The 5th European Positive Psychology Conference took place this week in Copenhagen, Denmark on June 23-26 2010. This article covers June 23 and June 24.
Hans Henrik Knoop (Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Aarhus, Denmark) opened the conference on Wednesday 23rd June by inviting delegates to engage critically with the science about to be presented. He encouraged people to be open to new evidence, ideas and theories, and at the same time, to be critical. This is the way that greater scientific understanding is developed. Positive Psychology is not always welcomed by everyone with open arms, and some question the idea of optimal human functioning. What does it mean, in reality? Various answers to this fundamental question would be provided during the conference.
Knoop also asked us to reflect on the ambivalence inherent in the idea of happiness: that it is a simple notion, yet at the same time a complex one and not easy to pin down. Simplicity appeals to our rational side, yet it may not always be good for us. He used a photo of the beautiful harbor waterfront as an illustration – it’s complex, no two buildings look the same, yet it fits together and appeals to our emotional side. People prefer to live and work in houses like these, rather than in soulless modern apartments or hotels.
Antonella Delle Fave (Professor of Psychology at the Faculty of Medicine, Milan University and President of the European Network of Positive Psychology) gave an opening address, in which she invited us to use the three days to question our understanding of Positive Psychology theory and application. She then pointed out some areas of Positive Psychology that still need to further exploration:
- Different cultural definitions of well-being, in particular the differences between East and West. According to Delle Fave, the majority of us working in the field of Positive Psychology interpret happiness and well-being from the Western perspective yet this isn’t the only way. Recent research from Delle Fave and colleagues suggests that happiness is interpreted by many as inner harmony and balance, yet these concepts don’t feature strongly in popular Western definitions of well-being.
- Similarly, we cannot just rely on quantitative measurements. For example our experience of flow depends in part on cultural values. Italians experience most flow during leisure activities, whereas Ugandans and Nepalese experience flow most often during study. So to properly understand well-being in all its forms, we need to further explore the meaning and value that people attach to different activities and life conditions through open-ended questions.
Lars Qvortrup (Dean of the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University) focused his opening address on the similarities between education and Positive Psychology. In theory, the definition of Positive Psychology as described by Linley and colleagues, “… well-springs, processes and mechanisms that lead to desirable outcomes” works well as a definition of pedagogy and teaching. The reality, he said, is rather different. In Denmark, for example, between 20-25% of the education budget is actually spent on treating and supporting children who have been excluded from school, and it is up to ‘psychology as usual’ to solve this problem. Additionally parents know that they can get better services for their children if their children are diagnosed with problems. Thus the whole school system is geared towards identifying and managing dysfunction. So in practice, Qvortrup suggested, teaching and Positive Psychology have very little in common. He invited people to reflect on the very clear differences between theory and practice during the conference, and to find ways of bringing them closer together.Qvortrup invited delegates to be critical during the conference since in this way wisdom is created. Using philosopher Michel Serres’ metaphor, he said that learning is not about going from one side of the river to the other, from a state of not knowing to knowing. It’s about creating a new, third position in the middle of the river, from which you can look afresh with new perspectives on both sides.
Thursday 24th June
Corey Keyes, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology at Emory University, USA, stated that treating mental illness using medication and psychology as usual has its role, but it’s not sufficient on its own to halt the extraordinary increase in mental disorders reported in the Western world or to enable people to flourish. Summing up the position using the words of Insel and Scolnick, “All current treatments for mental illness are palliative.” According to Keyes, our approach to ‘curing’ mental illness is itself a definition of madness: doing more of the same thing and expecting a different result. What we need is a completely different approach.
Using the health-disease continuum, Keyes made a very convincing argument that the absence of mental illness is not the same thing as the presence of mental health. We don’t even know what mental health means, he argued, and frequently we use the term mental health when we mean mental illness and vice versa.
Even if we accept that flourishing is more than the absence of languishing, it’s not that simple to agree how it can be achieved. Both the way we feel and the way we function contribute to flourishing, yet there is a paradox. Changes which lead to personal growth and higher eudaimonic well-being do not necessarily lead to more positive emotions. Personal growth takes effort, so higher functioning might in reality be accompanied by lower feeling. How do we reconcile these two opposing ideas in one model of well-being or one model of mental health? Many studies confirm that mental health is more than the absence of illness. Keyes argued that twin studies provide evidence that there is a genetic basis for this “dual continuum” approach. Important implications include that the presence of mental health or flourishing reduces the risk factors for mental illness.
Keynote 2: How Positive Emotions Work, and Why
Barbara Fredrickson Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, acknowledged that some people are critical of any focus on positive emotions when there are so many other major global concerns: war, climate change, economic crisis, BP oil disaster, and the obesity epidemic. She then presented a compelling argument for taking positive emotions seriously:
- Positivity opens us, changing our perceptual horizons. Recent brain imaging research shows that the perception of people in a neutral or negative state is focused in on one area, whereas people in a positive state have a broadened focus. The implications of this are as follows:
- We can see many possibilities.
- We’re more creative.
- We’re more resilient.
- We perform better.
- Medics make better decisions.
- There is more “oneness” i.e. racial and cultural differences disappear.
- Trust increases.
- We make more ‘win/wiin’ negotiations.
Fredrickson argued that we need positive emotions to solve the global problems that we are currently experiencing.
- Positive emotions transform us for the better – they’re a source of nourishment for growth, like 5-a-day fruit and vegetables. Loving kindness meditation can increase positive emotions and build additional cognitive and social resources, as well as making us more resilient. Additionally meditation increases our Vagal Tone. The vagal nerve connects the brain to the heart and by increasing the level of resting Vagal Tone, we are better able to regulate our emotions, attention, and behavior, all of which are essential to our experience of high well-being.
- Positivity transforms our relationships: research from Sarah Algoe and colleagues suggests that expressing high quality appreciation to our partner can boost the relationship, whereas low quality appreciation makes no difference.
Moving from Description to Prescription:
- We need the 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions, but attention to negative emotions is still necessary.
- Don’t just try to be positive, but instead create a mindset of positivity, which Fredrickson described as being open to the present moment, appreciative, curious, kind, and real.
Insel, T.R. & Scolnick, E.M. Cure therapeutics and strategic prevention: Raising the bar mental for health research. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/publications/cure-therapeutics-and-strategic-prevention-raising-the-bar-for-mental-health-research.shtml
Linley, P.A., Joseph, S., Harrington, A., and Wood, A.M. (2006). Positive Psychology: past, present and (possible) future. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(1), 3-16