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

Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society: Morning

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.

Last Saturday, 24 January 2009, Claremont Graduate University hosted a conference titled Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society.  The moderator, Stewart Donaldson, Dean and Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, opened the day with a history of the event. While the original plans were to get 50 to 100 people together, early signs of interest prompted CGU to reserve a 625-person auditorium.  The auditorium became completely sold out, and CGU additionally organized a webcast with 150 participants. Participants were from USA, New Zealand, Estonia, Finland, Mexico, China, UK, Scotland, Australia, and other countries. Donaldson posed two questions: What works in positive social sciences? How can we influence social change for the betterment of society?

This article reports on the events of the morning, foundations of positive psychology. The afternoon summaries cover applications — first related to schools, health, and mentoring and then related to business and organizational life. Videotapes of the conference are also available.

Martin Seligman gave a brief prerecorded address discussing the past, present, and future of positive psychology, including his vision of positive physical health, positive neuroscience, positive social sciences such as economics and political science, and positive education.

Connie Rath presented the Clifton Strengths Prize to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in honor of his persistent study of flow, especially its application to adolescent education.
Ed Diener presented Happiness and Complete Wealth: Implications for Public Policy. He discussed well-being as a societal goal and why we need measures of well-being to shape public policy in addition to existing economic measures. Societies attend to what is measured. He showed the Robert Kennedy quotation about what the GDP does and does not measure — you can hear Bobby Kennedy giving that speech here. There is a two-way relationship between well-being and public policies that affect the environment, health, and work. For example, people make better decisions in green spaces, and reducing air pollution makes life satisfaction measures go up. He cited progress in his talks with various organizations about measuring well-being — the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Union, the US Center for Disease Control, Stats Canada, and the UN, which may adopt some of the Gallup measures. Here are some of his answers to the most common questions asked by skeptics, especially economists:

  • Why measure well-being? Because well-being measures include everybody — those who like mud wrestling as well as those who go to the ballet. Because well-being is beneficial to the effective functioning of societies. World spots with very low well-being measures tend to become trouble spots. Because life satisfaction is more highly correlated to life expectancy than either GDP per capita or Health expenditures. Because high levels of well-being lead to prosocial behaviors — volunteering, pro-peace attitudes, and cooperative attitudes.
  • Isn’t well-being just an individual matter? Well-being levels differ between societies. For example, 94% of the Danes are above 97% of the Togoese in well-being measures.
  • What contributes to well-being differences of societies? He cited the Gallup World Poll, which has interviewed over 300,000 people in 140 countries. In addition to material differences, differences in well-being are associated with social differences (whether people can count on others, perceptions of corruption, and frequency of assaults) and psychological differences (whether people feel free and have opportunities to learn and use talents).

Barbara Fredrickson’s talk was titled Using Positive Emotions to Enhance Human Flourishing. She reviewed research supporting her Broaden and Build and Undoing Theories. She commented that flourishing goes way beyond happiness — flourishing people add value to the world and bounce back more readily when faced with difficulties. She commented that changing emotional habits takes as much effort for prolonged periods as losing weight. Positivity transforms us, but it is not a matter of forcing ourselves to be positive by denying negative thoughts. Sincerity matters. She closed with an injunction to be open, appreciative, curious, kind, and real.

Nansook Park and Chris Peterson, who conducted a dialogue about Why Character Matters started with the celebration that Obama’s inaugural speech mentioned virtue and character strengths in practically every sentence. Character is personality morally evaluated. Their main points were that character strengths are

  • Plural and structured. Some strengths are more likely to co-occur than others, as shown in their circumplex model (published in A Positive Psychology Primer, p. 158).
  • Have a developmental trajectory across a life span. For example, gratitude shows up less frequently in very small children than it does in adults.
  • Are distributed sensibly across both geographies and occupations. In Richard Florida’s hot spots, curiosity, love of learning, appreciation of beauty, and creativity are higher than average, while gratitude, modesty, and perseverance are lower than average. Different occupations show different strength patterns.
  • Have important consequences: Love, hope, zest, gratitude, and curiosity are associated with well-being. Perseverance, love, and gratitude are associated with academic achievement. Teacher effectiveness is associated with zest, humor, and social intelligence. Resnick and Rosenheck have found that taking the VIA was effective intervention in a VA hospital recovery program. They also cited a study in Vermont looking for reduction of health care costs after teaching people the language of strengths
  • Are genetic but not entirely so. There is positive but modest convergence between strengths of parents and children, slightly higher for parents and children of the same gender
  • Are created or revealed by challenge. Strengths that are elevated in trauma survivors tend to be religiousness, gratitude, kindness, hope, and bravery
  • Can be taught.

CGU Morning Panel

Finally, here are some of the highlights of the panel session where the morning speakers answered questions from both audiences:

  • Critics refer to positive psychology as a short-lived fad, that it is nothing new. How do you answer that?
    • Various speakers referenced the research behind positive psychology — that it is not just old opinions but also research that tests the ideas. Some people are convinced by the weight of the data.
    • Diener commented that we need to listen to the criticisms and especially not make positive psychology a club of people who revolve around the same ideas. We need to remember the work by people in other fields.
    • Park commented that 10 years ago, she couldn’t interest her university in letting her teach positive psychology. Now they beg her to teach it. She also commented on Maslow’s differentiation between Safety Science and Growth Science. People participating in a Growth Science have to be willing to be proved wrong and correct their courses. There is also a danger that practitioners may get ahead of the science and lock into things that cannot be replicated.
  • What happens for people who aren’t drawn to positive emotions? Fredrickson commented that there is a wide range of positive and negative emotions — they should look for the ones that resonate with them.
  • What are the next frontiers?
    • Fredrickson: We are just beginning to understand how positive states affect physical states.
    • Diener: We need to explore more subtle directions, for example what are the impacts of different mixes of strengths in groups. Is there an optimal level of well-being in different jobs?
    • Park: We need to look at the outcomes with respect to different combinations of strengths, and we need to learn from the field what works.
  • What obstacles and criticisms have you faced?
    • Peterson: Colleagues used to find this work fluffy, but we’re changing that one study at a time.
    • Fredrickson: When one advocates for positive emotion, people hear an unintended attack on negative emotions. Also concerned about importance of sincerity, since we are all socialized to show insincere positive emotions. We need tests for the sincerity of feelings.
    • Park: Frequency of the question, What about weaknesses? Weaknesses are important, but working on strengths first tends to spill over and improve ways of dealing with weaknesses.

For on-the-spot coverage by Senia Maymin, check out the log of her twitter tweets during the day.



Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown Books.

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Sweeney, P. (2008). Group well-being: Morale from a positive psychology perspective. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57(Suppl 1), 19-36.

Peterson, C., Park, N., Pole, N., D’Andrea, W., & Seligman, M. (2008). Strengths of character and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21(2), 214-217.

Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. & Park, N. (2006). Character strengths in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(8), 1149-1154.

Peterson, C., Ruch, W., Beerman, U., Park, N. & Seligman, M. (2007). Strengths of character, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 149-156

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Resnick, S. & Rosenheck, R. (2006). Recovery and positive psychology: Parallel themes and potential synergies. Psychiatric Services, 57(1), 120-122.

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Daniel Brenton 30 January 2009 - 9:10 pm

This post was highlighted in the January 30 edition of Gratitude Watch.

Editor S.M. 31 January 2009 - 3:01 pm

Thanks, Daniel!


Editor K.H.B. 12 February 2009 - 3:23 pm

Just received from CGU: “In response to overwhelming demand, the entire conference has been posted online at http://www.cgu.edu/positivepsych

Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. 5 March 2009 - 1:45 pm


I attended this event as well and was delighted to meet some of the key players in positive psychology research.

Since retiring from community college teaching I became interested in writing a book on being happy. In the course of my research I discovered positive psychology and began reading the many books and articles in the field. At the conference I became aware that positive psychology is not just directed at individual well-being, but when applied to public policy could affect all parts of our lives from how buildings are designed to how we implement education, and even global peace.

I was encouraged and inspired by this conference, especially that it was held near me. Thanks for sharing your account of the day. I look forward to the next event.


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