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“What’s happening in the world today?”
How many times have you heard this in 2017? It’s a question we throw around a little too frequently, implying the world is falling apart. It’s not surprising given the news we’re constantly exposed to via the various channels – as a result of the infamous media strategy “fear sells”.
Yet, we should be mindful of our words and thoughts and consider if things are really getting worse?
Johan Norberg (2016) challenges the recent mainstream narrative of the “fear world”. In an extensive study using official data, Norberg found that in contrast, we’ve made more progress over the last 100 years than in the first 100,000. While there is undoubtedly much room for improvement, Norberg highlights the areas we’ve seen positive change advocating for progress. For example, 285,000 more people have gained access to safe water every day for the last 25 years and world poverty has fallen by more in the past 50 years than the preceding 500.
For the field of well-being and mental health, we can thank Positive Psychological science for paving the way towards positive change. No longer is the idea of being positive or living a good life reserved for left-minded thinkers. Today, solid and practical takeaways are being derived from this relatively new science, improving the well-being of individuals as it disseminates into the various areas of our lives. Not only positively impacting individuals but also families, schools, large corporations and communities as a whole, who now look to the field for hope of depending on their new findings as an answer for increasing well-being and happiness.
So, as another year draws to an end, it’s the perfect opportunity to turn our attention to the past and reflect on the efforts and progress achieved. For the field of positive psychology, it has certainly been another year of growth and momentum. Here we summarise the state of positive psychology today with seven reasons it’s been a positive year.
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Positive Psychology – A Brief History
Discussions of happiness and wellbeing have been ongoing for many centuries now, with well-known contributions from ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, and various religious teachings, such as the learnings of happiness from Buddhism (White, 2008).
However, the movement of happiness as a science within the field of Psychology came about following the end of World War 2 when humanist psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Eric Fromm, identified the imbalance towards treating abnormal behaviours and proposed a new approach focusing on how we can live the “good life” (Taher, 2017). This triggered a new wave in psychology, now known as “Positive Psychology”. You can read more here about Postive Psychology.
The term itself was coined in 1998, by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Professor Seligman, who was president of the American Psychological Association at the time, highlighted his concern that too much focus was given to treating mental health problems, and too little emphasis was given to promoting “positive” strategies for improving psychological well-being (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Today, positive psychology continues to flourish and the imbalance within the field has unquestionably improved with thousands of articles now published and various research conducted on topics of well-being, forgiveness, happiness, pride, mindfulness and psychological strength (“Positive psychology advances, with growing pains”, 2017).
We can best define the field’s current meaning and focus using the words of The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who state:
“Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” (Authentic Happiness, 2017).
Advances of Positive Psychology in 2017
Here are seven reasons it’s been a positive year for positive psychology:
1. The First World Happiness Council was Established
The world’s first happiness council was established in February 2017 in the United Arab Emirates. The World Happiness Council is made up of 13 members and headed by Columbia University Professor, Jeffrey Sachs. They are scheduled to assemble twice a year, where they will launch a yearly Global Happiness report at the World Government Summit and will receive administrative support from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (“UAE creates first World Happiness Council”, 2017).
The Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, announced the formation of the new council, explaining that the world today needs to adopt a new approach for achieving human happiness. He stated:
“The increased challenges, and the acceleration of international transformations and changes, requires decision makers to adopt policies and approaches that open the windows of hope to people, and perhaps the United Nations celebration of International Happiness Day will be transformed into a message to the world to search for new ways to achieve goodness for people.”
2. A UNESCO Chair was Assigned to Education for Global Peace Sustainability
In September 2017, the International Positive Psychology Association reported that a proposal for a UNESCO Chair on Education for Global Peace Sustainability was accepted, which would “integrate peace education and positive psychology”. The Chair would reportedly be led at the University of Lisbon through its Institute of Social and Political Sciences (“UNESCO Chair on Education for Global Peace Sustainability”, 2017).
The creation of the UNESCO Chair on Education for Global Peace Sustainability was reportedly intended to “advance a scientific and practical approach to the complexity of peace, particularly in relation to individual, collective, and national well-being”.
3. The Addition of New Positive Psychology Conferences
The year of 2017 saw the addition of numerous positive psychology conferences internationally. In March 2017, the first World Happiness Summit was held. April 2017, saw the first Conference on Positive Change and in May 2017 the first Embodied Positive Psychology Summit was launched (Positive Psychology Program, 2017).
The addition of these new summits supports development within the field and the increased demand for cultivating happiness through various discussions, mediums, and collaborations.
4. Resilience Training Gains More Momentum
Martin Seligman and peers, Jane Gillham, Karen Reivich, and Peter Schulman, conducted extensive resilience research from 1990 to 2007, with the outcome being that resilience is teachable. Based on their results that resiliency skills significantly reduced depression, anxiety, and conduct problems, and increased well-being and optimism, a major roll out on resiliency was funded (The Positive Psychology Centre Annual Report, 2017).
Since these findings, more than 270 Penn Resilience Programs have been taught to more than 45,000 people, who have then gone on to teach these skills to more than half a million people, mostly school students, and Army Soldiers.
In 2017, PEN reported they have continued to gain momentum for their Resilience Training with the development of new clients in new markets, including corporations and professional sports. They also reported the growth of new clients within markets they already worked within such as education and the U.S. Department of Defence (The Positive Psychology Centre Annual Report, 2017).
5. New Books for wellness
Given the discussed popularity, it’s no surprise that 2017 has seen numerous best sellers again in the self-help and motivation genres.
A notable book released in 2017 created to enhance our understanding of the significant positive psychological theory, Self Determination Theory (SDT), is Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L’s book, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness (2017).
This book thoroughly defines SDT, a theory of motivation that suggests personal needs determine intrinsic motivation. If you are looking to understand the things that motivate you and impact your wellbeing, put this book on your holiday reading list.
6. Europe’s First ‘Positive University’
In January 2017, the United Kingdom’s University of Buckingham was declared Europe’s first ‘Positive University’. Sir Anthony Seldon, the university’s vice-chancellor appointed Martin Seligman to roll out an institution-wide programme of positive psychology. The roll-out was to include each student taking a module on positive psychology and all tutors being trained in the field. The university stated, “all interactions and engagements with students are to be conducted in a positive manner” (“Happiness expert advises UK’s first ‘positive university’”, 2017).
The goal of the program was to improve the well-being, resilience, and optimism of its staff and students. Sir Anthony noted, “I am appalled by the needless suffering we see at universities,” he stated individuals “do not have to be victims” as long as they had the right skills to cope with problems.
7. New Modern Measurements for Happiness
Today, big data makes it possible to measure happiness levels looking at positive or negative words contained in anonymous Twitter and Facebook posts.
Based on a USD $4 million research, named The World Well Being Project (WWBP) lead by Seligman and his team of 20 at Pennsylvania University, it is now possible to gauge happiness levels through big data. PEN reported, “WWBP has successfully used big data to predict physical health outcomes on the individual and county level.” (The Positive Psychology Centre Annual Report, 2017).
Key Areas for Growth in 2018
Goethe famously said:
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
In the same respect, we look forward to a future where we can increasingly apply the theories and science of positive psychology into practice.
Based on the research to date confirming positive psychology applications can promote growth and attainment in the three key areas of our lives— family, school, and work— it is imperative that we continue to focus on further developing and administering interventions over the coming years (“The Future of Positive Psychology: Science and Practice”, 2017).
Another challenge that the field faces is ensuring its relevance to diverse communities. Based on the universal desire for happiness and wellbeing we need to ensure continued research is undertaken to incorporate various marginalized groups.
A Take Home Message
While there are many things to be grateful for today, we can’t deny that mental illness continues to be reported as a priority for many. However, the science endeavors to move forward with and combat this concern. Most contributors to positive psychology would support that the efforts of the field to date have been considerably beneficial. From research teaching us ways to improve our lives, findings about positive emotions and strengths, and public policy makers and corporations prioritizing well-being alongside their traditional concerns.
While the field is young, it has come along way over the past decade. Yet there is still much room for further research and development; for even the questions with answers create further questions. Despite all the room for growth, there is no doubt about the potential of positive psychology to shine a light on a brighter future.
Wishing you a happy year ahead!
- Authentic Happiness. (2017). Authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.
- Happiness expert advises UK’s first ‘positive university’. (2017). Times Higher Education (THE).
- Norberg, J. (2016). Progress. Pgw.
- Positive psychology advances, with growing pains. (2017). http://www.apa.org.
- Ryan, R.M., Deci, E.L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. The Guilford Press.
- Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
- Taher, R. (2017). The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology.
- The Future of Positive Psychology: Science and Practice. (2017). Psychology Today.
- The Seligman Times Volume 1, Number 2 | Authentic Happiness. (2017).
- The Positive Psychology Centre Annual Report. (2017).
- UNESCO Chair on Education for Global Peace Sustainability. (2017). International Positive Psychology Association.
- UAE creates first World Happiness Council. (2017). ArabianBusiness.com.
- Upcoming Positive Psychology Conferences (2017 + 2018). (2017). Positivepsychologyprogram.com.
- White, N. (2008). Brief History of Happiness. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.