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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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