While it is a textbook crammed full with research, measurement tools, and further resources, it’s both accessible and engaging, so it will also appeal to the serious positive psychology enthusiast, someone who wants or needs to know about the latest developments in the field but who isn’t studying the subject formally.
Book Review – Kate Hefferon & Ilona Boniwell (2011) Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications. Open University. McGraw-Hill.
A great deal of care has gone into how this book is organized. It’s divided into 11 chapters to support a 12 week teaching module with a one week reading break. Each chapter starts with learning objectives to direct the reader’s thinking and learning, a list of the topics covered, and suggestions for essay questions. Most topics are explored in considerable depth, starting with definitions of terms followed by supporting research, which includes both seminal works as well as many lesser-known but equally relevant studies, combined with critique and/or countervailing ideas from other branches of psychology.
The basics of positive psychology are examined first, such as positive emotions, emotional intelligence, happiness, subjective well-being, flow, optimism, resilience, self-determination theory, meaning, mindsets, and strengths, followed by less common (and in my view equally important) topics, for example national and global well-being, the positive body, positive change, time perspectives, and a review of positive psychology applications in professional contexts, such as education, coaching, and psychotherapy.
Two Valuable Qualities
Aside from the opportunity to explore some original subject matter, there are two things I particularly valued in this book. The first is the critical eyes of the authors. Most topics are reviewed from more than one perspective and potential problems with theories and studies are often pointed out. This left me with the clear impression that positive psychology is still a science in its infancy, rather than a science which provides all the answers.
Second, I appreciated being encouraged to think for myself. The mock essay questions, the ‘Think about it’ boxes and the further questions at the end of each chapter are designed to get you thinking about the various topics and theories presented. They don’t come with suggested answers though, so depending on your reasons for reading the book, you may find this quite refreshing, or thoroughly frustrating.
The great strength of this approach is that Hefferon and Boniwell reflect the complexity and lack of certainty surrounding what we like to call the science of positive psychology. There are many perspectives which need to be taken into account.
It seems to me that this book plays well into the European scientific tradition of openly encouraging debate, discussion and controversy as a means of moving knowledge forward. I referred to this in my coverage of Hans Henrik Knoop’s opening address at the 5th European Conference on Positive Psychology in June 2010. Even though the great American researchers dominate, I think that Hefferon and Boniwell are very successful in flying the European positive psychology flag. Few topics escape without robust critical treatment, which in my experience of reading positive psychology literature, is pretty rare.
This book has many differentiating strengths, for example:
An original chapter on ‘The Positive Body’. One of the main criticisms of positive psychology often discussed on the UEL MAPP program was the complete absence of serious debate about the role of the physical. This chapter includes the five main components of a positive body: interpersonal touch, human sexual behavior, physical activity, nutrition, and physical pain. The role of the brain is also reviewed early in the book in relation to the development of affective style, although it doesn’t make an appearance in the later discussion about overcoming fixed mindsets.
- Its critical approach, absolutely necessary if you want to acquire a more advanced understanding of positive psychology. The only downside is that it may raise more questions than it answers.
- A solid, albeit brief, overview of the history of positive psychology and it connections with philosophy and humanistic psychology. Some texts gloss over this completely and it is helpful for students to have context, however I’m afraid reading the ‘Nikki story’ again made me roll my eyes.
- Being upfront about the paucity of empirically-validated interventions (yes, it’s true, there really are only about a dozen).
- A chapter focusing on national and global well-being, topics which are not often covered in any great detail by most positive psychology books.
- References to two subjects which positive psychologists typically shy away from: death and sex. The physical, emotional and psychological well-being benefits of engaging in sexual practices are relatively well-known though seldom aired in positive psychology circles. The discussion of ‘positive death’ is much more brief, but recognized as a “potential avenue for growth and development” (p. 86). Perhaps now that these important topics are out of the closet, they’ll be more visible in positive psychology conference agendas and research studies.
- The book’s style. It is very accessible, fun, and engaging, with a balance of evidence, challenge, and critique, together with (in my humble opinion) a very welcome absence of case studies.
Despite my high regard for this book, there were a couple of areas I thought could be further developed:
- The discussions on subjective well-being and global well-being. Here there’s an uncharacteristic lack of critique regarding Gallup’s approach to measuring well-being. In the same chapter, I think the UK’s own New Economics Foundation (NEF), and the work of Ruut Veenhoven (World Database of Happiness) for example, deserve a far greater role. An in-depth discussion about cultural differences within positive psychology would be the icing on the cake.
- The chapter on emotional intelligence is largely a description of various EI models, rather than a critical review of the concept.
- I wasn’t clear where the authors were going with their chapter on eudaimonic well-being. They covered many different psychological models, which to be fair, could be said to present an accurate illustration of the hotchpotch that is eudaimonic well-being. Despite a couple of paragraphs entitled ‘Integrating hedonic and eudaimonic well-being’ (p87) I finished the chapter feeling more confused than when I started.
- Finally, given the European background to this book, I was surprised not to see a mention of the contributions made by e.g. Michael Argyle (the UK’s first positive psychologist?), and Felicia Huppert and PPND’s own Timothy So at the Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge.
The overriding aims of authors Kate Hefferon and Ilona Boniwell are to provide a textbook which takes a critical and multi-disciplinary approach and to present the science of positive psychology warts ‘n’ all, its strengths and weaknesses laid bare. In my view they have been very successful. Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications is a highly enjoyable, educational, and engaging read, which I thoroughly recommend whether you’re a student, lecturer, practitioner or positive psychology enthusiast.
About the Authors
Kate Hefferon is a lecturer on the MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London, UK. Her interests lie within the areas of post-traumatic growth, physical activity, health, and well-being.
Ilona Boniwell is the Programme Leader and founder of the first MSc in Applied Positive Psychology in Europe, taught at the University of East London, UK.
Hefferon, K. & Boniwell, I. (2011). Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications. Paperback: Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press. Hardback: New York: McGraw Hill. Also available as an e-book.