One of the most exciting aspects of positive psychology is its scope for application – not only is it appropriate in therapy, counseling and coaching, it’s relevant in fields as diverse as architecture, design, art, economics, politics, business, linguistics, religion, education, philosophy …..It seems that the more you look for it, the more you’ll find it.
Individual vs. group application
With such a wide scope for potential application it seems incongruous that the science behind positive psychology has produced only a dozen or so validated interventions so far. This might be why positive psychology seems so much more applicable to (and acceptable in) therapy, coaching and other 1:1 situations, and why so many positive psychology books being published are targeted at the individual – For example, Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness.
As far as its application to groups, organizations and communities goes, the assumption is that if the individuals are thriving, so shall the wider group. Seligman was recently quoted in the New Zealand Herald as saying that positive psychology (and specifically those same validated interventions which increase individual meaning, engagement and positive emotion) “can quite easily be transferred to corporate life”.
Positive psychology lemmings?
This suggestion seems like common sense, yet there is little readily available empirical evidence to show that the application of the same interventions to groups of people (whether in businesses, schools , communities or other groups) will automatically lead to group flourishing.
In terms of individual vs. group well-being, is the whole always greater than the sum of the parts? A good example is the Losada line – we know that a ratio of positive to negative emotion of between 3:1 and 12:1 is an indication of flourishing, and that too much positive emotion (over 12:1) leads to disintegration. Could it be the case that too much trust or too much optimism (for instance) could be detrimental for an organization? By seeking to maximise the happiness or well-being of everyone in the group or organization, are we in danger of leading them, like lemmings, over the edge of the cliff?
Means vs. ends
In the same New Zealand Herald article, Seligman says that of the several hundred suggestions put forward for what makes a person happier, “Most … are just boosterism. What I try to do is extract the active ingredients and run random-assignment placebo-controlled tests on the different exercises and find which ones work and how long they work for.”
But it’s not just the means that need to be right, in the case of organizational or other group well-being we also need to decide in advance how the group outcome should be measured (e.g. increased productivity, trust, cohesion, profit, membership etc). And we need to be able to measure this outcome, and the increases or decreases in it, effectively.
In the case of the application to business particularly this leads us to a major difficulty – relatively few of the available empirically-validated interventions are inherently appealing to businesses. And once the intervention is modified to make it more acceptable, can one be sure that it retains its effectiveness?
Open Source Positive Psychology – a more effective approach
One potential solution to finding workable and effective organizational interventions is to adopt the same open source approach that is used for software development. (i.e. the basic principles of an organizational application are freely shared and available to be modified). Lopez and Kerr (2006) argue that we need to use this highly-successful IT model in order develop and disseminate effective strengths-based therapies; this is equally applicable to the development of suitable organizational interventions.
Most businesses are risk-averse; they like to know what has been effective for other businesses before they’re willing to dip their toes in the same water. By sharing our experience of what works in organizations (and what doesn’t), and by collaborating on developments and improvements to group interventions, positive psychologists stand to gain far more, and far more quickly, than by the individual ‘naming and claiming’ approach, which is increasingly common in business.
One of the biggest benefits of open source, according to Lopez and Kerr, is that interventions can be empirically tested much more quickly, and, because they belong to the many rather than the few, will continue to be refined and improved as new insights are gained. An open source approach is also eminently suitable for a discipline like positive psychology which has touch-points with so many other areas – there is nothing to stop positive psychologists collaborating, not only with each other, but with designers, economists, architects and lawyers (or indeed any other profession). In fact, in the interests of both individuals, communities and organizations, there is every reason to do so.
Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
Lopez, S. J. & Kerr, B.A (2006). An open source approach to creating positive psychological practice: A comment on Wong’s Strengths-centered Therapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 43(2), 147-150.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Scherer. K. (2008, April 21). Importance of happiness in the work-place. New Zealand Herald.
Images: 1) openDemocracy 2) dirk.ipernity.com