University of Melbourne Magazine

The Essay: How a positive ripple can shape our lives

    Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology and Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology, Melbourne Graduate School of Education


    Professor Lea Waters

    I became bulimic when I was 15. I didn’t tell anyone. I suffered in silence.

    When I was 22 I went to a psychologist. By then I was studying a PhD in psychology and had learnt that we can use psychological exercises to reduce our negative emotions and thoughts.

    I overcame the eating disorder, but what followed was a decade of intermittent anxiety and depression. Again, I worked hard to overcome my negative thoughts and feelings and, thankfully, came to a point where I was free of illness.

    But the absence of illness did not make me happy. It just made me someone who was no longer ill. I was in a kind of psychological limbo – neither unhappy nor happy. Psychologically speaking, I needed to get north of zero. I needed to find psychological exercises to increase my positive emotions and thoughts (not just reduce my negative emotions and thoughts).

    It was around that time (1998) that Professor Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, introduced the simple yet profound idea that psychologists should try to help people build positive states and psychological strengths as well as fixing their negative states and psychological limitations. The field of positive psychology was born – and my mental health got the change in direction it needed.

    Positive psychology provides new answers to the age-old question of how we cultivate health and wellbeing. At the same time, it gives scientific support to the everyday wisdom many of us have gained through first-hand experience – that happiness, virtue and meaning help transform our lives.

    The field had its sceptics, who feared positive psychology was sugar-coating our troubles. But the supporters are growing en masse as study after study reveals how positive psychology builds emotional wellbeing, physical health, successful relationships, work satisfaction and longevity.

    Since positive psychology emerged, the number of published scientific articles has grown by a whopping 290 per cent and has captured the hearts and minds of top researchers across the globe. The field has offered new ways to unlock our wellbeing and potential by showing us how to utilise the strengths and positive qualities that already exist within us.

    So let me ask you a question. How much of your attention is focused on fixing your flaws at the expense of building up your strengths? If you’re like most people you’ll take your strengths for granted (a phenomenon that psychologists call “strengths blindness”) and your flaws and weaknesses will get a disproportionate amount of your attention.

    Yet science clearly shows that correcting weakness takes us only so far on the journey to reaching our potential and that doing more of what we do best opens up the most effective pathways to success and happiness.

    This doesn’t mean we should ignore our weaknesses or problems. It just means we need to see fixing them for what it is – remediation. Sure, fixing weakness is necessary, but the path to happiness is best achieved when we learn how to maximise our strengths. Positive psychology moves us from remediation to transformation.

    Strengths can be many things, including your character, talents, aptitudes, ability and skills. The strength-based approach is gaining momentum in research and practice, and has been used successfully in families, classrooms, social work teams, psychology clinics and workplaces across the globe.

    Centre for Positive Psychology

    “The path to happiness is best achieved when we learn how to maximise our strengths”

    At the Centre for Positive Psychology, we are conducting research with students, teachers, education systems, parents, employees and workplaces to understand what helps people thrive. Our research has shown that a strength-based approach promotes wellbeing in young people and adults alike.

    For example, school students who are taught positive psychology skills report increases in hope, resilience and serenity as well as reductions in stress, anxiety and depression.

    In positive psychology classes, students learn a range of exercises they can use to increase their positive emotions and thoughts. They learn how to notice and savour the good moments, they learn about the importance of realistic self-talk and they learn how to cultivate supportive relationships. In one fascinating study, researchers at the Centre found that positive psychology lessons literally get “under the skin” of a student in the best kind of way by reducing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).

    The benefits of positive psychology for young people go beyond the school grounds and can make a big difference in their family lives. My own research shows that teenagers are better equipped to weather the challenges of adolescence if they have parents who adopt a strength-based approach. When a parent sees and cultivates their son or daughter’s strengths – for example humour, relationship skills, intellect or sporting ability – this helps build their teen’s confidence and life satisfaction.

    I’ve found similar results with younger children who are more likely to use their strengths to cope with stress if they have parents who adopt a strength-based approach. This is the approach I use with my own son and daughter.

    But positive psychology isn’t just for the young. Strength-based parenting also improves life satisfaction and confidence in the parents. And strength-based approaches improve the wellbeing of adults in the workplace.

    In a series of studies conducted at the Centre for Positive Psychology we have shown that positive psychology approaches and wellbeing are significantly related to job satisfaction, work happiness, professional thriving, work contentment and work enthusiasm across a range of industries.

    In one study, we asked organisational leaders to adopt gratitude practices for one month. The leaders kept a gratitude journal in which they recorded three things each day that they felt thankful for at work. They used gratitude in staff meetings, on bulletin boards and in newsletters. They wrote letters of thanks to chosen colleagues.

    Gratitude is an emotion that puts stress into perspective and is a form of relationship glue. So it’s no wonder that, at the end of the month-long study, the leaders reported that it was easier to see the bigger picture at work and that they better appreciated the value of work relationships. Leaders also said that integrating gratitude into their work roles had brought them hope, happiness and optimism.

    Beyond the physical settings of school, home and work, positive psychology plays a role in our virtual spaces. A big-data study comprising a research team from University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University and the Centre for Positive Psychology found an association between the language we use on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, with atherosclerotic heart disease mortality.

    You guessed it … use of negative words (such as hate, sick of, bored, grrr) were associated with increased rates of heart attack, while use of positive words (such as strength, opportunities, hope, fantastic) were associated with lower rates.

    What’s more, language use was a better indicator of atherosclerotic heart disease mortality than 10 other common predictors used by researchers, including gender, socioeconomic status and health behaviours. This was a big-data study and was done at the population level of analysis, but it makes you think about how you express yourself on your own social media accounts, doesn’t it?

    Centre for Positive Psychology

    “There’s now a veritable swathe of research on how moods and emotions spread through online social networks.”

    I recently gave a TEDx talk where I spoke about how we can use social media to boost our moods and spread happiness to others.

    There’s now a veritable swathe of research on how moods and emotions spread through online social networks. According to a two-decade-long study conducted by researchers at University of California, San Diego, happiness is contagious. We catch positive emotions off others in our online communities.

    Positive emotions don’t just synchronise, they also spread. University of California researchers tracked the emotional content of posts generated by a large sample of online platform users over three years and found each post expressing a positive or negative emotion caused friends to generate one to two additional posts expressing the same emotion.

    What’s more, these positive posts then spread through social networks by up to three degrees of separation. With one positive post you can brighten the day of someone you have never met. Happiness begets happiness.

    At its core, a strength-based approach is about bolstering the positive qualities, positive states and positive processes that support your wellbeing and optimal functioning. In other words, it’s about cultivating the right psychological soil from which your strengths can grow – be that in your physical or virtual life.

    One of the first things people ask me when contemplating the infinite number of ways to bolster their strengths is: what should I focus on? They want to know what they should be putting into their soil.

    In some ways, the answer is unique to you, but a meta-review I conducted with one of my PhD students including more than 18,000 publications from over 700 psychology journals shows that there are six areas that deserve the most emphasis when building positive psycho-social functioning: (1) awareness, (2) emotion management, (3) coping, (4) goal setting, (5) virtues (for example, showing kindness, compassion, fairness) and (6) positive relationships.

    It’s easy to feel negative in a 24/7 news culture that’s dominated by stories about violence, war and corruption. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we are part of humankind.

    Positive psychology is a field that brings our strengths to the fore and helps us all steer north of zero. It can set off a positive ripple across society, allowing us to collectively access our deep wells of strength and use our best resources to positively shape future generations.

    Follow Professor Waters on Twitter: @ProfLeaWaters