Thursday, 29 November 2007

Positive Organisations

Are Positive Organisations some kind of Utopian drivel?

I can understand why many business leaders dismiss the goal of building a positive organisation as a bit pie in the sky. After all, the success of a commercial organisation is measured by a) how much money it makes and b) how much market share it has. Enterprise is all about competition; organisations which focus on being mutually supportive have no place in this environment...

Not-for-profits and public sector organisations, on the other hand, have different goals and operate in different arenas, ones where the concept of positive organisations can be more easily accommodated.

No wonder building a positive organisation is often considered inconsistent with the goals of commercial enterprises.

Well I think business leaders might be waking up to the fact that it's not so pink and fluffy after all.

Tom Peters, one of the world's foremost leadership gurus, and co-author of In Search of Excellence (which Bloomsbury called the greatest business book of all time), has written his thoughts on the idea in this short paper "Why Else Get Out of Bed in the Morning?" My suggestion is that you bear with the form (especially P1) and focus on the content. In typical Peters style, it probably raises more questions than it answers, but hey, we're big enough and ugly enough to work those out for ourselves aren't we?

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Politics of Happiness

Can Gross National Happiness ever be an accepted substitute for GDP?

The Kingdom of Bhutan, a predominantly Buddhist country of approximately 750,000 inhabitants in the Eastern Himalayas, has been measuring Gross National Happiness since the late '80s. The King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, was concerned about the sorts of issues affecting countries which focussed only on increasing economic prosperity, and as a result, he declared that GNH (Gross National Happiness) not GDP, was the priority for his people. "The ultimate purpose of government", he said, "is to promote the happiness of its people". This, of course, was more than a decade before Martin Seligman launched the Positive Psychology movement.

Now, says writer, analyst and UN Editor Rasna Warah, GNH vs GDP has become an issue in the upcoming Kenyan elections (December 27th). In this article on the All Africa Global Media website, Warah explores the background to GNH, and why it matters. It's the case that back in 2006 presidential candidate Dr Raila Odinga, cast doubt on the accuracy of Kenyan economic growth figures being quoted by other candidates, and proposed that a GNH survey be carried out instead. In an interview with Nation Magazine, Odinga is quoted as saying: “People are happy when they put food on the table, feed and educate their children.” However I haven't been able to find any mention of Gross National Happiness on Odinga's election website. Could it be the case that when the chips are down (and when votes are needed) what people really want to see is good old-fashioned economic growth?

Image: New Scientist

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Thanksgiving in 21st Century

Most people know that Thanksgiving is celebrated in North America on the 4th Thursday in November (i.e. last Thursday 22nd), and also in Canada in early October. Like our own Harvest Festival in September, this traditional holiday is an opportunity to give thanks for all the things that you have at the conclusion of the harvest season, both tangible and intangible.

In this New York Times article last week, journalist Henry Fountain considers Thanksgiving 21st Century style - via the practice of keeping a Gratitude Diary. We've talked about gratitude several times before; there's increasing empirical evidence to show that being grateful in a mindful way, for example through a diary or a letter, increases your well-being.

What I like about Fountain's article is the acknowledgement that giving thanks is simple but not easy, it requires some effort and self-discipline.

I think this is a very important message to get across to the Victor Meldrew's of this world*; happiness isn't something that just happens, despite what you often see in films and magazines, you actively need to do something. That something varies from person to person, although Positive Psychology is giving us a lot to go on.
So if you haven't tried it, I challenge you to keep a gratitude diary for three weeks, and see what a difference it makes.

PS You might like to know that there is a Victor Meldrew Appreciation Club on the business networking site Ecademy...and yes, it is British....

Thanks to Viv Thackray for the link

Regret, Well-being and Maturity

Regrets, I've had a few: How finding the silver lining contributes to happiness and maturity

This article on yesterday's Positive Psychology News Daily looks at research into regret which suggests that it's about more than learning from experience, it's beneficial for the process of psychological maturity itself, and that the accommodation of regret has profound implications for human development, and ultimate happiness.

Image: Orbitcast

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Life Lists: Goal Achievement and Happiness

As we mentioned in this post, it seems that Seligman's 3 pillars of happiness and well-being (positive emotion, engagement and meaning) may soon be joined by two more, namely positive relationships and positive achievement.

I doubt many would argue about positive relationships being a corner-stone of happiness and well-being, although you might be interested to know that there is remarkably little published scientific research into this field. But the importance of positive achievements seems to have people divided.

In the business world, goal-setting has been the back-bone (along with a smidgen of good luck) of company and personal prosperity since the dawn of time. Call it strategy, business planning or personal development planning, it's all about creating a new, more successful future. To some, particularly coaches, goal-setting and accomplishment is vital, it's what successful coaching is all about. When we were training as coaches, one of the first things we learnt was how to help clients (or coachees) define where they want to be by setting their goals clearly and then to help them achieve these goals. After all, how can you get where you want to go unless you know where you're going in the first place?

Goal-setting is also making its way into normal life; you will no doubt have noticed yourself the proliferation of books and articles about so-called Life Lists, those 101-things-you-must-do/see/experience- before-you-die type lists. Earlier in the year for example, the New York Times published an article called 10 Things To Do Before I Finish This Article. If you google 'Life Lists', you'll retrieve millions of entries, such as the original, which invites you to publish your own Life List and which contains everything from the quirky ("build a trebuchet") to the frankly quite dull ("organise my filing cabinet"). You can get Life List websites which list the things you need to consider when making your list. Curiously, in my google search for UK Life Lists, three of the top ten were by bird-watchers; it left me wondering whether twitchers are happier than your average UK resident. Perhaps that could be the subject of my MAPP dissertation.....

There are even people who make their living out of their Life List, such as John Goddard, aka 'The World's Greatest Goal Achiever'. This is a man who has achieved 109 of his 127 life goals (you should look at them, this is not a man who needs to organise his filing cabinet...). Interestingly, his 126th goal was to marry and have children - he now has five. My question is, how on earth does he get time for them, in between scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, retracing the steps of Marco Polo and Alexander the Great, and exploring the Amazon river?

And going back to coaching for a moment, Caroline Adams-Miller, the well-known US life coach, author and Pennsylvania MAPP graduate, specialises in goal-setting theory and happiness in her coaching practice, based on the research evidence that identifying and achieving ones goals can increase your well-being (e.g. Locke 2005). Miller has also set up a very successful website where people can make a public statement about their goals, called

But Life Lists don't attract support from every quarter; there are some who think that making a list of what you want to achieve in life actually detracts from what life is all about, i.e. living. I don't often listen to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day on the Today programme, but this one by Rhidian Brook about Life Lists caught my attention, particularly Brook's claim that "They provide us with a kind of short cut to meaningful achievement and self-fulfilment". I'm not sure that's the case at all. Surely it depends to a large extent what your goals are (materialistic? altruistic?), whether they are realistic goals or just wild dreams, and how relentlessly you pursue them. Many Life Lists I've looked at contain a mix of goals which cover all Seligman's pillars of well-being (creating pleasure, engagement, meaning and good relationships).

And anyway, who is it who said that 'Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans'?

Friday, 16 November 2007

Using a Strengths Approach at BAE Systems

If you're sceptical about the value of using Positive Psychology at work, and don't think it can add much by way of improved business performance, think again.

In this article in 1st November's edition of the CIPD Magazine "People Management", Tim Smedley explains how global defence and aerospace company, BAE Systems, is adopting a common sense approach to using strengths at work, supported by Alex Linley, director of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology.

According to Linley, it's not about concentrating only on ones strengths and ignoring ones weaknesses altogether, it's more about striking the right balance, and that will depend very much on your role and where you sit within the organisation. "Get your strengths up to an A grade - absolutely make the most of them. But if there's a discipline that you're not so good at, but that you need, then get that up to a pass, a C grade", he says.

Of course, many business people do think Positive Psychology is for tree-huggers. As Linley points out, one of the results of using a strengths approach is increased employee engagement and well-being, however that wasn't the main objective for BAE Systems. They had their sights firmly set on improving their business performance, and that's exactly what a strengths approach has enabled them to achieve.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Economics of Happiness - More or Less

This Radio 4 programme today is a great introduction to the pros and cons of measuring happiness, and whether it's possible, desirable or indeed useful to do so, with Professor of Economics, Paul Omerod, one of the principals of Volterra Consulting, Lord Richard Layard, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, and Professor Paul Dolan, Chair in Economics at the Tanaka Business School, Imperial College London.

I think this is a great starting point if you're unfamiliar with the finer points of happiness research and measurement.

Whose perspective do you agree with?

Source: D.G. Myers, Happiness, 2004

Friday, 9 November 2007

Positive Psychology Conference - UEL

The times they are a-changin'

Yesterday many of my co-students and I attended the first "Positive Psychology: Well-Being and Business" Conference hosted by the University of East London - where we are almost half-way through our Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (the first programme of its kind outside of the US). The lecture theatre was full, mostly HR managers and leaders from public, private and NFP sectors, as well as a large sprinkling of independent coaches, psychologists and consultants, all keen to hear what Positive Psychology has to offer organisations.

The father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, gave the keynote address; here was the opportunity we had all been waiting for. No Positive Psychologist worth their salt would willingly pass up the chance to hear the man in person. He referred to the three pillars of positive emotion, engagement and meaning which you will be familiar with from his Authentic Happiness book, then oh so casually mentioned the possibility of "a 4th or even a 5th pillar" although he presented no new research in support of this theory. Turns out many prominent Positive Psychologists, among them Caroline Adams Miller and UEL's own Dr Ilona Boniwell, have long been in favour of including positive relations and positive achievement in the definition of happiness, but are too polite to say 'I told you so'.

You'll remember from this posting a few days ago that I hoped Seligman would clarify his revelation at the Washington Global Well-Being Conference that Positive Psychology should henceforth be known as "Positive Social Science". Well, unfortunately he didn't elaborate. In our MAPP-only seminar, however, he said 'everything I told you this morning is wrong'.


These might just be word games, of course, but I suspect there is more to it than that. I got the sense that there is a lot of discussion and thinking going on about the possible emergence of a new field of science, which of course would have serious implications for the future of Positive Psychology.

It has been suggested that Positive Psychology is the new paradigm. With the emergence of Positive Social Science, however, I think we're already moving on.

Monday, 5 November 2007

A Less Positive Perspective?

You don't often find Positive Psychology being overtly criticised (I suppose this would be very un-American) so when I came across this article on Richard Dawkins' website, I thought you might be interested; it gives a very different perspective.

It would appear that the Templeton Foundation does fund a huge amount of academic research into many Positive Psychology subjects such as gratitude, strengths and wisdom, and that Seligman's Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania was established on the back of a multi-million dollar Templeton grant. Templeton also funds other research unconnected with Positive Psychology, such as the natural sciences, world religions, freedom and free enterprise.

As far as I'm aware though, the Positive Psychology Summit (or the Global Wellbeing Forum as it's now called) referred to in Ehrenreich's article is actually funded by the mighty Gallup Organisation, which since the 1930s has provided consulting services and market research on public opinion to Fortune 500 clients.

According to one of my fellow MAPP students who attended the Washington conference, it was unexpectedly badly organised, so I think there are some sympathies with Ehrenreich's opinion on that score. As for her criticisms of the content of the conference, there is increasing evidence ((see Lyubomirsky, King and Diener (2005) for example)) that positive and/or strengths-based approaches in organisations ultimately provide a boost to the bottom-line. Even without the supporting research, common sense tells you that business benefits if its employees have more job satisfaction and are more engaged. It makes good business sense; we have previously featured organisations like Norwich Union and Standard Chartered who have benefitted from taking a strengths-based approach.

Incidentally, it turns out that The Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business is also partly funded by the Templeton Foundation and by the Gallup Organisation. The Centre, whose purpose is to energise and transform organisations through academic research into the theory and practice of positive organising and leadership, is the number one source of information on this subject, so if you want leading edge ideas about business transformation and positive leadership, this is the place to start.

Thanks to UEL MAPP student Viv Thackray for this link