Procter & Gamble reduced the number of varieties of Head and Shoulders shampoo it offered, its sales increased. It has been suggested that this sales growth reflected consumers' positive reaction to optimised choice. Similarly, in the discussion on the pros and cons of choice on this BBC Radio 4 programme today* it was mentioned that Asda threatened to delist some well-known brands, because consumers don't want duplication. Tyranny of choice was mentioned by one of Asda's executive directors. So it would seem that the theory of choice and over-choice is being taken seriously by businesses.

You may not be surprised to hear that whilst maximising behaviour carries some benefits, it is also associated with regret, perfectionism, depression and lower well-being. We'll be discussing the pros and cons of maximising and satisficing, as well as some techniques for overcoming the 'tyranny of choice' in later posts.

* If you're interested in listening to the section on the paradox of choice in this R4 programme, it's almost 26 minutes in.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Positive Psychology in Schools

There's increasing coverage in the UK media of the so-called "Happiness Lessons" which are finding their way into the school curriculum, not all of it helpful in explaining how the application of Positive Psychology can be beneficial in schools.

This article from the Scunthorpe Telegraph describes a Centre for Applied Positive Psychology project called Celebrating Strengths which is taking the latest research on how people flourish and applying it to learning. What is particularly interesting about this project is that teachers are being trained first, so that they can use the new 'positive teaching' techniques with their pupils year after year.

This is also a crucial change management principle, i.e. ensuring that those people who are responsible for making the new approach work on the coal-face are involved and engaged in the project right from the start. Just think about the problems Jamie Oliver had introducing healthy food into UK schools, because he didn't get the school dinner ladies on board first.

Contrary to what it says in this article, however, there is plenty of other work going on in the UK in positive psychology (and using strengths in particular) in education, the private sector and not-for-profit, and this will increase as people see the tangible benefits it can bring to their organisations.

Thanks to my UEL MAPP colleague Viv Thackray for this article

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Positive Psychology at Work

How many of your employees do you think are going to get out of bed tomorrow morning, looking forward to coming to work for you?

If you read the Sunday Times last week you'd be forgiven for thinking that you probably need to offer a few more employee benefits. According to this article, positive psychology at work is all about whether you provide foot massages during office hours or organise awards ceremonies so you can pat your staff on the back once a year. It's an easy mistake to make, especially when referred to as 'employee well-being'. Organisations want tangible measures and quantifying how many employee benefits they offer, as well as how much they're worth, is a relatively straightforward exercise.

Using positive psychology in the workplace is very little to do with the value of employee benefits though, which means that charities and not-for-profit organisations can apply the principles, in many cases doing a better job than cash-rich companies. And it's not about providing 24/7 counselling to those who might need it either. So what is positive psychology at work, you might be wondering?

In short it's about enabling all employees to flourish, play to their strengths and reach their full potential. Sounds great but why would you want to do this? Well, there is growing research* which shows that it's good news for the bottom line, as well as an increasing number of forward-thinking companies (e.g. Ikea, Norwich Union, Royal & SunAlliance, Microsoft) who are using strengths-based approaches. It's not about being problem-focused, but neither is it about being solution-focused. It's about trust, respect and honesty, and developing an organisational culture where

i) the espoused values are the same as the values in use,
ii) leaders are role-models of confidence, optimism and resilience
iii) leaders inspire their teams to action
iv) leaders are transparent about their weaknesses, and open to being questioned and challenged about the direction in which they're heading
v) leaders see the task being accomplished and developing their people to lead as equally important.

So you can see that having a positive psychology approach at work is a million miles away from whether you have a company gym or not. And as with most organisation change, there are no short-cuts. You need vision, commitment and courage to create a positive organisation. So, as a business leader, are you up for the challenge?

Thanks to Hilary Jeanes for the ST article

* e.g. Lyobomirsky, King & Diener (2005)