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Three Insights from the Frontiers of Positive Psychology

future-300x225In late June, the third World Con­gress on Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy con­vened lead­ing sci­en­tists to explore the keys to a happy and mean­ing­ful life. Here are three of the most strik­ing and prac­ti­cal insights from the conference.

Fif­teen years after emerg­ing as a major sci­en­tific move­ment, it’s clear that pos­i­tive psychology—the study of what brings hap­pi­ness and mean­ing in life—is not just a fad. The field is reach­ing new lev­els of breadth and depth: Hav­ing estab­lished its core themes and prin­ci­ples dur­ing its first decade, it is now get­ting deeper and more pre­cise in its explo­ration of what it takes to truly flour­ish in life.

The growth of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy was evi­dent last month at the Inter­na­tional Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy Association’s (IPPA) third bi-annual World Con­gress on Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy in down­town Los Ange­les. A truly inter­na­tional crowd gath­ered for four days of work­shops and sym­posia on every­thing from neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and mind­ful­ness to pos­i­tive orga­ni­za­tions and pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy in film.

The sci­ence of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy has now achieved a point where it is com­pa­ra­ble to the other sub-disciplines of psy­chol­ogy,” wrote IPPA pres­i­dent Robert Vallerand in the Con­gress’ wel­come mes­sage. “And the sci­en­tif­i­cally informed appli­ca­tions of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy are more pop­u­lar and diver­si­fied than ever.”

As Vallerand sug­gests, the lead­ers of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy have always prided them­selves on deliv­er­ing sci­en­tific find­ings with clear prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions. Here are three of the most strik­ing and prac­ti­cal insights I took away from the Congress.

1. Look to the future for a mean­ing­ful life

Now-familiar research shows that we are hap­pi­est when we live in the present and that prac­tic­ing mindfulness—which involves tun­ing in to our thoughts, emo­tions, and sen­sa­tions in the present moment—is good for our bod­ies, brains, and rela­tion­ships.

But in their IPPA keynote, Mar­tin Selig­man and Roy Baumeis­ter, both giants in the field of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy, argued for the impor­tance of focus­ing on the future. Look­ing ahead, they believe, can bring mean­ing to our lives—a school of thought they call “prospec­tive psy­chol­ogy.”

The core of this con­cept is that it becomes a lot eas­ier to under­stand some of the com­plex­i­ties of the human mind once you con­sider that we evolved to pre­dict the future—and that doing this well is key to sur­vival. “So intel­li­gence isn’t about what you know,” said Selig­man, “but about how well you can pre­dict an act in the future.”

But how can Baumeis­ter and Selig­man advo­cate think­ing about the future when so much prior research stresses liv­ing in the present? Baumeis­ter noted that almost 40 per­cent of peo­ple who report hav­ing a happy life also report hav­ing a mean­ing­ful life—a pretty sig­nif­i­cant over­lap, but it still leaves a large gap. That sparked some mus­ing on the dif­fer­ences between hap­pi­ness and meaning.

For exam­ple, peo­ple who help oth­ers say they are hap­pier and rate their lives as more mean­ing­ful than those who don’t. How­ever, Baumeis­ter found that when you sub­tract the peo­ple who report high mean­ing­ful­ness, peo­ple who help oth­ers are actu­ally less happy than those who don’t. It’s the addi­tion of mean­ing­ful­ness that tips the balance.

And focus­ing on the future—and the feel­ing that one has con­trol over one’s future—seems to be linked with meaningfulness.

Hop­ing, plan­ning, sav­ing for a rainy day, wor­ry­ing, striv­ing, vot­ing, risk­ing or min­i­miz­ing risk, even under­tak­ing ther­apy all have in com­mon the pre­sup­po­si­tion that which future will come about is con­tin­gent on our delib­er­a­tion and action,” Selig­man and Baumeis­ter write in a paper pub­lished this March.

So while hap­pi­ness may be all about the present, mean­ing­ful­ness may be found in the future. Only by con­nect­ing the two can one find the great­est mean­ing, pur­pose, and hap­pi­ness in life.

2. Detach­ing from work is a good thing… for most of us

Amer­i­cans tend to be a hard-working bunch. Only 57 per­cent of U.S. work­ers take all the vaca­tion days they are due, accord­ing to a 2010 Reuters/Ipsos poll.

But our inabil­ity to detach psy­cho­log­i­cally from work may be ham­per­ing our hap­pi­ness, accord­ing to researcher Sabine Son­nen­tag of the Uni­ver­sity of Kon­stanz in Germany.

While the pos­i­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of vaca­tions are actu­ally short-lasting—studies show that four weeks after a vaca­tion, work­ers are back at pre-holiday exhaus­tion level— Son­nen­tag has found that those who detach from work on a reg­u­lar basis have a lower level of emo­tional exhaus­tion and higher life satisfaction.

Son­nen­tag defines detach­ment as a sense of “being away from work.” While this feel­ing has dif­fer­ent sources for dif­fer­ent peo­ple, it could include stay­ing off work email and not think­ing about work in the evenings and on days off.

Detach­ing from work allows indi­vid­u­als to feel recov­ered and refreshed, Son­nen­tag said, which then allows them to have more energy and be more effi­cient in their work lives.

Son­nen­tag says detach­ment from work seems espe­cially important—not surprisingly—when job stres­sors are high. Indeed, the more time pres­sure employ­ees feel, the less able they are to detach, which leads to a neg­a­tive spi­ral of stress and rumination.

Super­vi­sors should take note: Being real­is­tic about dead­lines may make for a more effi­cient operation.

But not every­one feels the ben­e­fits from detach­ment: Employ­ees who have strong pos­i­tive emo­tions toward work—such as fire­fight­ers who feel their jobs pro­vide a pos­i­tive social impact—may ben­e­fit more from not detach­ing. For this group, the pos­i­tive feel­ings they have dur­ing the day spill over into evening rest time, and detach­ing can actu­ally negate those pos­i­tive feelings.

That said, while each indi­vid­ual needs to assess his or her own need for detach­ment, for most of us, peri­od­i­cally dis­con­nect­ing from the stress of work and the bur­dens of technology—for exam­ple, by tak­ing a Fri­day night fam­ily break from all elec­tron­ics—is prob­a­bly an impor­tant way to guard against burnout—and make us bet­ter workers.

3. “We shape our dwellings, and after­wards our dwellings shape us.”

PeopleParkThese words from British Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill infused psy­chol­o­gist Marino Bonaiuto’s talk on envi­ron­men­tal psychology.

Bonaiuto, of the Uni­ver­sity of Rome, stud­ies how the phys­i­cal com­po­nents of our envi­ron­ment are linked to and affect our men­tal states and social inter­ac­tions. When an individual’s bio­log­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal needs are met by the resources avail­able in the environment—green spaces, phys­i­cal lay­out of infra­struc­ture, well-tended buildings—there is good “person-environment fit” that leads to greater well-being.

This fit isn’t the same across the board: An assisted liv­ing facil­ity that’s a good envi­ron­men­tal fit for an elderly per­son may not be the best fit for an ado­les­cent. A sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hood with lit­tle oppor­tu­nity for impromptu social inter­ac­tion may not be the best fit for a recent immigrant.

When eval­u­at­ing neigh­bor­hood liv­abil­ity and qual­ity of life, envi­ron­men­tal psy­chol­ogy has tended to focus on the negative—risks such as air pol­lu­tion, traf­fic noise, and light pollution.

But Bonaiuto urged us to look at our liv­ing envi­ron­ments through the lens of pos­i­tive envi­ron­men­tal psy­chol­ogy, focus­ing on how pos­i­tive fea­tures in the envi­ron­ment can boost life sat­is­fac­tion, such as by offer­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for phys­i­cal activ­ity and chances for social interaction.

For exam­ple, neigh­bor­hoods that have green and open out­door spaces have been shown to reduce their inhab­i­tants’ stress; the exer­cise, gar­den­ing, and walk­ing activ­i­ties afforded by green spaces lower lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol and improve cog­ni­tive func­tion. Another ben­e­fit of green spaces—especially in deprived communities—is the oppor­tu­nity for social con­nec­tion and greater feel­ings of safety.

Con­versely, less green space coin­cides with increased feel­ings of lone­li­ness and per­ceived short­ages of social support.

This “user-friendly” approach to plan­ning and urban design can allow peo­ple to expe­ri­ence the best “fit” with their envi­ron­ment, from their home to their neigh­bor­hood to their city—all part of a com­plex sys­tem of urban pragmatics.

In this way, Bonaiuto was affirm­ing a theme I heard often at the Con­gress: the power we have to shape our hap­pi­ness and the hap­pi­ness of those around us.  Whether as indi­vid­u­als or work­ing together as groups, the pre­sen­ters empha­sized, we can affect our exter­nal envi­ron­ment and inter­nal land­scapes for the better.

– By Elise Proulx, pub­lished here by cour­tesy of Greater Good, an online mag­a­zine based at UC-Berkeley that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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