Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide is distinctly small, not much bigger than the size of my hand and lighter than a medium-sized sandwich.
That may seem like a strange way to start a review. But I find the book’s tiny size a great value. A book that is lighter than a sandwich can go anywhere with me. On my most recent flight, it fit in the side pouch of my purse. When I went to a shopping center to register voters yesterday, it fit easily in my jacket pocket, and I carried it around for 3 hours without finding it a burden.
So now that we’ve established that it’s an easy companion, what does it bring along? What’s the filling in the sandwich?
Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide is for people who want to put positive psychology to work in their own lives, or those of family members, clients, or colleagues. It contains 22 short chapters starting with What is happiness? and ending with Where next? In between appear all the usual suspects: savoring, resilience, gratitude, positive relationships, optimism, emotional intelligence, character strengths, mindfulness, mindsets, motivation, and so on. There are even chapters for nutrition and physical exercise, recognizing that a healthy body is part of positive psychology. The chapters are short and to the point, on average 9 pages long. They are written in accessible language for the lay reader, summarizing points made by leading researchers and illustrating topics with brief but believable stories. Each chapter ends with a section labeled Things to Remember that brings the main points of the chapter quickly back to mind.
How else might this book contribute to the practical application of positive psychology in everyday life?
Let Me Count the Ways …My children grew up in the heyday of Sesame Street, so in the back of my head I hear The Count chuckling as I recite these numbers characterizing what you’ll find in this book:
50 activities easily found in insets labeled Try it now! with an eye-catching star.
4 case studies in insets labeled with a magnifying glass, each a story of a particular individual applying one or more of the concepts in the book in a particular situation.
8 insets labeled Think about it! with a cartoon thought bubble, each containing serious questions to ponder, some accompanied by surprising facts.
2 insets labeled Useful tips with the image of a shining light bulb
16 pages of references including 150+ notes citing articles about research mentioned throughout the book, 11 references to books accessible to the lay reader, and 9 references to more heavyweight books for the adventurous
OK, so the last set of items aren’t actually IN the book. They appear in the online reference list for the book. This is a an interesting way to get the best of both paper and online publishing: keep the book light by not printing the references, but make them available online for the curious reader who wants to know where that concept came from.
Try it now!
The 50 activities are practical quick ways to incorporate the concepts of positive psychology into daily life. For example here’s part of one activity associating flow with everyday household chores:
Try it now!
Next time you’re faced with doing some household chores, set yourself the goal of making them into a flow activity. Typically this will mean finding ways to make the tasks more challenging.
Say today’s chore is to wash the car. Estimate how long you would normally spend doing this. Then set yourself the challenge of completing the activity, to the same high standard, with 10 minutes to spare.
Think about it!
I find the questions in the Think about it! insets stimulating, particularly when they are accompanied with surprising facts. To show you what I mean, I’ve included the complete section below from the chapter called Positive psychology of time:
Think About It!
Did you know that the total number of hours that the average British employee works in their lifetime has shrunk from 124,000 (in 1856) to 69,000 (in 1981)? This is even more astonishing when you consider that the average length of a career has not changed – it’s still about 40 years.
Research suggests that in 1870 the average British worker worked 2,994 hours per year. By 1938 this had decreased to 2,267 hours, and by 1987 it was only 1,557 hours.
During the same period of time, total non-work hours have increased from 118,000 in 1856 to 287,000 in 1981. Part of this increase in non-work hours is attributable to longer life expectancy, and therefore a greater number of non-work hours in retirement. Nevertheless it means that whilst we might think we’re working harder than ever, the figures don’t bear this out.
So, now that we have substantially more leisure time than at any point in our working history, what are we doing with this time, and are we putting it to good use?
At Positive Psychology News, we have been blessed with articles by Bridget Grenville-Cleave since 2007 when she was a student in the MAPP program at the University of East London. She has a wide range of interests and a healthy skepticism about what the research tells us. This little book that fits so easily into a pocket or purse is loaded with practical ideas and interesting questions. It would be a good read for someone who has never seen positive psychology, for someone who wants to make some incremental changes toward well-being, or for someone who wants to share ideas with family or close friends. A group might pick it up and work systematically through the Try it now! activities.
I’d start with the one on page 29, Three Ways to Be Good to Yourself.
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2012). Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide. Icon Books.
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2012) Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide. References