Home All Positive Psychology Road Trip: Summer 2015

Positive Psychology Road Trip: Summer 2015

written by Lisa Buksbaum 17 July 2015

Lisa Buksbaum, MAPP '13 is CEO & Founder of Soaringwords. She has shared positive interventions with more than 250,000 patients and families and 120,000 employee volunteers. Three experiences with death and illness in her family motivated her to launch Soaringwords, a non-profit organization devoted to inspiring ill children and their families to "Never give up!" Lisa's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

While most people spend months anticipating and savoring summer vacations, BBQs, and chill time, for thousands of passionate positive psychology practitioners, this summer was also time for the peak emotional experience of attending the International Positive Psychology Association’s Fourth World Congress in Orlando, Florida. From Thursday night, June 26 to Sunday afternoon, June 28, 1,200 attendees from around the globe stayed at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort where we feasted on 289 sessions including a number of outstanding plenary keynotes.

Throughout the Congress, a dazzling array of new scientific breakthroughs and research set off fireworks to rival those of the Magic Kingdom. This year’s Congress was characterized by speakers amplifying the VIA character strengths of Courage, Authenticity, Love of Learning, as well as pro-social community engagement.

Martin Seligman Challenges Learned Helplessness

To kick off the congress, Martin Seligman gave an opening plenary titled Unraveling Learned Helplessness: Fifty Years Later, in which he went from lab rats to big data. It was courageous for him to announce new findings based on rat brain studies from Steve Maier that suggest that his own theory of learned helplessness is NOT in fact correct. Maier found an area of the brain, the Dorsal Raphe Nucleus, that is linked to passivity. When the DRN circuit is inactivated experimentally, rats do not become helpless, even when shocked. When The DRN is activated even without shock, the rats become passive. Thus the DRN appears to be both necessary and suffient for producing the passive behaviors called learned helplessness.

The ventro medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in rats can selectively inhibit the DRN. Thus it appears to be necessary and sufficient to block passivity. Seligman referred to the connection between the VMPFC and the DRN as the hope circuit. This circuit is the locus of effect of much of positive psychology. If the circuit between the VMPFC and the DRN is blocked, rats will be passive even if they are able to escape. If this circuit robust, the rats persevere even after getting shocked. This circuit can be strengthened.

Based on Maier’s work, Seligman concludes that alleviating catastrophe can’t fix people. Instead it is important to work on building expectations of control and mastery, that is, building the hope circuit. This relates to building prospection, where people are guided by their internal representations of possible future states and are thus drawn into the future, rather looking back at the past. These findings have implications for a radical reformulation of education and therapy.

Cloud of words from a high well-being location

Cloud of words from a high well-being location

Seligman also gave a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a cutting-edge experiment using big data: the World Well Being Project by a large team of researchers including Johannes Eichstaedt at the University of Pennsylvania. Words culled from 75,000 opt-in respondents on Facebook are matched against a dictionary of PERMA words and their opposites to detect levels of well-being down to the zipcode level. (PERMA is defined in Seligman’s book, Flourish, and spelled out in many articles on this site.)

Seligman showed a number of word clouds from areas with high well-being, comparing them to those from areas with low well-being. For example, people in areas with high life satisfaction use the word “WE” more often, while people in areas with lower life satisfaction tend to use the word “I” much more. Seligman also illustrated that these findings reveal whether people live mostly in the past, the present, or the future.

Tal Ben-Shahar on the Growing Tip

Tal Ben-Shahar was the second opening night plenary speaker with a provocative, disarmingly simple, and brilliant talk titled Making Change Last. While Ben-Shahar acknowledged that we cannot exclude studying the average, he urged a new paradigm for happiness action based on Abraham Maslow’s Growing Tip concept:

Maslow: I have worked out a lot of good tricks for fending off professional attacks. We all have to do that. A good, controlled experiment is possible only when you already know a hell of a lot. If I’m a pioneer by choice and I go into the wilderness, how am I going to make careful experiments? If I tried to, I’d be a fool. I’m not against careful experiments. But rather, I’ve been working with what I call “growing tip” statistics.

With a tree, all the growth takes place at the growing tips. Humanity is exactly the same. All the growth takes place in the growing tip: among that one percent of the population. It’s made up of pioneers, the beginners. That’s where the action is.
    ~ Abraham Maslow interviewed by E. Hoffman

If we want to bring positive change into our lives, our families, and organizations, Ben-Shahar suggests focusing our attention on the growing tip by studying the best of what is and seeking to create more of it. He cited Carol Dweck for her work on growth mindsets, John Gottman for his focus on what goes right in excellent relationships, and Dan Buettner’studies of nine geographies where people live the longest, most thriving lives. What are they doing right? (Hint: it’s not a large bank account or status.)

Tom Rath, Are You Fully Charged?

Another highlight of the Congress was Tom Rath’s energizing plenary session: Are You Fully Charged? Rath is a force of nature with six best-selling books including Eat. Move. Sleep. Rath discussed findings from his latest book, Are You Fully Charged? Rath advocates for a dramatic and immediate change in language from the current state of “Disease Management Programs” and “Health-risk Appraisals” to a focus on “Well-being Initiatives” with an emphasis on small daily wins that yield meaningful progress. As a person who has been battling kidney and pancreatic cancer for many years, Rath knows first-hand the power of positive interventions to bolster health.

Only 11% respondents to studies reported in Are You Fully Charged? had a great deal of energy the day before. Four hours of sleep loss has as much impairment on functioning as drinking a six-pack of beer. While we experience roughly 19,200 moments a day (measured in three-second intervals) only 16% of the respondents reported having a positive interaction the day before.

His book, Eat Move Sleep reports that social relationships are the single best predictors of overall well-being. Time spent with friends, relatives and spouses ranked the top three while the bottom of the list included time spent with clients, colleagues and the boss. Citing workplace hypertension and the profound impact that one’s work environment has on physical health he noted that the quality of one’s manager at work is actually more significant than one’s doctor in determining health outcomes.

People tend to grossly underestimate the value of experiences over material possessions. Experiences have the added benefit of anticipation prior to the experience and savoring after the experience happened. In fact, frequency of vacations predicts well-being better than income does.

The best way for managers to ensure that workers have the energy they need for sustainable performance is to focus on a few small victories each day that engender more well-being. Some of these recommended interventions include: doing something pro-social to benefit another person and the act of “seeing” something meaningful as a way to create more meaning on a daily basis. The drive to initiate is more salient than the need to constantly respond to technology. He cautioned about the intrusion of cellular devices and other technological solutions that actually reduce effective in-person communication.

Saturday Night Celebration

One of the IPPA World Congress highlights was the Soaringwords’ IPPA Rocks the World celebration on Saturday night with 300 participants. Some enjoyed a pro-social activity conjuring up their VIA Character Strengths in order to create 197 SoaringSuperhero® puppets out of paper bags to donate to hospitalized children at Florida Children’s Hospital. Tal Ben-Shahar and Barb Fredrickson kicked off the program followed by a high-energy Zumba Masterclass with Marcie Benevides, Holly Rose and Fabio Barrios among other Zumba luminaries. We invite you to look at photos of the event, including the one below.










Program of the 4th World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association

Britton, K. H. (2015). Upward spiral seen at the airport (An IPPA report). Positive Psychology News. Covers Barbara Fredrickson’s keynote.

Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.

Seligman, M.E.P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating Into the Future or Driven by the Past. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 8(2), 119-141.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Hammack, S. E., Richey. K. J., Watkins, L. R., & Maier, S. F. (2002). The role of corticotropin releasing hormone in the dorsal raphe nucleus in mediating the behavioral consequences of uncontrollable stress. Journal of Neuroscience, 22, 1020-1026.

Amat, J., Sparks, P. D., Matus-Amat, P., Griggs J., Watkins, L. R., & Maier, S. F. (2001). The role of the habenular complex in the elevation of dorsal raphe nucleus serotonin and interference with escape behavior. Brain Research, 917 188-126.

Schwartz H. A., Eichstaedt, J.C., Kern, M. L., Dziurzynski, L., Ramones, S. M., Agrawal, M., et al (2013). Personality, Gender, and Age in the Language of Social Media: The Open-Vocabulary Approach. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73791. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073791

Schwartz, H. A., Eichstaedt, J. C., Kern, M. L., Dziurzynski, L., Agrawal, M., Park, G. J., Lakshmikanth, S. K., Jha, S., Seligman, M. E. P., & Ungar, L. (2013). Characterizing geographic variation in well-being using tweets. Proceedings of the Seventh International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.

Maslow, A. (1993). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (An Esalen Book). New York: Penguin (Non-Classics).

Hoffman, E. (1992). Overcoming Evil: An interview with Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology. Psychology Today.

Rath, T. (2015). Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life. Silicon Guild.

Rath, T. (2013). Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. Missionday.

Photo Credit:
Pictures from the party courtesy of Soaringwords

Other pictures via Compfight with Creative commons licenses
Rat with Prospection? courtesy of Dubiosity
Growing tip courtesy of yummysmellsca
Value restful sleep courtesy of MikeOliveri

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1 comment

Judy Krings 20 July 2015 - 9:32 am

Lisa, thanks for bringing the IPPA conference to life. Your summaries were delightfully informative. I felt as if I was on the front row savoring every word. Big bows of gratitude for helping me attend IPPA by proxy!


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