Understanding How to Function at Your Best: Defining Positive Psychology

Here at iDoneThis, we often talk about how principles of positive psychology can be used to improve our well-being and happiness at work. We wanted to go back to basics and get an expert to explain what positive psychology is and how it can help you live your life better. So we spoke with Dr. Stephen Schueller about defining positive psychology and what progress and timing have to do with living a good life.

imageDr. Schueller is a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and member of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, where he works on developing internet and mobile interventions in behavioral and mental health service delivery. (This is the first installment of our interview. Head here for the second, 5 Reasons You Don’t Do What Really Makes You Happy).

Initially I think I misunderstood positive psychology as being all about positive thinking and positive emotions — and that’s really not what it’s about.

That’s definitely true. One of the things I really try to differentiate positive psychology from is this positive thinking movement, things like reading The Secret — where you think it, you’ll get it, or think positively and your life will be better. That’s not what positive psychology is about at all.

Lots of research shows that experiencing positive emotions is very beneficial, but that’s not really the point in positive psychology. Positive psychology is a movement focusing on trying to understand what optimal functioning means.

I would say that positive psychology has a lot within it which is the advice our grandmother would give us: How do we live a good life? You express gratitude, you maintain optimism, you practice kindness, you focus on relationships.

How would you define positive psychology?

Back when I was in graduate school, I often said that I studied happiness because it’s a nice, colloquial way to talk to people about what I do.

There was one year my now wife brought me to Thanksgiving with her family and was trying to get some attention off of herself and said, “my boyfriend here studies happiness”. Her grandfather’s like, “well, how do you define happiness?” and I, in my very academic way, said happiness is positive goal pursuit. Then of course all these people said, “No, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

For an academic audience, if I say happiness is positive goal pursuit, that makes a lot of sense to them. But for a general lay audience, it doesn’t jibe with what people feel happiness is.

So what is positive goal pursuit?

Positive goal pursuit is having something that you’re striving for that’s consistent with your values. Then there’s making progress towards that goal. This feeling of progress, this feeling of advancing towards something is really important for happiness.

Depending on the person, what that goal is might differ pretty strongly. For some people it might be to get that important job, for some people it might be to start a family. But it’s the feeling of progress that’s important.

Tell me about your research on how individual preferences impact applications of positive psychology.

A lot of our psychology experiments and the way we evaluate things is based on the average person. We can tell you that, on average, this anti-depressant works, this cognitive behavioral therapy works, positive psychology interventions work.

That’s fine if you’re going to work with averages, but for a person, I don’t want to know if this works for the average person. I want to know, is this thing going to work for me?

So how do we figure out what it is that works the best for a given person? It’s very akin to what businesses do in the consumer market. Things like Netflix, Amazon, Yelp — they try to give you guidance in terms of “what are the things that you might like?”, given what you liked before and your preferences.

I’m interested in applying those methodologies, this recommendation system, and statistical techniques that are used in consumer systems. As we try to shorten the distance between research and application, we need to address the question of what it is that’s actually going to work for people out there in the real world.

Has anything surprised you about that personalized application of positive psychology?

The thing that is counterintuitive is the best timing. When should you intervene in a person’s life?

A lot of clinicians think that what we need is to be able to give people a pick-me-up when they’re feeling down. I don’t think that’s right. I think the research bears out that a more useful approach is to get people in these what I like to call “teachable moments” or “actionable moments”. When someone’s feeling the most down, it’s not when they’re really ready to do these things.

Positive psychology focuses on trying to figure out how we can capitalize on successes and not just how we address problems. If I think about my own work, when I write a paper and get it accepted, that’s usually when I have the most energy to want to go out and start working on another paper and get my ideas out there more. When I get a paper rejected, it’s not like, oh now I feel so energized, let me go do this.

In some ways, positive psychology is about trying to figure out how to build on the successes people have in such ways that will help them later when they’re down. If I learn the skills and strategies now, if I work on these patterns and behaviors, then when a time of stress comes or when something bad comes, I’ll build up the resilience to deal with it.

Why is it so tempting to think about risk and not resilience?

We see a lot of need in the world and we want to make sure we’re devoting resources to help those in need. I think why there’s been a shift to resilience recently is the appreciation that there are lots of skills that are able to be taught prior to going through something stressful as opposed to afterwards, this idea of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment.

Prevention is not a fun thing. It’s hard to convince someone to diet before they’re overweight, to brush their teeth before they have the cavity. It’s hard to convince people to do things to prevent depression prior to them experiencing a depressive episode.

On the other hand, I think the ideas and the techniques of positive psychology like expressing gratitude, connecting with other people, are things that are very engaging to people. So those are very useful things to do for our mental health to build resilience in ways that are engaging and interesting to people.

So people find value in those activities anyways.

They’re intrinsically valued and then they also build future resilience, and that’s a focus of positive psychology — it’s finding the things that are intrinsically interesting to people.

In organizations, you’re dealing with a whole bunch of people with different interests. How do you take that individualized solution or approach and apply it to groups?

Really honing in on one’s values and goals is important. Even as a business, have clear goals and values and have people feel like they’re buying into that.

For example, Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow — which is this engagement aspect of positive psychology — shows the most important things for people to enter into this flow is to have clear goals and immediate feedback, to know what it is you’re progressing towards and that you’re actually making progress towards something. That might become individualized for each person, but you still have the overall goals and values of a business or corporation or group.

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