Giselle Nicholson Timmerman, MAPP '06, has over nine years of experience working as a strategy consultant and leadership coach in the Americas, Europe, and Middle East. Giselle has pioneered the application of positive psychology to strategy, leadership, and organizations. She has seen the field develop firsthand and is fortunate to collaborate with the very best practitioners in the world via her collaborative consultant network, Positive Work. Giselle serves as President-elect of the Work Division for the International Positive Psychology Association. Full bio. Giselle's articles are here.
I’m ecstatic! I look around and feel like positive psychology is everywhere! I’m thrilled that The Economist is exploring what role the market has for our personal happiness and how the New York Times explains the practical application of positive psychology. But then something causes me to wonder, what’s missing?
Essentially, it is the more than four billion people at the bottom of the pyramid (those who earn less than $2 USD per day) that aren’t being directly exposed to positive psychology like most of us are. We are so fortunate to have access to so much information that can make our lives happier, more meaningful, and more fulfilling. However, when we explain how to improve goal-setting, increase employee engagement, or practice gratitude, are we really expecting those who live their lives surviving day-to-day to care about these positive interventions? Why not? Wouldn’t they benefit from positive psychology?
There’s no doubt that positive interventions can remarkably change people’s lives, so what happens when those who are less fortunate than us are able to have the same opportunity to change their lives? It’s more challenging to study and measure, but I think that our next big step is to explore the profound potential that positive psychology has for the lives of those who probably aren’t frequenting websites like this one.
Much of the current surge of media interest in positive psychology stems from the marriage of economics and psychology. Researchers are captaining the effort to examine how subjective well-being fits into our political estimations and policy evaluations of how to assess the well-being of a society. Happiness is a construct that is difficult to measure, but measures of subjective well-being are valid and reliable.
The Gallup Organization has taken the helm and is measuring the well-being and overall status of a representative sample of 95% of the world’s adult citizens over the next 100 years. The European Social Survey has also started incorporating measures of well-being and other positive psychology-like measures into its biennial survey that covers over twenty nations. The New Economics Foundation has even made something called the Happy Planet Index, which is an index of human well-being and environmental impact.
Positive psychology research has primarily focused on the West and thus lacks studies in countries where subjective well-being is low and tends to ignore low-income economies. Ed Diener and his son Robert Biswas-Diener have been pioneers in the study of well-being across cultures. More research will not only benefit those in developing countries, but exploring subjective well-being around the world will likely add much value to our understanding of the various factors that influence the happiness of those in the West. As the ken of positive psychology widens its scope and becomes more commercialized, we must be cognizant of where it can do the most good for the most people.One example of how positive psychology could greatly widen its scope is to reexamine some empirical findings. Researchers have empirically verified that income makes little to no difference to subjective well-being once a person makes $50,000 USD. We can take that empirical statement and ask ourselves, “What kind of difference does an increase in income make to those who earn under $50,000 per year?” Not only could this question tease apart the significant relationship between income and well-being for those at the bottom of the pyramid, but it would also help those of us at the top to better understand where and how happiness is found. The relationship between money and happiness has to be thought about at all levels of income.
Furthermore, positive psychology has made leaps and bounds in understanding how education is tied to well-being. It’s phenomenal that the Geelong Grammar School in Australia is incorporating positive psychology into its curriculum. This will undoubtedly have a significant impact on how these students will develop and impact the world. But how about Oprah’s new Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa? Imagine if positive psychology principles were incorporated into this school from its inception. Moreover, what are these emerging female leaders in developing countries going to teach us about leadership?
These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about lately and enjoy researching. As positive psychology globalizes we must be conscious that it doesn’t obfuscate and exclude certain people. I look forward to exploring just how much influence the vox populi has on the application of positive psychology around the world and how new endeavors will concern the voices that aren’t being heard.