We Still Love John

October 13, 2009

Problem Analysis – Self-directed learning on Positive Psychology

Filed under: #2: problem analysis — welovejohn @ 5:06 pm

**N.B: As many of the positive psychology readings that I have researched on are self-explanatory, I have taken the liberty of copying useful passages from the bullet-pointed readings and italicising them for easy differentiation from my personal ‘N.B’ notes. More importantly, I have emboldened the key points and ‘purpled’ the fundamental ones for easy reference.

Whatever the personal origins of our conviction that the time has arrived for a positive psychology, our message is to remind our field that psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best. Psychology is not just a branch of medicine concerned with illness or health; it is much larger. It is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play. And in this quest for what is best, positive psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, faith, self-deception, fads, or hand waving; it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents to those who wish to understand it in all its complexity.

What foregrounds this approach is the issue of prevention.

However, while building a strong science and practice of treating mental illness, we largely forgot about everyday well-being. Is the absence of mental illness and suffering sufficient to let individuals and communities flourish? Were all disabling conditions to disappear, what would make life worth living? Those committed to a science of positive psychology can draw on the effective research methods developed to understand and treat mental illness. Results from a new randomized, placebo-controlled study demonstrate that people are happier and less depressed three months after completing exercises targeting positive emotion. The ultimate goal of positive psychology is to make people happier by understanding and building positive emotion, gratification and meaning. Towards this end, we must supplement what we know about treating illness and repairing damage with knowledge about nurturing well-being in individuals and communities.


But science can illuminate components of happiness and investigate empirically what builds those components. With that said, a review of the literature led us to identify three constituents of happiness: (i) pleasure (or positive emotion); (ii) engagement; and (iii) meaning.

**(N.B: ‘Positive emotion’ is “heritable” and hence not to be fully relied on; engagement requires 100% immersion and absorption in one’s passions for “gratification”, but because there is “no shortcut” to this, it positively draws on one’s “character strengths” though the emotions experienced there and then might not be hedonistic, e.g. “a runner” going through “gruelling” training finds it generally gratifying;  meaning involves employing our strengths in “service” of larger things beyond our selves, e.g. “knowledge, goodness, family, community, politics, justice or a higher spiritual power”)

Peterson et al. (2005) develop reliable measures for all three routes to happiness and demonstrate that people differ in their tendency to rely on one rather than another. We call a tendency to pursue happiness by boosting positive emotion, ‘the pleasant life’; the tendency to pursue happiness via the gratifications, ‘the good life’; and the tendency to pursue happiness via using our strengths towards something larger than ourselves, ‘the meaningful life’. A person who uses all three routes to happiness leads the ‘full life’, and recent empirical evidence suggests that those who lead the full life have much the greater life satisfaction (Peterson et al. 2005).

We have designed and tested interventions to nurture each of the three routes to happiness (pleasure, gratification and meaning). Positive emotions are increased and the pleasant life is promoted by exercises that increase gratitude, that increase savouring, that build optimism and that challenge discouraging beliefs about the past. Interventions that increase the good life identify participants’ signature strengths and use them more often and in creative new ways. Meaningful life interventions aim toward participants’ identifying and connecting with something larger than themselves by using their signature strengths.

**(N.B: Seligman proceeds to talk about assigning individuals to “placebo controls” to test out his “good things in life” interventionist exercise, and the success of his measures – but I foresee it will not work on John because his situation is too dismal and he is also too pessimistic and psychologically immature to be able to “write down three good things that happened to [him] each day and why those good things occurred”)

Our goal is an integrated, balanced field that integrates research on positive states and traits with research on suffering and pathology. We are committed to a psychology that concerns itself with repairing weakness as well as nurturing strengths, a psychology that concerns itself with remedying deficits as well as promoting excellence, and a psychology that concerns itself with reducing that which diminishes life as well as building that which makes life worth living. We are committed to a balanced psychology.

A thousand therapists were coached in the new science. Their holy grail is the classification of strengths and virtues. After a solemn consultation of great works such as the samurai code, the Bhagavad-Gita and the writings of Confucius, Aristotle and Aquinas, Seligman’s happiness scouts discovered six core virtues recognised in all cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. They have subdivided these into 24 strengths, including humour and honesty.

Seligman knows his work can be belittled alongside trite notions such as “the power of positive thinking”. His plan to stop the new science floating “on the waves of self- improvement fashions” is to make sure it is anchored to positive philosophy above, and to positive biology below. And this takes us back to our evolutionary past.

At the Royal Institution, Nettle explained how brain chemistry foils our pursuit of happiness in the modern world: “The things that you desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire of less quickly — having good friends, the beauty of the natural world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out.

In essence, what the biology lesson tells us is that negative emotions are fundamental to the human condition, and it’s no wonder they are difficult to eradicate. At the same time, by a trick of nature, our brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting happiness.

Psychologists such as Seligman are convinced you can train yourself to be happier. His teams are developing new positive interventions (treatments) to counteract the brain’s nagging insistence on seeking out bad news. The treatments work by boosting positive emotion about the past, by teaching people to savour the present, and by increasing the amount of engagement and meaning in their lives.

The focus of most psychotherapy is on decreasing negative emotion. The aim of Seligman’s therapy is to increase positive emotion (positive and negative emotions are not polar opposites and can co-exist: women have more of both than men). From the time of Buddha to the self-improvement industry of today, more than 100 “interventions” have been tried in the attempt to build happiness. Forty of these are being tested in randomised placebo-controlled trials by Seligman and his colleagues.

In one internet study, two interventions increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for at least six months. One exercise involves writing down three things that went well and why, every day for a week. The other is about identifying your signature strengths and using one of them in a new and different way every day for a week. A third technique involves writing a long letter to someone you’re grateful to but have never properly thanked, and visiting them to read it out in person.

Seligman and his graduate students weep tears of joy when they do this exercise, but most Brits would probably rather be miserable than do it. So it’s a relief to hear that it doesn’t work particularly well. It has strong, but only brief, effects.


Another piece of the jigsaw fitted this year when a team from University College London tested the happiness levels of 216 middle-aged civil servants in a study of risk factors for coronary heart disease. People who had the most happy moments per day had the lowest rates of cortisol, a hormone that can be harmful if produced excessively, and of the chemical plasma fibrinogen, a predictor of heart disease. The happiest men (but not women) also had the lowest heart rates.

Angela Clow, professor of psychophysiology at Westminster University, is a world authority on the biochemistry of stress. “There is clear evidence that stress makes you susceptible to illness, but I wanted to turn this around and discover how happiness makes you healthier. There’s not a lot of happiness research in the UK, because if you do it, people think you’re trivial,” says Clow.

In one experiment, she and colleagues blindfolded participants and wafted smells of chocolate, water and rotten meat under their noses. Then they measured levels of secretory IgA, an antibody that protects the body against invading cells, in their saliva. Chocolate sent the antibody levels soaring up; rotten meat brought them down. Clow found that pleasant music also boosted the immune system, as did stimulating the left side of the brain with magnetism.

Comparing patients in a day-surgery waiting room with music and art on the walls against one with no music and plain white walls, Clow found that the art and music patients had lower heart-rates, blood pressure and cortisol, and needed less sedation before their surgery.

“But why should happiness have such an effect on the immune system?” asks Clow. She speculates that there is an evolutionary mechanism. Our happiest ancestors were bold creatures who socialised and ventured out to explore. This brought them into contact with infection, so they needed higher levels of antibodies in a stronger immune system.

Laughter and humour are also being studied for their effects on health. Research methods include using a tickle machine, and probing with electrodes to find the funny parts of the brain. Laughter, like stress, increases blood pressure and heart rate and changes breathing. But unlike stress, it reduces levels of chemicals circulating in the body. In one study, people’s cortisol and adrenaline were reduced after watching a favourite comedy video for 60 minutes.


Men often complain about their wives’ volatility. Now research confirms that women really are both happier and sadder. Positive and negative emotions are not polar opposites — you can have both in your life. Women experience more of all emotions except anger. First it was found that women experience twice as much depression as men. Next, researchers found that women report more positive emotion than men, more frequently and more intensely. It all points to men and women having a different emotional make-up. Cognitive psychologists say that men and women have different skills related to sending and receiving emotion. Women are expressive; men conceal or control their emotions. Women convey emotion through facial expression and communication; men express emotion through aggressive or distracting behaviour. Does the difference lie in biology, social roles or just women’s willingness to report emotion? That’s up for debate.


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