I just returned from Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Florida, where the largest global gathering of positive psychology researchers, practitioners, educators and students met for the Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology.
This year’s annual conference of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) was chaired by Kim Cameron, who brought together a stellar lineup of positive psychology scholars and practitioners to share the most compelling research findings and applications in areas such as business, education, coaching, clinical practice and health.
It was an invigorating and action-packed four days. From the opening address by Martin Seligman on the cutting edge in positive psychology research and teaching to the closing remarks by Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi and James Pawelski on how culture and the humanities can benefit humanity by shifting focus toward human flourishing. There were 14 pre-conference workshops, hundreds of speakers and as many as six concurrent sessions running each day. I facilitated a workshop about Positive Emotions and Creativity at Work, so was honoured and delighted to be sharing my research and applications in such inspiring company.
It was also wonderful to tap into a vibrant community of people from around the world all looking to share and learn how individuals, organisations and communities can excel, flourish and grow.
Conference themes and takeaways
Here are some of the big themes from the positive psychology conference that point to new directions in positive psychology and the speakers I found most compelling and inspiring.
Theme #1: Facing criticism and embracing the dark side
Scholars and practitioners need to face and respond to criticism and embrace the full spectrum of human experience – both positive and negative – to keep positive psychology evolving as an inclusive and rigourous field of study.
In one of the most popular sessions of the conference, a panel of positive psychology leading lights Kim Cameron, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt, Barbara Fredrickson and Carmelo Vazquez addressed the major criticisms that are lobbied at positive psychology. Critiques include a bias toward western socio-economic and value systems, a fixation on happiness-related outcomes at the expense of more complex or challenging life issues, and a focus on individualistic rather than relational phenomena. Panellists also highlighted some of the ways that research can be sharpened. Seph Fontane published a great synopsis of the critiques at PositivePsychologyProgram.com.
Theme #2: Holistic health and physical wellbeing
This conference featured a far greater emphasis on holistic health and wellness than any other positive psychology conference I have presented at or attended. We heard more about the links between physical wellbeing and optimal functioning; explored ways to promote positive health behaviours to improve diet, sleep and exercise; and learned about new methods to track and study happiness and wellbeing levels through apps and technology.
Tom Rath shared his moving personal story and commitment to health and wellbeing as a life-long sufferer of cancer.
Theme #3: Collaborating across disciplines, countries and communities
The conference showcased cutting-edge collaborative research in allied fields. It was great to see brain science solidly on the agenda with talks on affective and contemplative neuroscience (by Richard Davidson) and neuroplasticity.
The five days were also peppered with field reports from around the globe including Africa, Australia, China, East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America. Dianne Vella-Brodrick, Suzy Green, Lindsay Oades and Gordon Spence shared Australia’s progress in positive education. The multi-disciplinary team behind South Australia’s ambitious journey to achieve a “State of Wellbeing” by systematically measuring and building the wellbeing of its population spoke about the ways they were shifting the focus towards wellbeing in the public health sector and creating affordable, large scale positive psychology, wellbeing and resilience training.
Theme #4: Social and global impact
I was particularly inspired by big picture thinking that challenged us to think beyond the individual to bring organisations, governments and communities together.
David Cooperrider’s plenary session was exceptional. He was living, breathing and enthusing his passion to “build a world where businesses can excel, people can thrive and nature can flourish”. He spoke about how he was moved to help establish a United Religions Initiative, using Appreciative Inquiry. The AI Summit is a method of envisioning, planning and designing collective action within large groups and systems. Bringing together religious and business leaders from 81 countries over a number of Summits resulted in the Carnegie Hall charter, signed in 2000. More than 600 URI centres now work to “end religious violence and create cultures of peace and justice” in some of the most difficult conflict settings worldwide.
Cooperridder proposed that the most pressing quest faced both by positive psychology and organisations in the 21st century is the quest for sustainability and a flourishing Earth. A key question for institutions: "How might an organisation’s quest for sustainable value bring out the best not just on the outside – helping to advance a better society or world – but also bringing out the best on the “inside” – in the flourishing of people, their relationships, their health and wellbeing, their motivation and performance, and their capacity for growth, resilience, and positive change?" He calls this mutual or shared benefit “mirror flourishing”.
Jonathan Haidt had a similarly big picture, though somewhat controversial view depending on your political bias. He spoke about capitalism and morality, and how the rise of a free market economy has been the most powerful transformative force in increasing GDP and happiness around the world. (“The 2015 World Happiness Report shows that almost all of the happiest countries are free-market societies, and almost all of the least happy countries are not,” according to Haidt.) He believes that when capitalism has a moral underpinning then it works well and benefits the social good. Examples are flourishing microbusinesses in developing countries. He posed the questions: What does a flourishing capitalist society look like in the 21st century? How can we make sure we are taking care of people, the planet, the universe? The key is to balance competing needs for growth and decency.
Theme #5: Practical applications of emerging research
It was a very high level positive psychology conference, heavy on academic data and statistics, and many practitioners wanted to know more about what to do with the research insights. Jane Dutton was one of the most engaging speakers, turning research into practical tools to build high quality connections, thriving and engagement in organisations.
Richard Davidson shared interesting new, yet-to-be published, research looking at recovery from adversity and the correlation between life-time hours of meditation and reactivity and recovery. His team found that the more hours of meditation participants engaged in, the faster their recovery, a result that can be inferred by a lot of his earlier research. More surprising was that the control group in the trial – those who did not meditate – showed exactly the same variation. In other words people were bouncing back from adversity at similar rates, whether they chose meditation as a helpful activity or not. He concluded that these people may be using other strategies to recover, and that these were equally effective. What’s fascinating about these results from my point of view is that people can indeed choose from a range intentional activities to bounce back from adversity, and will perhaps get the most benefit from those they feel intrinsically motivating. Some people will get immense benefit from meditation. Others may find gratitude, savouring and positive relationships, for example, to be more meaningful and energising.
Perhaps the most intriguing new research came from Barbara Fredrickson. She is constantly expanding her pioneering work on positive emotions and shared data from another soon-to-be published study. Building on her Broaden and Build Theory and the upward spiral effect, she and her team looked at the way positive emotions amplify wellness behaviours. If we practice a wellness behaviour, and we enjoy doing it, we are attaching positive emotions to that action. This leads us to have spontaneous unconscious thoughts about doing that behaviour, which in turn encourages us to anticipate and want to perform that action again. An upward spiral of positive health is created.
The idea is that the more we add positive behaviours – specifically things we really enjoy doing and feel good about – to our to do list, and mindfully engage in them each day, savouring the positive emotion we feel when doing them, the more likely we are to adopt them as positive habits and life-style changes.
I use a smorgasbord analogy: choose intentional activities that appeal to you. For me, these are smiling in the morning, practicing my Wonder Woman pose to generate positive emotions and mindset, reflecting on gratitude every night, prioritising the positives, and focusing on my physiology and exercise. Mindfulness can help, yet if something else works for you and gives you pleasure, prioritise it. Test healthy habits and activities on yourself first and if they work, keep doing them!