Home All Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society: Afternoon 1

Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society: Afternoon 1

written by Kathryn Britton 30 January 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

This is the second article about the conference at Claremont Graduate University on January 24, 2009 around the two questions, What works in positive social sciences? How can we influence social change for the betterment of society? The morning sessions had covered the foundations of positive psychology. The afternoon sessions covered applications. The sessions on physical health, education, and mentoring are described in this article along with a review of Mind and Evolution by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The final article in this series will cover the afternoon sessions on organizational life, and business along with end-of-day panel with afternoon presenters where participants were asked to give their parting shots. Videotapes of the conference are also available.

Shelley Taylor presented How Positive Psychosocial Resources Enhance Health and Well-being. Psychosocial resources have been tied to lower biological responses to stress. She reviewed several studies that showed connections such as psychosocial resources leading to greater pre-frontal cortex activity leading to lower amygdala activity leading to lower cortisol levels. She posed the question, Can psychosocial resources be learned? Her answer involved engineering one’s social environment to be low in stress and high in social support, which can turn off the expression of genes involved in negative responses to stress. She pointed to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want for ways to engineer one’s social environment, and suggested getting help for example through cognitive behavioral therapy if needed.

Hans Henrik Knoop‘s presentation, Positive-Psychology-Inspired Teaching in Public Schools, opened with the comment that everybody tends to lose energy in schools — teachers as well as students. So what can positive psychology offer? He started by discussing complexity, the state between total order and chaos where creativity is high. Schools need both stability and aspiration for wonder. Nature is full of complexity — fractals where zooming in does not reduce complexity — while human endeavors rarely have that property. Architects had asked him how to create a perfect classroom. He responded, Make it a place where people want to hang out — a place with variety, color, interest. He showed the figure below:Knoop model
He also talked about finding the right balance between the demands of learning and the desire to learn. The demands of learning represented in the curriculum come from politics and the economy, and provide meaning to education: Your learning matters. However they can squelch the desire to learn, especially when delivered with the protestant work ethic: It has to hurt if it’s going to work. Effective teachers combine knowledge of their disciplines with relationship and leadership skills and find a balance between pedagogical differentiation through individual strengths and pedagogical integration. He talked about Plan B, TV show on Danish television, where 9 8th graders who couldn’t read learned how. Like Bandura’s serial dramas, this show had high viewer ratings. I didn’t catch what impact it has had on viewer behavior.

Jeanne Nakamura‘s talk was called Contexts of Positive Development in Adulthood. Positive psychology today is unified by focuses on the positive and on human agency and is headed toward increasing attention to context — good schools, happy families, positive relationships at work. She is interested in the diversity of developmental psychology and how positive conditions can lead to both negative and positive outcomes, as can negative conditions. She talked about this in terms of the impact of mentors on professional development. Young scientists described positive mentors as inspiring, “Pushed me to the limit,” “Helped me get started.” Negative mentors undercut their work, screamed at them, or told them “It doesn’t matter what you do, you won’t impress me.” Outcomes varied as shown below:

Mentor outcomes

Nakamura also talked about the Good Work interview study with a focus on how mentors create contexts for development consisting of the dyadic relationship, a social network, and a meme pool reflecting specialized knowledge and the mentor’s values. The young professional also has a major role — to select a mentor, select some of the mentor’s memes, observe, emulate, synthesize multiple influences, handle negative conditions, and initiate informal encounters. She concluded that we need to be thinking about “the positive” in a more differentiated way.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
gave the last presentation of the day called Mind and Evolution. He described various points of human evolution in terms of gains and what we were liberated from:

  • 2 million years BCE: Learning, liberation from genetically determined behavior
  • 1 MY BCE: Shared experience, knowledge mediated by tools, memes shaping behavior, liberation from limitations of our own experience
  • 50,000 BCE: Language, expanded transmission of memes, liberation from terror of death
  • 10,000 BCE: Urban revolution, information shared across occupations and ethnic cultures, liberation from tribal determinism, start of individuality
  • 5000 BCE: Encoded information, memes codified in writing, proto-science, liberation from limits of memory, start of idea of progress
  • 1400 BCE: Appearance of great religions all over the world, bridges to supreme power, start of belief in human primacy
  • 1900 CE: Apogee of belief in human primacy, liberation from restraints leading to sense of hubris and entitlement
  • 1900-2000 CE: 2 senseless world wars, irrational ideologies, liberation from self-serving illusions of superiority leading to nihilism and despair. Optimistic view: We’d outgrown superiority.

His dream for positive psychology – Instead of pursuing our own needs and those of our ethnic or religious groups, we’ll start looking at needs of the whole system. Positive psychology can build on memes of the past — e.g., the Buddhist 8-fold path, mindfulness, and savoring. They knew things that people had forgotten.



Hooker, C., Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The group as mentor: Social capital and the systems model of creativity. In P. B. Paulus & B. A. Nijstad, Bernard A., Group Creativity: Innovation through Collaboration, pp. 225-244. New York: Oxford University Press.

Knoop, H. H. (2008). Wise creativity and creative wisdom. In A. Craft, H. Gardner, & G. Claxton, Creativity, Wisdom, and Trusteeship: Exploring the Role of Education, (pp. 119-132). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Corwin Press.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Nakamura, J. (2007). Practicing Responsibility. In H. Gardner, Responsibility at Work: How Leading Professionals Act (or Don’t Act) Responsibly, pp. 285-310. San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.

Nakamura J., Shernoff, D., & Hooker, C. (2009). Good Mentoring: Fostering Excellent Practice in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, S. E. (2006). Bridging social psychology: Benefits of transdisciplinary approaches. In P. Van Lange, Bridging Social Psychology: Benefits of Transdisciplinary Approaches, pp. 313-317. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Taylor, S. E., Burklund, L. J., Eisenberger, N. I., Lehman, B. J., Hilmert, C. J. & Lieberman, M. D. (2008). Neural bases of moderation of cortisol stress responses by psychosocial resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 197-211.

Taylor, S. E., Way, B. M., Welch, W. T., Hilmert, C. J. , Lehman, B. J. & Eisenberger, N. I. (2006). Early Family Environment, Current Adversity, the Serotonin Transporter Promoter Polymorphism, and Depressive Symptomatology. Biological Psychiatry, 60(7), 671-676.

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