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In measuring its worth, a society should go beyond gross domestic product and also assess the happiness of its people, said psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, PhD, at the kickoff of The Second International Positive Psychology Summit held in Washington D.C. October 2-5.

Presenters underscored that theme--that positive emotions can be studied, constructed and valuable--throughout the summit in talks on topics such as leadership, psychological capital and the effect of beneficial personality traits on health.

Kahneman, professor at Princeton University and a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, said economists and lawyers run the economies of the world, and if psychologists are truly interested in improving public health and happiness, they need to develop a dialogue with these movers and shakers. Interest in the economics of happiness has been growing in both economics and psychology, but in the end research in that new field will be done mainly by economists because of their traditional roles in policy. However, economists will need psychologists' expertise to guide them, he said.

"There's a need for a measure of well-being that goes beyond power and wealth, for which countries can be valued," he said. "There's a need for the concept of a well-being account."

Factors in that well-being measure could include how well a country takes care of its seniors, how it contributes to sports, how it provides urban amenities like parks and pedestrian paths, how it plans for its citizens to interact and how willing it is to engage in social experiments that could improve the lives of its citizens, Kahneman said. But there are inherent problems with judging a society this way, including how to assess the degree of benefit an individual gets out of, for example, more trees and how psychologists and economists can analyze those benefits to provide policy guidance, he said. However, it's a challenge worth pursuing, Kahneman added.

Kahneman found much agreement on that point at the summit, where most speakers emphasized ways to create a sense of societal and individual well-being through such means as choosing effective, altruistic leaders, advancing psychological capital and studying and promoting conscientiousness.

Positive leadership

Figuring out how to do what Kahneman suggests will take great leaders. However, every organization and society has trouble choosing its leaders, said psychologist Robert Hogan, PhD, of the University of Tulsa, so it is crucial that researchers help people find ways to select leaders who institute policies, procedures and attitudes that create organizational health and success. Most leaders, he explained, are either chosen for surface characteristics or advance through technical excellence in their field,. Neither process necessarily produces leaders well-suited for management, Hogan said.

To be an effective leader--able to make an organization successful and a positive environment--those in charge need to have both domain-specific skills and implicit leadership qualities, Hogan said. Examples of the skills positive leaders need include self-control, the ability to work well in a team and business skills that fit the position and industry. Implicit leadership qualities include integrity, decisiveness, overall competence and being able to devise and communicate an overall vision, he said.

"In the end, it's important to remember that leadership matters, and good leadership is a function of personality traits that can be selected," Hogan said. "The best organizations are the ones that make the fewest mistakes when choosing their leaders."

Psychological capital

Another way positive leaders succeed is by making the most of psychological capital, said psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaliyi, PhD, a professor at Clarement Graduate University.

Psychological capital, Csikszentmihaliyi said, melds the idea of financial capital--resources withheld from immediate use in the expectation of greater future returns-- with mental health and well-being. He argued that there must be a way an individual can withhold psychological resources, saving them for future returns. To do this, a person must make the choice to participate in activities that may delay gratification, but promise later rewards--for example, putting mental energy into learning skills in an educational setting can pay off in the future in the form of increased well-being from financial resources and job happiness.

"Capital is developed through a pattern of investment of psychic resources that results in obtaining experiential rewards from the present moment while also increasing the likelihood of future benefit," he said. "And, in psychology, the primary resource is not money, is not power--it's attention to topics of present and future value." Study skills are another example of this, he said. Learning early in life how to teach yourself intellectual material--how to manage your own psychological capital--will pay off in the form of academic success, he explained.

However, if the process doesn't offer pleasurable experiences, such as satisfaction of intellectual curiosity, the use of psychological capital is not always a safe investment, he said, "because you never know if it's really going to pay off in the end or not."

"I think this is the core of what psychology is about," Csikszentmihaliyi said. "It's about the state of the components of your inner life. When you add up the components, experiences and capital, it makes up the value at the end of life when you look back and see what's there."

Benefits for conscientious people

An example of a personality trait that can build psychological capital is conscientiousness, which, according to speaker Brent Roberts, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, improves both life expectancy and overall well-being.

Conscientiousness is one of the "Big Five" personality traits defined in the 1970s by psychologists Paul Costa, PhD, and Robert McCrae, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health, and Warren Norman, PhD, of the University of Michigan and Lewis Goldberg, PhD, of the University of Oregon (the others are extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability and openness). It is a construct that includes propensity toward impulse control, responsibility, orderliness, achievement and conventionality, Roberts said. He presented research done for the Health and Aging Studies of Central Illinois, that aims to answer two questions about conscientiousness:

  • Why does conscientiousness continue to increase well past adolescence, unlike other personality characteristics?

  • Why does conscientiousness predict longevity?

Roberts presented findings from the Mill Longitudinal Study, part of the Health and Aging Studies he conducted with psychologist Timothy Bogg, PhD, that indicate high levels of conscientiousness correlate with higher activity levels, better diets, less alcohol and drug use, less risky driving behavior, less risk of suicide and fewer instances of violence.

"Conscientiousness is related to every single reason why we die young," Roberts said. "There could be much benefit in learning how we can instill this quality in people."

The study also indicates that conscientiousness increases over a person's lifetime, along with healthy behaviors, he said, and that improved well-being in each conscientious individual translates into an overall benefit to society, in the form of both happier citizens and lower heath-care costs.

"That confirms that there's something important going on developmentally later in life with this characteristic, something that could shed an interesting light on cognitive changes during adulthood," Roberts added.