Positive Psychology and Student Affairs Leadership

with special guest stars Heather Shea Gasser, University of Idaho and Grant Anderson, University of Minnesota

Over the past year, two friends who also work in student affairs and I have been talking about how our new learning on positive psychology has transformed our student affairs leadership and how we live our lives.

Positive psychology focuses on studying what does work rather than just on fixing what doesn’t work. Shawn Achor describes this as a shift from a sickness approach to a wellness approach. This past week we had the opportunity to present on this at a student affairs conference – ACPA. The session was packed with over 100 people and the response was overwhelming. We shared a litany of positive psychology lessons grounded in research from nearly 20 books. The topics included brain science, change management, motivation, mindset, positive emotions, vulnerability, hope, strengths, and flow. Here are a few samples from our slide show.


Pos Psych Slide Deck

We also integrated some personal stories of how this has transformed our leadership and our lives. I’ve shared many of my lessons on this blog and Grant has shared his learning via is blog as well. In the session, Grant shared how his new understanding of cognitive bias has completely transformed how he manages, facilitates, and engages meetings and group decisions. I shared how a shift to celebrations rather than highs and lows to start each meeting has shifted the group dynamic and improved problem solving, creativity, and efficiency. Heather shared how learning about vulnerability has transformed how she receives and especially how she gives feedback to staff members. Grant shared how his learning about heartfelt positive emotions has helped him to feel his frustrations more deeply AND made him a more patient parent. Heather shared how being mindful of what is beyond our control and focusing on what is within our control has made her a better director of a women’s center.

Near the end of the session, I shared how moving from thinking of these as many individual shifts to thinking of this as a single paradigm shift has placed me on what I have described (and feels like) the cusp of a major transformation. Here is a handout I developed for another project that we shared to illustrate this paradigm shift.


If you are interested in learning more, the full list of references can be downloaded here. Based on the response we got from this session, how much fun we had working together, and our continued learning we plan to develop this further for longer formats and campus professional development sessions.

We’d love to hear if any of you have recommendations of articles, blogs, books, or videos to continue our learning. We’d also love to hear how any of you have applied this to your leadership or your life.

Leave comments on the blog or contact us via social media. My info is here on this page. Heather is on Twitter @heathergasser and Grant is @mndarkhorse  Let’s keep the conversation going!


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