The New Science of Positive Psychology and Developing Individuals and Communities

This post was originally posted on Adapticity on February 25, 2015.

Do you love your annual performance appraisal? Me either. Often we sit down and a supervisor discusses with (tells) a supervisee what that person doesn’t do very well, which they mutually agree to refer to as “opportunities for growth.” This is not fun for either party and leads to disengagement. This approach is tempting not only because it is the norm but we also get a lot of messages in our culture that leaders need to fix things – even people, especially ourselves. However, the new research on productivity, efficiency, motivation, success, relationships, and well-being calls for different approaches to leadership.

Fixing our inadequacies only brings us closer to mediocre. Cultivating what works can move us from good to great, which is where the transformations are found. Positive psychology helps us as leaders learn about what really works to cultivate more success. This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from our weakness and grow, it means that we can learn much more from what we do well and applying that learning.

The Science of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what works in individuals and communities. This approach seeks to add to the research on sadness, mental illness, stress, and other challenges by exploring the experiences of and factors leading to positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment/achievement.  Positive psychology differs from pop psychology or self-help in that it is grounded in research (not this!).  Positive psychology is also not about putting on a happy face and pretending that things are great when they are not. (Positive psychologists hate those smiley faced logos that get slapped on their work) The study of authenticity is a core part of positive psychology. This approach is about actively cultivating the positive emotions and experiences in our lives to maximize their impact on our overall well-being and leadership effectiveness. Finally, this is not about only doing what we do best, that’s a fixed mindset approach. It is about cultivating a growth mindset as educators, coaches, parents, and leaders that encourages and celebrates seeking challenges, putting in effort, and learning and growing.

Developing Leaders

Positive psychology is giving us great insight into the power of human potential. For example, there is a mountain of research about the power of meditation to improve just about every aspect of your life – making you happier, healthier, and smarter. Gratitude is also a vetted practice. Although we think happy people have a lot to be grateful for, the process actually works in reverse. Grateful people are happy. By having the group celebrate what is going well at the beginning of the staff meeting (rather than highs and lows) we can not only improve morale and make meetings more enjoyable, but actually change the brain chemistry of participants in the room leading to greater problem solving, creativity, openness to diversity, and efficiency.

Developing Communities

Leadership efforts to improve communities are often similarly focused on identifying problems. Although we shouldn’t ignore problems, getting stuck in excavating problems can be demoralizing, paralyzing, and counter-productive. Even a solution-focused approach may feel more productive and enjoyable than a problem-based approach, but it still has our thinking grounded, bounded, and limited by our problems. Instead, what if we worked with communities to imagine possibilities? For example, colleges often focus on supporting individual students who are struggling with financial, mental health, or other concerns in efforts to support students and also increase the institutional retention rates and financial bottom line. However, this approach only seeks to help students not fail. A direct student success approach would teach all students the strategies for success from the very beginning. By imagining possibilities, we can break free from our problems – often solving them in the process and creating new transformative possibilities.

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