Why Positive Psychology Works

Why Positive Psychology works
Lyn Turknett, Co-founder and Co-chair, TLG

I remember reading, perhaps thirty years ago, an observation by a consultant that had a profound effect on me. I am not sure of the writer – it could have been Marvin Weisbord – but I remember the story vividly. He said that he was helping facilitate a planning meeting with an organization, and the energy was high as the group came together. They began the meeting, as many do, by doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Threats, and Opportunities) analysis. They then spent most of the time discussing problems the organization was facing. Within a few hours, all optimism had drained from the group. He realized that starting with a positive and inspiring vision of the future – and the strengths already existing to get there – was essential to maintaining the energy for change.

We now use an “appreciative” approach to organization change in work with clients. It’s grounded in the Appreciative Inquiry Theory of David Cooperrider, and it’s a strengths-based, vision-based model that builds hope and optimism. We begin with four big questions:

  • For individuals, in dyads: When have you been most excited about your work here? Think of a time – a specific situation – when you were very engaged and proud of the organization and your work.
  • What is your vision for the future? If a major network came to do a story on the organization in five years, what would they see? How would you be functioning?
  • What are the strengths of the organization for getting there? Be as specific as you can.
  • To get to that vision – what will you need to do more of, better, or differently?

The Principles of Positive Psychology

When we start with problems, energy drains. When we start with a vision and strengths to get there, energy increases. That’s the power of positive psychology.

Positive psychology principles are pervasive now and are profoundly relevant at both the organization and the individual level in organizations – but after the pandemic it’s more important than ever to reinforce those principles. They can help everyone – including leaders – increase their own sense of well-being and that of others.

Positive psychology as a movement in research, theory, and practice began as a reaction to the traditional focus of psychology, which was to relieve suffering – to “fix” people. The name I associate most with the early work as applied to individuals is Martin Seligman, whose work focuses on what helps humans thrive – not just survive. At 81, he is still active in the Positive Psychology Center (upenn.edu), and his books – like Learned Optimism, Flourish, and Authentic Happiness – have had an outsized influence on how psychology views psychological health.


Positive Emotions and Strength

We know that health at the individual and group level is not just a matter of avoiding negative emotions – it’s also critical to increase positive emotions. Barbara Frederickson, author of Love 2.0, is a researcher who has found that positive emotions – love, contentment, gratitude – increase creativity, the ability to combat stress, robustness in the immune system, and success at work (bosses rate happy people more favorably). It’s a “virtuous circle” too – things like acts of kindness and intentionally practicing gratitude – impact our own emotions and those of others.

One caveat – we know that strengths overused can be a problem, at the individual or organization level. There’s a lot of data (see, for example, Every Strength a Weakness by Morgan McCall) that focusing only on strengths doesn’t work. Focusing on strengths first, though, can give us the resilience to deal with the things that need to change.

There’s also evidence that happy people feel better about the successes of others – that’s clearly an effect that’s important in every organization!


Creating Happiness in the Workplace

Here are five examples of ways positive psychology can effectively create happiness in the workplace:

  1. We know that cultures based on alignment around a vision, alignment around goals, and psychological safety for everyone are more financially successful and effective in promoting well-being. Alan Mullaly’s turnaround at Ford is a great case study to learn from.
  2. Setting the stage in meetings. Ask, at the beginning (and end) of the meeting, questions like – what are you most proud of about this organization? What’s happened recently that made you happy? What do you appreciate about the person to your left?
  3. Creating cultures where appreciation and gratitude are regular occurrences. I am a fan of the book Multipliers – just remembering the idea that we can either multiply the strengths of others or diminish them is powerful.
  4. Using tools like the Clifton Strengths Finder to emphasize strengths.
  5. Using methods that create social connections between employees – allowing them to form interest groups like book clubs, hiking clubs, and even discussions of new trends in their industry. Platforms like Cooleaf may help.