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The Unhappy Positive Psychology Student?

written by Dan Collinson 25 November 2014
Laughing together

Dan Collinson, MAPP-Bucks, is a positive psychology researcher and practitioner, who has just finished his MAPP as part of the first cohort from Bucks New University. He is a strengths and talent consultant and coach, specializing in strengths spotting. He works with people to discover their strengths and to capitalize on them, so that people are more engaged and performing optimally at work. His current research is on strengths-based recruitment, especially for those with a disability/illness. Website. Full bio pending. Dan's articles for Positive Psychology News are here.

Having recently completed the dissertation for my MAPP program, I can now reflect on the final few weeks before my submission. I felt pressured, had a drop in my well-being, and struggled to get into flow. Worse still, I wasn’t great company to be around. I was often lost in my own thoughts, mainly about what I still needed to do. I wasn’t very talkative since struggling to put a sentence together seemed to take creativity I didn’t have left over.

I thought to myself, as a student and researcher of positive psychology, how could I be unhappy and not flourishing?

At least I wasn’t languishing.

With the benefit of reflection, I can now see that areas of positive psychology at least played a part in preventing me from languishing. Keyes suggested that there could be a continuum of mental health, from the full presence of mental health called flourishing to the complete absence of mental health called languishing. In the effort to complete my dissertation I may not have been fully flourishing, but I certainly wasn’t languishing.

What kept me from dipping into languishing? I displayed hope that I would finish the dissertation to the standard I wanted and resilience to withstand the pressure of completing a major project while holding down a full-time job and having a family.

Additionally, I realized that my strengths kept me from languishing too. Humor helped to alleviate stress from spiraling out of control, gratitude enabled me to appreciate the good things in my life, and perspective helped me remember what I wanted to achieve with my dissertation.

The Role of Hope

Snyder defined hope as the combination of mental willpower and strategies that one pulls together in order to reach one’s goals. Willpower may be related to the strength of persistence from CAPP’s Realise2 classification of strengths, whereby a person can keep going to ensure that a goal is achieved despite challenges.

Writer's block

Writer’s block

For me, the challenges were

  • Time: both meeting the deadline and fitting the dissertation into my life. I had recently started a new job and was required to travel all over the country, often at short notice. This made fitting in time for the dissertation even more difficult.
  • Finding the inspiration to break through the writer’s block. I often struggle to put down on paper what is in my head. So it wasn’t just writer’s block that I came up against, but also the fact that I’m not adept at writing long assignments.
  • Finding meaning in my research results. My goal was to enable salespeople to perform effectively in their roles by discovering and applying their strengths appropriately. I wanted to create a strengths-based selling process.

Even though at times I doubted myself and my ability to complete the dissertation, my willpower to succeed with my goal won through, even though my strengths usually lie more in discussing things with others and taking physical action rather than writing by myself and paying attention to detail.

Strengths Supporting Willpower

To complement my willpower, I stayed focused on the end result that I wanted to achieve. I also used mindfulness and finding ways to apply my strengths.

Focusing on the end result motivated me to ensure that I made it become a reality.

The practice of mindfulness enabled me to quiet the conflicting thoughts in my head, thereby freeing me from writer’s block. This permitted me to become creative again and put pen to paper.

Finally, I thought about ways I could apply my strengths, in the appropriate context and measure, in order to overcome any issues and to complete my dissertation. I wrote down on a daily basis three strengths that I applied the previous day. This really helped to boost my well-being and support my determination to succeed. Here are some examples of the strengths I wrote down:

  • Strategic awareness to generate ideas for a new product with a director
  • Listening to notice what a client was really asking for and what colleagues were not aware of and reflecting the client’s requirements back to them
  • Using humor to make my colleagues laugh and relieve the tension in a meeting

So now I await the results of the dissertation in the knowledge that hope and resilience played a key role in helping me to prepare it for submission.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Keyes, C. L. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 207-222.

Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.

Linley, P. A., Willars, J. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). The Strengths Book: Be Confident, Be Successful, and Enjoy Better Relationships by Realising the Best of You.

Snyder, C. R. (1994). Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. NY: Free Press.

Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Rodale.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Mass of details courtesy of mararie
Writer’s block courtesy of Sharon Drummond
Laughing together courtesy of Reina Cañí

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Judy Krings 26 November 2014 - 2:05 pm

Big congrats, Dan, on enabling us all to ride along with you on your MAPP journey. What a great role model you are, ringing in your dissertation resilience. Your practical application no doubt will help others thrive. Good luck on your new job, too.

Dan Collinson 26 November 2014 - 3:22 pm

Thank you very much, Judy. Onwards and upwards!

Julián Sáez 26 November 2014 - 3:48 pm

Hi Dan!
Great article. You bring a very good point to consider.
Most of us believe that just because we are involved in Positive Psychology (reading, researching, practicing, sharing…etc)we are going to be happy.
This is one of the reasons why so many of us are passionate about Positive Psychology (it promises us that if we do this and that it is very likely that we will be happier). Like religions do (so it would not be surprising that many people will take Positive Psychology as a religion with Martin Seligman as it prophet :). I admire so hugely to Seligman!
But, that is the question, that if we don’t do the “this and that” explained by Positive Psychology then is difficult that we can feel happier.

And one of the keys to be happy is not to be stressed.
The situation you describe when preparing your dissertation is obviusly a stressed one.

And one of explanation that called my atention (I think is from a Seligman’s conference) is that there are some feelings that can not be on us at the same time. Two of them are fear and happiness.
When we are stressed we are fearful (so much to do, fear of not finishing on time…etc). So according to Positive Psychology it is difficult that we can be happy if we are stressed.

I think it is a good point in western society. Since it seems to me that living in America (or western Europe) is attached to live in stress.

So we can also find solution to this in Positive Psychology.

In can tell you what helps me:
– Mindfulnes (to practice meditation everyday).
I was specially motivated to do it after I red “The Happiness Hipotesis” from Haidt
– Spend loads of time in Nature.
– To orientate my carrer to job that I can do from home (10 times less stress that a work in the office).

Well…sorry for the long reply (but I’m Spanish 🙂 )

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 26 November 2014 - 8:57 pm

Dan – thank you for your honesty and insight! I also had a similar emotional roller coaster during my Penn MAPP program. It was a great first term, and then I was sick for two months (colds and flu and food poisoning and such) and then I was just tired of the travelling and when it came time for my Capstone writing, I felt alone and isolated because I missed my classmates and professors. It was a hard year on a number of fronts.

I remember once being stuck in the airport due to a snow storm and kvetching about it on Facebook. Some of my PP buddies posted that I should make the best of it, count my blessings and hold positive interventions at the gate. Well no – I just wanted to kvetch. We are, after all, human. 🙂

Even though I know a lot about the science of PP, I still get upset, impatient, angry. I still yell at my kids, snap at my husband, anguish about my boss. Studying PP doesn’t mean we know it all and can do it all. It just adds to what makes life worth living – and that’s the ups and the downs.

– Lisa

Judy Krings 27 November 2014 - 4:55 am

Thanks for your lovely, kind, and insightful comments that made me smile sitting here in MX still attempting to learn Spanish. This old dog is getting put to the learning test. I am game, but it tough. Your English is great.

Lisa, your up front response was like a cool drink of water from a desert oasis! I appreciate your honesty. Your perseverance is remarkable. I am always smiling when you tell-it-as-it-is. You honor all parts of life and learning and embrace the frustration. Good for you letting your realness shine. Life is not perfect, but you/we gather the WHOLENESS of it rather than try to be happy every second. Not that we love our warts and all, but to acknowledge our imperfections and grow with the awareness of them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Homaira 4 December 2014 - 12:42 am

Hi Dan,

I smiled as I read your article since I myself went through something very similar with my MAPP program, although it was just for an essay!

And I totally agree Lisa, that studying Positive Psychology doesn’t make us experts at handling all of life’s challenges without a frown on our faces! I think the greatest thing it provides us is insight and that in itself feels like openness and intricacy combined – to explore and discover.

I loved the article and felt warmed by our common humanity!


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