Of all the criticisms leveled against Positive Psychology, there is one I agree with.
There is very little that has as yet been done to take positive psychology out of the “ivory tower” of academic research labs, and into the potentially less salubrious environs of underprivileged communities where social change could not be needed more desperately. (Alex Linley et.al.: 2011, P142).
Alex Linley is an internationally recognized Positive Psychology author and the founder of the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology. And he is not alone in arguing that we need to take Positive Psychology beyond our familiar research environments and further into the real world. Becker and Marecek (2008) also argue Positive Psychology research has tended to focus on privileged cohorts such as middle-class groups, college students or groups that enjoy cultural autonomy.
The concern is that people who enjoy more power and cultural autonomy are more likely to benefit from flourishing strategies, because of their more favorable environments and because they are less encumbered by the pressing life problems of minority groups.
A more recent review by Rao and Donaldson (2015) also found “explorations of gender, race, and ethnicity in Positive Psychology have been mostly tentative”, although they also found this follows a broader pattern found in other areas of psychology, and that there is now more “energy toward creating a more inclusive field.” (P280).
Wellbeing and Australian Aboriginals
If you wanted to nominate one group of people as being profoundly disadvantaged it would be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. Australian Aboriginals have maintained the longest continuous human culture ever recorded- at least sixty thousand years. However, since European colonization they have endured relocation to missions and reserves, the trauma of the forced removal of children introduced diseases and continued socioeconomic disadvantage.
Today’s Aboriginal population has a life expectancy 10.6 years lower than the non-Indigenous population for males, and 9.5 years lower for females. They have significantly higher suicide rates and are grossly overrepresented in the Justice system; – where their 2.5% of the Australian population accounts for 27% of the prisoner population.
Can Positive Psychology Help Against Such Disadvantage?
In 2015 I had the privilege of presenting a Positive Psychology workshop at a conference for Aboriginal professionals working in the Corrections system (The 2015 Koori Staff Network Conference – in Creswick Victoria). Also present at the conference was Shaun Braybrook, the manager of a residential facility for Aboriginal men called the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place.
WNLP is a culturally appropriate diversion program for Aboriginal males who have been sentenced by a court to a Community Corrections order. It is located about three hours from Melbourne in Gippsland Victoria and provides men with an opportunity to strengthen their connection to their traditional culture, to learn new skills and address offending behaviour.
Shaun invited me to visit the facility and meet with programs manager Berwyn Lampitt, and some of the resident ‘fellas’ themselves. With their input, the result was a new four-part Positive Psychology program applying PERMA based wellbeing principles in a culturally appropriate way.
Part 1. Positive Emotions
In week 1 participants learned basic gratitude exercises (e.g. counting blessings) and kept a one-week gratitude journal. They also identified one person among their cultural group who had been most supportive of them in the past and sent a message of appreciation to that person.
Part 2. Engagement
In week 2 we identified personal strengths and explored opportunities to use them more often. However, in keeping with the collective nature of Aboriginal culture, more than just individuals identifying their own strengths each member of the group took turns describing which strengths they perceived in each other member – (thanks Berwyn for teaching me this).
Part 3. Relationship Skills
In week three we explored relationship skills (drawn from the research of John Gottman) with an emphasis on improving communication and connectedness to one’s cultural group.
Part 4. Achievement
In contrast to the usual goal setting seen in correctional settings (avoiding drugs, triggers for re-offending) we set positive goals and positive motivation strategies such as the Best Possible Self exercise developed by Laura King.
Initially, I was unsure, even a little nervous about how so profoundly disadvantaged people would relate to the gratitude exercises that are fundamental to Positive Psychology. But I needn’t have worried. The responses flowed instantly…“my daughter just got all clear from her cancer, I’m happy to be here among my brothers, I spoke with my kids yesterday, I have a bed today…”
The other parts of the program were also well received with the overall feedback indicating a strong appreciation for the opportunity to (further) work on positives, strengths, and goals, instead of problems and weaknesses.
We know a lot about how Positive Psychology works with the privileged cohorts that are typically the subject of social science research. The time has now come to take Positive Psychology out into more communities and more diverse settings. To the extent we have the results seem promising.
However, we need to be careful. We need to ensure we are doing more than just making people feel better about entrenched disadvantage. We need to demonstrate that Positive Psychology strategies are delivering on their bigger promise, i.e., beyond just the smiley face to igniting strengths, improving resilience, promoting problem-solving, building motivation, encouraging goal achievement and personal mastery.
Positive Psychology and wellbeing strategies are for everyone- cultural differences notwithstanding. Moreover, they are probably more important in the lives of our most disadvantaged people; although, I would have thought that was bloody obvious.
In 1967 a referendum was held to allow Aboriginal people the right to vote. Historically there have been forty-four attempts to change the Australian constitution with the ‘yes’ vote succeeding only eight times. On this occasion, the ‘yes’ vote was carried by an unprecedented 91%. This week Australia is commemorating the 50th anniversary of that historic vote.
Wulgunggo Ngalu means ‘which way together’. Listen to Shaun talking about the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place here.
- Becker, D. & Marecek, J. (2008) Dreaming the American Dream: Individualism and Positive Psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. Volume 2, Issue 5. P. 1767–1780.
- Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2017.
- Council of Australian Governments (2009) National Indigenous reform agreement (closing the gap). Canberra: Council of Australian Governments.
- King, L. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.
- Linley, A. Bhaduri, A. Sharma, D. Govindji, R. Strengthening Underprivileged Communities: Strengths-based Approaches as a Force for Positive Social Change in Community Development. In Robert Biswas-Diener. Positive Psychology as Social Change. Springer (2011).
- Rao, M. Donaldson, S. (2015) Expanding Opportunities for Diversity in Positive Psychology: An Examination of Gender, Race, and Ethnicity. Canadian Psychology. Vol. 56, No. 3, 271–282.