Last weekend, Philadelphia got an injection of positivity when the leading authorities in the field of positive psychology descended on the City of Brotherly Love for the First World Congress on Positive Psychology. Roughly 1,500 practitioners, researchers, and other professionals from around the globe convened to present their latest findings and to describe efforts to disseminate the principles of the discipline. The four-day event was the inaugural conference of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), just a year old.
Positive psychology itself is a relatively nascent field. Formally founded a decade ago by the University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman, its emphasis on what goes right with people was a sea-change from psychology's traditional preoccupation with what goes wrong—from depression and anxiety to mental illness of all flavors. Positive psychology explores the factors that make life worth living, such as happiness, through the study of positive emotions, positive character strengths, and positive institutions. But it shouldn't be confused with self-help.
"It's easy to misunderstand as a kind of happyology...'Take some positive pills, and then you'll feel good,'" says James Pawelski, executive director of the IPPA and director of education and senior scholar at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center. In reality, positive psychology is much broader and deeper than that—and it's scientific, he says. "It's not just about the latest fads in what will bring a smile to your face. It's about randomized controlled trials about what leads to human flourishing."
Several conference presenters shared their research and insights with U.S. News. Here are five areas of life where positive psychology can have an impact:
1. Getting ahead at work. How can people truly flourish at work? That question has been at the center of Michael Frese's positive psychology research for years, and the professor of organizational psychology at Germany's University of Giessen believes he has identified an answer: what he calls "active behavior," which is akin to personal initiative. His studies of employees suggest that people who engage in a high degree of active behavior at work are more successful on the job—they gain more empowerment, meaning they have greater control over their work and their work is more complex; they gain even more personal initiative; and they find new jobs more easily if they become unemployed. Those findings hold true across many different workplaces and countries, he says. And active behavior not only pays off for the individual, he's found, but can change the workplace environment for the better, even boosting a firm's income.
Active behavior is comprised of three components, says Frese. The first is self-starting behavior; self-starters do things not just because a boss demands it, but because they see those things as being important. The second component is proactive behavior, or actions that people take when they think of future opportunities and prepare for them now. The third is persistence in the face of professional obstacles. These three things must all be done together, he says, to lead to positive effects. "Every job you can imagine"—from blue-collar to starchy white—"can be discussed and described in this way," says Frese.
More areas where positive psychology can help: