Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
“Realizing strengths, in my view, is the smallest thing that you can do to make the biggest difference.”
~ Alex Linley
Alex Linley is the Founder and Director of the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) and a Visiting Professor in Psychology at the University of Leicester. I first met Alex when he gave a speech in my positive psychology class in Aston Business School. I then helped with the 1st Applied Positive Psychology conference which was organized by him and CAPP. I have been impressed by Alex’s passion and commitment to promote and apply Positive Psychology to different settings, and I was very honored to have a chance to join CAPP as a founding member. Since he is the one who led me to the world of Positive Psychology, this interview has special meaning.
Timothy: Alex, I’m very happy to have this opportunity to do an interview with you. Shall we start with the moment when you became interested in positive psychology?
Alex: My interest in positive psychology has been there since the very beginning of the positive psychology movement. When I was an undergraduate in 1998-1999, I wrote an essay for the British Psychological Society Annual Student Writer Competition on how psychology was always focused on the negative and should also focus on the positive. I used as my focus the topic of post-traumatic growth, since I had read a lot of the broader literature on the positive change that could arise through suffering. When I showed this essay to one of my lecturers, he mentioned Seligman’s work to me, which had just started to introduce the idea of positive psychology.
I’m pleased to say that my essay won the competition, and “Transforming Psychology: The Example of Trauma” was published in July 2000 in The Psychologist, thereby providing one of my first major publications in positive psychology. Following this, Martin Seligman delivered the BPS Centenary Keynote address in Glasgow 2001 on the topic of positive psychology. Ilona Boniwell met him there. [Ilona and I] went on to establish the European Network for Positive Psychology (ENPP).
Timothy: After setting up ENPP, you then founded CAPP in 2006. What motivated you to set up CAPP and how was it established?
Alex: When I was a psychology academic at the University of Leicester (where I am now a Visiting Professor), I became increasingly interested in the applications of positive psychology, and increasingly frustrated by the fact that so often those important research findings sit in academic journals and don’t make it out into the wider world. The power and potential of positive psychology deserved better than this, and I took it upon myself to be one of the people who was going to do something about that.
Earlier in my life I ran my own business before entering the world of academia, so I have seen both sides of the commercial world and the academic world. I like elements of both and I dislike elements of both. The motivation for setting up CAPP came from this, in that I wanted to establish an organization that was research-based but not bureaucratic, and commercially-focused without being driven by profit. As such, CAPP is a not-for-profit organization that is focused on taking the research from positive psychology and applying it in real-life applications in the world, primarily in organizations and schools, whereby we can reach the widest number of people through what we do in Strengthening the World.
Timothy: Alex you mentioned Strengthening the World. It is also the mission of CAPP, isn’t it? Can you elaborate more on that, and how CAPP can achieve this grand mission?
Alex: Yes, Strengthening the World is about exactly that, in that our mission at CAPP is to help people throughout the world to realize their strengths. Of course, this is a grand mission, and some people might argue that it is too grand to be meaningful, but we disagree. With the reach of the Internet and the speed of dissemination of knowledge and practice in the modern world, there are lots of opportunities to make a difference. Hence, we focus on Strengthening the World in several major ways:
- Through our work in organizations, where we enable organizations to realize the strengths of their employees more, thereby delivering both individual and organizational benefits.
- Through our work in schools and the Celebrating Strengths program established by Jenny Fox Eades, which embeds strengths into the curriculum and life of the school and its members.
- Through our Flexible Learning program, which is led by Robert Biswas-Diener. With this, we are seeking to make positive psychology easily accessible to people through short distance learning courses, the first of which include Invitation to Positive Psychology (by Robert Biswas-Diener) and Positive Motivation (by Ken Sheldon).
- Through our publishing arm, CAPP Press, which has already published my book on strengths, Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others, and Jenny Fox Eades’ book, Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools.
- We are currently finalizing Realise2, our online strengths identification, assessment, and development tool, which will be the most powerful and far-reaching way in which we are Strengthening the World. Realise2 will enable people, anywhere in the world with an internet connection, to identify and develop their strengths. It will launch later this year, and we will keep people updated through our free monthly Positive Psychology Bulletin (subscribe at www.cappeu.org/bulletin.html)
Timothy: Yes, we must talk about your new publication in 2008: Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. I believe every PPND reader would be curious to know more about the book, particularly how we can apply our strengths in daily life.
Alex: The key thing about strengths is that they are energizing and authentic to us when we are using them. In my research with Reena Govindji, we have shown that using our strengths is associated with higher levels of subjective well-being and psychological well-being, even when controlling for self-esteem and self-efficacy.
From a humanistic psychology perspective, in Average to A+, I make the case as to how strengths are indicative of our actualizing tendency, which is the idea that, given the right environment, we all grow and develop in the directions that are right for us. As such, applying strengths in our daily lives is very much about identifying what our strengths might be and finding opportunities to use them more effectively – as long as we do this appropriately!
Importantly, advice about “use your strengths more” is usually not nuanced by a recognition of the Aristotelian concept of the golden mean, which is about doing the right thing, in the right amount, in the right way, and at the right time. This concept of the golden mean is central to optimal strengths use. As such, developing and utilizing our strengths is not a one-size-fits-all “use them more,” but rather a more nuanced understanding of how particular strengths can best be applied to particular situations, as I talk about in a recent article in Organisations and People with my colleague Laurence Lyons.
Timothy: Obviously you also applied the concept of strength to organizations practically, as CAPP is definitely a strength-based organization. How is it different from other organizations in general?
Alex: The essence of being a strengths-based organization is that we strive to realize people’s strengths in everything that we do. In practice, this means that we are very careful to recruit people for a match between their strengths and the strengths we need; that we then develop them and their contribution through these strengths; and that we allocate roles and responsibilities according to the strengths that people have. In everything we do, we are focused explicitly on how we can use people’s strengths more, for the simple reason that this brings a host of benefits, both to us as individuals and to CAPP as an organization. Of course, this is what we also work on with our organizational clients.
Timothy: Very insightful! So up to now, we can realize how “strength” is important to positive psychology: to individuals as well as to organizations. Is it also your favorite concept in positive psychology?
Alex: I guess it won’t come as a surprise, given my book and the focus of my work, that strengths are my favorite concepts in positive psychology. As a single construct, strengths have so many positive implications, and as I argue, realizing them is the smallest thing to make the biggest difference.
Further, there are so many individual strengths to consider that I never get bored working with them, and at a higher level, the strengths approach more generally provides such a meaningful and worthwhile approach to life – across so many areas – that it is a hugely powerful and influential concept. It’s for all of these reasons that strengths are my favorite concept in positive psychology, and of course these are the reasons why CAPP is tasked with the mission of Strengthening the World.
Timothy: Alex, I am interested to ask, if people could do only one thing to improve their lives based on positive psychology research, what would you recommend to our readers to conclude the first part of the interview?
Alex: Again, realising strengths, in my view, is the smallest thing that you can do to make the biggest difference. As such, I would recommend that people understand their strengths and look to use them optimally across every area of their lives.
This means understanding what different situations require from you, and how your strengths can best be deployed in that situation. It also means recognizing that sometimes you will need to use a strength more, and sometimes actually to use it less – the golden mean once again – that is, doing the right thing, to the right amount, in the right way and at the right time. To get this right, Aristotle argued, we need to exercise phronesis, or practical wisdom. So, using strengths with the exercise of practical wisdom is, in my view, the one thing that people could do from positive psychology research that would be the smallest thing to make the biggest difference to their lives. Understand your strengths and your situation, and then use your strengths appropriately.
This interview with Alex Linley is Part 1 of 2.
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there.” ~ Marcus Aurelius
Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.
Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: Capp Press.