The following article presents further highlights from the 5th European Conference on Positive Psychology in Copenhagen, Denmark for Friday, June 25, 2010.
Keynote 1: Occupational Health Psychology: A European Perspective
Wilmar Schaufeli, Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, described the deficit model as it currently plays out in the occupational health psychology field. Many times more journal articles are published that focus on the negative than those that focus on the positive. It’s time to change that, said Schaufeli, and create something called Positive Occupational Health Psychology. We need scientific research to answer the question, “Are the factors that allow individuals to thrive the same ones that allow organizations to thrive?”
In organizations, it is simply not enough to have employees who are OK; they need to be able and willing to go that extra mile — they need to be fully engaged. But what does employee engagement mean in practice? Is it really the case that highly-engaged employees are good for the organization? Schaufeli’s definition of employee engagement is “a positive motivational state characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.”
- Vigor: high levels of energy and resilience, willingness to invest effort, persistence, not being easily fatigued
- Dedication: strong involvement characterized by feelings of enthusiasm and significance and a sense of pride and inspiration
- Absorption: a pleasant state of total immersion in one’s job characterized by time passing quickly and being unable to detach oneself from the job
Engaged workers are motivated, present, and pay off
How does engagement differ from workaholism? Engaged workers actually like their jobs (approach motivation), whereas workaholics work to avoid the stress and feelings of guilt and uselessness which accompany not working (avoidance motivation).
Engagement is good for the organization, producing the following good business outcomes:
- Greater discretionary effort – engaged workers do more than their job requires
- Less sickness
- Lower staff turnover
- Increased profitability
- Increased productivity
- Increased sales
- Greater customer loyalty
Engagement is contagious. The level of engagement of the existing workforce can affect that of new employees, and teachers’ engagement can affect their pupils’ engagement (for better or worse).
- Self-assessment and regular monitoring, enabling employees to get regular feedback on engagement levels, for example through completing online questionnaires
- Goal-setting and motivation e.g. coaching them to pursue challenging SMART goals which are also Inspiring, Exclusive, and Self-concordant (aka SMARTIES!)
- Increasing positive emotions through acts of kindness, showing gratitude, sharing good news, savoring and so on.
Organizational strategies to increase engagement in the workplace include
- Job redesign: creating challenging jobs which use skills effectively
- Leadership e.g. developing trust, confidence and fairness, and fostering transformational leadership
- Training: developing self-efficacy, and creating value fit
- Career development: keeping the job challenging
Keynote 2: Organizing for meaningful engagement: an open and skeptical view on Denmark
Hans Henrik Knoop, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Aarhus, Denmark, examined engagement at work from the wider context of organization and society, focusing on themes such as complexity and the need to balance competing external forces and internal drives within a systemic perspective. Living organisms are spontaneously self-organizing systems. Challenges from the external environment can either irritate or engage us, but we can choose our response. Thus well-being is linked to our ability to respond effectively when faced with unfavorable or threatening conditions.
While psychology generally may encourage us to focus on individual well-being, we operate within a wider system of society. Systems operate more efficiently if they are aligned. How does this idea play out if we take Denmark and the Danes as the example? The Danes are a very fortunate people in that they have very high levels of material wealth and access to information, and they live in a country which has a low level of corruption, a high level of social trust, a high level of economic equality, and a high level of happiness. Of course, this has not been achieved without a great deal of hard work from all Danish citizens, to say nothing of 55% income tax. According to Knoop, we need to ask ourselves how to use our knowledge of positive psychology and systems theory to find the right balance between freedom and equality such that we can continue to generate high, sustainable well-being for all.
There is a significant emphasis within Danish society on ensuring that every student, whatever age, has equal access to education. Teachers readily assume the responsibility of finding out what motivates each individual intrinsically, and encouraging the desire to learn throughout their lives. This is a very successful strategy – it is obvious when you talk to Danish citizens; children or adults exude confidence and self-efficacy. Danes are willing to go on learning, like a container which expands the more you put into it.
Danish education is not done for education’s sake. It is founded on the belief that the whole of society benefits if every individual member is motivated to learn, since in learning they will acquire the knowledge, skills, and experience to be able to meet external challenges. Knoop’s call to action is to use our knowledge of positive psychology to ensure that everyone is intrinsically motivated and meaningfully engaged at a level beyond the immediate self. The society-level benefits of doing this, such as high social trust and high well-being so evident in Denmark, can thus be created to benefit the citizens of other societies across the globe.
Invited Speech: The Seriousness and Fun about Humor
Willibald Ruch, Professor of Psychology at University of Zurich, Switzerland, researches the psychology of humor including comedy, amusement, laughter, nonsense, wit, and smiling. He presented a comprehensive history of the development of humor from its original meanings of ‘fluid’ and ‘temperament’ to more recent definitions of defense mechanism and personality trait, to the positive psychology-influenced definition of humor as a strength.
We know that humor as character strength is highly correlated with life satisfaction. The questions to consider are whether it is possible to increase one’s humor, for example through training, and if so, will it increase one’s life satisfaction? A study carried out by Ruch with colleagues Sandra Rusch and Heidi Stolz (in press) suggests that people can learn humor and that humor increases life satisfaction, rather than vice versa.
Writing a Humor Diary
In a double-blind placebo controlled internet study of 680 people (unpublished), one of the conditions was to write a humor diary modeled on the gratitude diary intervention. People were asked to write down the three funniest things which happened to them that day. This intervention increased life satisfaction and decreased depression and still had an effect three months later.
Part 3 will discuss talks by Professor Ruut Veenhoven (The Netherlands) on Why the Danes are Happier than the Dutch, and by Professor Alex Linley (UK) on The Future of Positive Psychology: Promises and Perils.
Further information on employee engagement including a 49-page list of further literature on work engagement and links to Schaufeli’s research (at the latest count, 333 articles).
All speakers’ photos from their websites