Feature

Find ways to keep people happy. Help them find meaning in their jobs. Encourage them to volunteer for good causes.

That's how to build self-confidence, strengthen character and develop interpersonal skills--qualities people can rely on to buffer against the hard times and enhance the quality of life when times are good, according to psychologists and other social science professionals at the recent Positive Psychology Summit.

Co-sponsored by the Gallup Organization, in Washington D.C., Oct. 13­15, the second annual conference brought together academicians, scientists, students and researchers to share discoveries and breakthroughs related to positive psychology.

"Why are there 200 of us here today?" asked conference coordinator Ed Diener, PhD, of the University of Illinois. "We've tapped into something important that people are yearning to learn about. When you are laying awake at night, you are not thinking about how do I get from minus eight to minus five, you are asking about going from feeling plus two to plus 12.... Psychology never told us to do that. Until now, psychology has been all about making life less minus."

The positive psychology movement, founded in part by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, former APA President, focuses on enhancing what's good in life rather than fixing what's wrong. Twenty traits have been considered as personality characteristics that may be the "roots of a positive life," including the capacity to love and be loved, altruism, spirituality, creativity, courage and wisdom. Researchers in the field are studying the types of experiences that make people feel good, the personal traits that make up happiness and ways to create positive institutions.

"This does not replace negative social science and psychology, which are flourishing enterprises that I support," said Seligman. "This movement is supplemental, it's something we haven't touched enough. So, I'm saying, let's do it."

A goal for the movement is to develop positive psychology techniques for all people.

"I like the idea of behavior leading toward a goal," said Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. "Maybe there are a set of experiences people can be led to have by doing spontaneous philanthropic activities in which they have the insight that there is a better way of being happy. That power, money, drugs or shopping are not the only possibilities."

Good things come in small packages

Much of the positive psychology research is focused on what makes people happy. Recent studies, for instance, have found that happiness comes in everyday simple rewards. In research she's conducted, Alice Isen, PhD, a professor in the psychology department of Cornell's Arts College, found that people experience a thrill when they get a free sample, find a quarter on the street or receive an unexpected gift--and this emotion makes them feel more generous, friendlier and healthier. They became more flexible, creative and better at solving problems.

In fact, she also found that small inductions of positive emotion make people smarter, more productive and more accurate. In a study of radiologists, for example, she found that when they were given a small present, they made more accurate diagnoses.

"We can induce affective states in small ways," she said. "The fact that we can impact behavior and cognitive processes so strongly with such little manipulation suggests you need to pay attention to people's capabilities and abilities to change as much as we pay attention to underlying strengths."

Employees who feel good because their supervisors "gave them pleasantries" or recognized their successes are more likely to work better and harder. "They are also better able to take the other party's perspective in negotiations, and are less defensive in stressful situations," she said.

But don't expect people to do whatever you want just because you cheer them up with small acts of kindness. "They don't become patsies" she warned.

Expecting to give them a goodie bag once and that they will remain loyal forever is a big mistake, too.

"Positive effect has to be managed," she said. "You can't expect to put people in a happy state or hire people you think will be happy and take advantage of them. It's best to set up a situation where positive effect can be maintained, and the relationship is reciprocal."

Other positive psychology studies have looked at what people like about their jobs. Amy Wrzesniewski, PhD, professor of management and organizational behavior at New York University, examines how people whose jobs are typically "stigmatized" (low-level, menial positions) make meaning of their work. People, she said, experience their work differently. Some see what they do for a living as just a job, others view it as a career and the rest think of it as a calling.

Her research found that people who saw their job as a calling--one-third of the respondents--worked more hours, missed less work and reported higher life satisfaction than others doing similar work.

"You'd think that those who reported higher satisfaction," she said, "would have jobs associated with doing more interesting work. But when we looked closer, this was not so. These were all administrative assistants working in the same organization....It made you think: How can people doing the same work, sitting next to each other in the same organization, think so differently about their jobs?"

Wrzesniewski conducted another study to find out. She talked to hospital maintenance employees to find out what their job requires them to do. Those who saw their job as a calling, "talked about it in glowing terms, they liked what they did and described it as needing a lot of skill. They not only talked about cleaning public areas, but also about cleaning in such a way as to allow more effective running of their units...making it as smooth as possible for patients."

Those who saw their job as just a job, on their other hand, saw their work as being simple and involving no skills.

Her conclusion: People can actively shape the meaning of their work by "job crafting--devising more creative ways to do the work."

Freedom of choice

Scientists are also focusing on what personal experiences make people feel stronger and happier. A study looking at the effect proliferation of choices has had on people's lives shows that the more choices people have, the more miserable they become.

Barry Schwartz, PhD, a professor in the psychology department at Swarthmore College, said that people feel overwhelmed when given too many options. To illustrate his point, he told a story about how he was assaulted by a dozen choices of jeans when he went to the Gap to buy pants.

"I finally said, 'I want the kind of jeans that used to be the only kind.' Buying a pair of jeans should not be a day long project....Excess choice leads to unfreedom."

People with jobs who are always "keeping their eyes out" for other jobs, he says, tend to be more anxious and less happy. Why?

"It's a satisfaction treadmill. The more options we have available, the more we think that another option out there is perfect. With so many choices, there is no excuse for failure. And when it happens, the fault lies with you. This detracts from the satisfaction derived from the choices you make and contributes to the clinical depression we are seeing in America."

People who tend to check out all the options, a category he calls "maximizers," tend to ultimately question whether they've made the right choice and later regret their choices. Studies show, he said, that people report higher rate of satisfaction when choosing items that have fewer choices. In colleges, he said, students wrote better essays when given fewer subjects to choose from. The task positive psychologists face, he said, "is to make people aware of this darker side to the proliferation of choices we face, then figure out a way to make the choice questions more manageable."

Just a start

Though the researchers are excited about their findings, they admit that positive psychology is still in its infancy. Many speakers also hesitated to elaborate on how the research can be applied in a clinical setting.

"I'm not yet concerned with application," Seligman says. "I'm concerned with building on concrete, getting the basic science down. I don't want to make the same mistake which I think has been almost lethal in clinical, making application claims that far outstrip the science."

But Seligman did say that positive psychology will likely help patients undergoing therapy. "What we do in the clinical is identify and nurture strengths of our clients, emphasizing the building of strengths, not only the repairing of weaknesses."

It's important, nonetheless, he says, that this movement start with the basic science.

"I'm interested in supporting the science from which solid applications will come."

Marcela Kogan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md.

Positive steps

Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, brought the field of positive psychology into the national spotlight during his APA presidency. Since then, several positive psychology initiatives have been put in place:

  • The Templeton Prize, the largest in psychology, for the best research in positive psychology by midcareer scientists.

  • The Young Scholars Awards, which will give numerous $10,000 grants to young investigators.

  • A Positive Psychology Network, joining scores of scientists together to do research on what makes life worth living.

  • A task force on Teaching Positive Psychology, which has developed a full curriculum for high schools.

  • A summer institute in 2001 and in 2002 for selected advanced graduate students, postdoctoral students and new assistant professors researching positive psychology.

  • A yearly meeting in the Yucatan of 30 midcareer investigators.