Home All Caring and sharing in business: Do we practise what we preach?

Caring and sharing in business: Do we practise what we preach?

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 April 2008

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

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.


What works?

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

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

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Senia 27 April 2008 - 7:24 pm

Hi Bridget,

I think you’re speaking to one of the crux ideas that Marty Seligman mentioned last year at the Gallup Conference – that positive psychology is becoming positive social science – with overlaps with so many other disciplines.

I think that would be a great topic to study and research – and I bet Jeff Dustin on this list would agree with this – studying the topic of which of these interventions definitely work in the work-environment?

I mention Jeff because he often writes comments about motivation, and how can you measure motivation? And that’s especially interesting to me when it’s not one person’s motivation, but that of many.

Thanks for the springboard to interesting thoughts,

Jeff Dustin 28 April 2008 - 10:28 am

Bridget and Senia,

Motivation is chocolate. I can’t get enough of it. I like your spin on social science. Jon Haidt said that psychology studies people as if they were solitary bees in a cage. We are colony animals, so the social science of motivation brings a potentially rich source of intervention ideas.

Doesn’t everybody say jog with a dog, bring a buddy to the gym, work in pairs/groups on assignments? Again I see the art of motivation/persuasion/changing minds outpacing the science of the same. Calling PP applications which have a high degree of interobserver reliability “boosterism” is a mistake.

The 12 +/- PP interventions that are validated by double-blind studies are a great start. Kathryn B. had some thought provoking comments about application v. basic research. I think of it as the Art Versus the Science. For a superb example of why achieving happiness can never be a science, look at teaching.

Teachers might use a scientifically validated instrument, such as a criterion-referenced test, and try to gauge student achievement. Perhaps the children’s scores on a chart form a bell-curve or normal distribution. What caused *those* children at that time to have those scores? Due to time and budget constraints, the world may never know precisely. Teachers work with hypotheses and test them every day. They select from a palette of strategies to inform and inspire.

I believe that Grandma wasn’t a moron. Discounting PP techniques because they didn’t pass a double-blind study neglects the richness of human complexity. Inexpertly applying a scientific intervention might be worse than expertly applying a more traditional strategy. Besides, lots of what we call science started out as backyard inventors’ dreams and hobbyists’ leisure pursuits. The art outpaced the science. Granted you have to sift through superstition to find the gems, but even with that traditional techniques are a bargain. At the very least they are good for finding hypotheses.

I hope that made sense. It seemed clear enough to me.

Senia 28 April 2008 - 10:50 am

“Doesn’t everybody say jog with a dog, bring a buddy to the gym, work in pairs/groups on assignments?”
I like this.

Yes, I agree with all those.

Still – Jeff – and to take on the role of Devil’s Advocate, what about people who are perfectly happy being alone – should they force themselves into uncomfortable group situations?


Jeff Dustin 28 April 2008 - 2:15 pm


Supposedly there is research (i can’t remember where I read it) that says solitary lone wolf types are actually hpapier with others, despite their reclusive natures.

On the other hand, if you are perfectly happy, why change anything at all? In fact, it is only really the less than happy that want to become happier in the first place, the way I see it.

By the way, Senia, don’t you have a lot friends?

I do a lot of activities solo and find that them satisfying. I like to garden, woodwork, prune my fruit trees and bushes, stuff like that. For some reason, people want to do their own thing by themselves. Unless you had the right combination of personalities, maybe solo is better contextually.

Sherri 28 April 2008 - 9:03 pm

Hi, Bridget-

I love the open source idea. It is so “applied!”

1) How would you envision it in a particular work environment?
2) Do you have a pet intervention that you think would best exemplify the power of the approach?
3) Finally, what risks are there of this approach?

Love your out-of-the-box REapplication 🙂


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