What Research Says About Positive Psychology

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Back in 1998, for every 17 research articles devoted to negatively-oriented emotions there was only one article on positively-oriented emotions (Achor S. The Happiness Advantage. New York: Crown Business; 2011).

Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, the American psychologist who has been called the father of positive psychology, said this phenomenon is “half-baked” in a speech he gave in 1999 at the first Positive Psychology Summit. By that he meant psychology was good at focusing on people’s weaknesses and mental illness, but it was time to study the other half: to focus on people’s strengths and study what makes happy people happy.

Seligman challenged the research world to begin baking the other half. So, if German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus wrote that psychology has a “long past, but only a short history,” then the science of positive psychology has a really short history (Peterson C. A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press; 2006). Still, it is currently the most evidence-based way to speak to clients regarding well-being. In this article, we will look at the science behind some of the key subjects and discuss the risks and benefits of incorporating positive psychology into our clinical practice.

Getting in the Flow

Engagement in life is experienced during acts of intense concentration and when the activity is intrinsically rewarding. Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a leading researcher on positive psychology, called this “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial; 1990).

This is when you are focused on the process itself as opposed to the outcome or how other people perceive you. You lose track of time. You might experience this when you play a sport or if you have a hobby. The challenge of the experience must in some way match or even slightly exceed your skill level. When this occurs, Csíkszentmihályi observes, it is a unique opportunity to increase one’s self-esteem. People report very high levels of satisfaction and positive emotion when engaged in activities of flow.

Researchers have looked at when that flow occurs in people’s lives as they try to understand how people can be more engaged in life. How can you measure your engagement in life? In one study, researchers assessed 78 adults over the course of one week using what they called the experience sampling method (ESM) (Csíkszentmihályi M and LeFevre J, J Pers Soc Psychol 1989;56(5):815–822).

The method randomly sampled the subjects’ self-reports throughout the day. A wide range of job-types were represented, including management, engineering, clerical, and blue-collar. During the study, the subjects wore a pager that was set off at 56 random moments over the course of a week. At each instance, the subject filled out the ESM questionnaire that documented the subjects’ current activity, location, whom they were with, and the quality of the current activity.

Csíkszentmihályi found that people existed in flow-like states significantly more often at work than in leisure. So if we hate working, then why do we enjoy it so much? Csíkszentmihályi postulated that the forced nature of work obscured his subjects’ enjoyment of their own profession. In leisure, people often seek to do the opposite of what they do when at work and spend time pursuing activities that have few demands, like watching television. Television has been referred to as “junk flow” (think of junk food), as it is particularly engaging but does not place demand on any skill you might possess. You do not rise after watching five hours of television and think to yourself, “I really accomplished something here!”

What Positive Psychology Means to Well-Being

There are many implications for using engagement to help better understand our clients’ occupation and free time, and improve their well-being. Adolescents spend much of their time feeling oppressed. Much of their behavior at home and at school is obligatory. In one study, researchers compared 290 students from a Montessori school and a traditional middle school program, where there is a more formal and structured environment (Rathunde K and Csíkszentmihályi M, Am J Ed 2005;111(3):341–371).

The researchers gave the students watches that went off at 56 random moments during a week and asked them to fill out the ESM questionnaire. Montessori students reported about 7% more flow experience in school than their counterparts and reported significantly more intrinsic motivation. (The researchers noted that the design of the study minimized, but did not eliminate, the possibility that the characteristics of the students, rather than that of the different schools, accounted for the findings.) This is not an advertisement for Montessori schools but brings awareness to our ability to shape the amount of engagement our clients experience in their lives. You may ask clients what they do in their leisure time and they may report they are quite satisfied. Perhaps a better question is how much of their leisure time is spent in activities of flow.

The study of positive emotions is summed up in psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden-and-build” theory. Fredrickson observes the downward spiral of anxiety and other negative emotions that leads to a narrow range of thoughts and actions. For instance, in the case of the negative emotion of fear, it often leads to a fight-or-flight response aimed at immediate survival. She calls this the thought-action repertoire. In contrast, Fredrickson asserts that positive emotions lead to an upward spiral of awareness and curiosity amongst others, which leads to a greater thought-action repertoire.

To demonstrate the “broaden” aspect of her theory, Fredrickson and Christine Branigan have studied how people’s attention widens in response to positive emotions (Fredrickson BL and Branigan C, Cogn Emot 2005;19(3):313–332). The two researchers undertook two experiments with 104 college students who viewed films that were intended to provoke positive emotions such as amusement or contentment; a neutral emotion; or negative emotions such as anger or anxiety. The researchers then used an eight-item, global-local visual processing task that entailed asking the subjects to choose between different geometric shapes to evaluate the breadth of their attention. Another scale examined the scope of their thought-action repertoires—that is, the tendency to spark physical action or cognitive activity. The subjects with positive emotions indeed showed broader attention and increased thought-action repertoires. Negative emotions narrowed the thought-action repertoires. However, in contrast to prior research, negative emotions were not found to narrow the attention of the subjects.

A Critical Look at Positive Psychology

Positive psychology has both its merits and shortcomings, according to critics. Research on optimism and pessimism has stirred considerable controversy and highlights some of the challenges to positive psychology.

Optimism has been linked to positive mood, good morale, perseverance, success in a variety of occupations, and particularly good health (Peterson C, Am Psychol 2000;55(1):44–55). But, as researchers Shelly L. Gable and Jonathan Haidt point out, it is too simplistic to conclude that optimism is always the best attitude to have. The researchers argue that a “one size fits all model” that identifies optimism as the best approach for everyone does not work particularly well (Gable S and Haidt J, Rev Gen Psychol 2005;9(2):103–110). They cite the research of Julie K. Norem and Edward C. Chang, which focuses on the importance of defensive pessimism. That research provides support for the idea that there are times when “pessimism and negative thinking are indeed positive psychology, as they lead to better performance and personal growth” (Norem JK and Chang EC, J Clin Psychol 2002;58(9):993–1001). For instance, some anxious individuals may set unrealistically low goals for themselves as a way of mediating their anxiety and allowing them to accomplish a task.

In addition to the question of the role that defensive pessimism might play in positive psychology, there are challenges regarding how we define personal satisfaction. In his latest book, Flourish, Seligman suggests that a person’s self-assessed life satisfaction is largely determined by his or her current mood (Seligman EP. Flourish. New York: Free Press; 2011). As Gable and Haidt suggest, “The meaning of what is positive or good is complex and multidimensional, and the study of positive psychological topics requires recognition of this complexity in theories and empirical designs.”

TCRBH’S TAKE: Positive psychology research is very much in its infancy, but this does not take away from its relevance to our clinical practice. The research shows that positive psychology has a great deal to say about the human experience—and not just about “positive” emotions. There appears to be strong interest in continuing to develop the science behind positive psychology, and this creates the potential to further develop a language of strength and well-being that clinicians can use to better understand and help our clients.