Sunday, 27 July 2008

Positive Psychology for Working and Living

I just love this idea!

This post, for Positive Psychology News Daily, looks at two favourite subjects of mine - firstly how people find satisfaction in the jobs they do and secondly, how Positive Psychology can be applied in non-psychology related fields - in this case, Design.

It also links to two other articles I wrote last year, here and here.

The image above is a reproduction of True’s original design, by Chris Glass.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Dark Side of Positive Psychology

I never thought I'd be posting a link like this about Positive Psychology, but I think you should read this blogpost, which was sent to me on Monday. It refers to a new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals", in which it is alleged that Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, was involved in CIA torture. If true, this would of course be completely unethical behaviour, and completely against the principles of Positive Psychology.

After that you should read this blogpost, from one of Seligman's colleagues, Ben Dean, which includes Seligman's response to the allegations (he denies this involvement).

Let's hope the truth will out sooner rather than later.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill

At the 4th European Conference on Positive Psychology in Croatia, Randy Larsen, Psychology Professor at Washington University in St Louis, presented on ‘Overcoming the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. In fact, the session focussed more on explaining what the Hedonic Treadmill is and how it operates rather than on presenting loads of new ideas on how to beat it…Maybe he ran out of time, a common occurrence during the conference.

So what is the Hedonic Treadmill exactly? In short, it’s the idea that we humans adapt to pleasurable circumstances, events and experiences – which explains why the joy you feel from getting that sought-after pay rise, new contract, dress or car lasts only for a few hours, days or weeks. We simply get used to the positive emotion. The novelty wears off.

What makes the Hedonic Treadmill so interesting is that we adapt to negative circumstances, events and experiences differently; here, there is something called a negativity bias at work, which means that bad events carry more weight than good events; so for example, losing £50 is a more negative experience that finding £50 is a positive one.

Larsen’s research comparing good and bad events shows that bad ones decay more slowly, i.e. negative emotions take longer to wear off. Said another way, we adapt to positive events more quickly than we do to negative ones. No wonder so many people get addicted to shopping – they’re forever trying to increase the duration of positive emotion, without realising that it will just keep wearing off.

One explanation for this may be that negative emotions last longer for evolutionary reasons. Thousands of years ago we couldn’t have afforded to spend too much of our time caught up in the positive emotions associated with having fun and enjoying ourselves when there might be a sabre-toothed tiger coming round the corner – we needed to be ready to deal with it (‘fight or flight’). For our own survival, it was necessary that negative emotions lasted longer than positive ones.

So, where does this leave us, bearing in mind that millions of Westerners seems to be running round the Hedonic (Shopping) Treadmill every day? Unfortunately Larsen didn’t suggest any concrete answers, other than perhaps Positive Psychologists need to be investigating ways to accelerate the adaptation to negative events and experiences, rather than looking for new interventions to increase positive emotion. I think he has a good point, don’t you?

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Happiness and Policy

On Monday evening I heard Ed Diener (aka Smiley Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois) present at the 4th European Conference on Positive Psychology in Croatia on the subject of Well-being on Planet Earth. Leaving aside the fact that Diener works for the Gallup Organisation, he presented some curious findings about the predictors of life satisfaction and positive and negative emotion, and the relevance for policy use.

Life Satisfaction vs Emotion

Diener’s ‘happiness formula’ is one of the most well-known in Positive Psychology:

Subjective Well-being (i.e. happiness) = Satisfaction with life + Positive Emotion – Negative Emotion.

This means that happiness is not a simple measure of how good you feel (emotion) but also includes a cognitive element of what you think about your life (satisfaction with life). Still with me? Great!

This explains why countries like Denmark can feature at the top of some happiness scales, but not others.

For example, when asked “on a scale of 0-10 how satisfied are you with your life?” Denmark comes top of the league table. But when you look at which countries are high in positive emotion, New Zealand, Honduras and Panama come at the top.

But happiness is even more complex than that – the presence of positive emotion is not the same thing as the absence of negative emotion (in the same way that health is not the mere absence of illness).

So countries which are high in positive emotion are not the same as those which are low in negative emotion (e.g. Denmark, Sweden and Australia).

Diener’s research with Gallup has also found that the top two predictors of satisfaction with life and positive emotion are not the same:

Predictors of satisfaction with life:

1. Money (as measured by GDP per capita)
2. Optimism
3. Whether I can count on other people

Predictors of positive emotion:

1. Whether I learned something yesterday
2. Freedom to choose
3. Whether I can count on other people

Relevance for Policy Use

According to the Gallup data, 94% of Danes score more then 8/10 for happiness, whereas 97% of Togolese score less than 3/10. Not surprisingly (because this is where Gallup’s interests lie), Diener used these extraordinary findings to argue that we should pay more attention to country-level well-being, since the way in which individual countries are run must be what makes the difference to these overall happiness scores. His suggestion is that societies would do well to use well-being measures in their creation of country-wide policies, as well as the more traditional economic and social measures.

It’s difficult not to disagree with him when you look at the data*; however, the question then arises as to whether it’s the government’s role to make people happy. My own perspective is the government does have a role to play in creating the right environment, although I think we could do a great deal more to improve people’s lives by spending the resources on treating mental illness effectively.

* Sadly the data Diener presented isn't in the public arena since it belongs to the Gallup Organisation.