Where Positive Psychology is heading – highlights from the Australian Positive Psychology and Well-being Conference

| February 17, 2014

Positive Psychology receives increasing credibility with mounting evidence that it works. Organisational coach Clive Leach shares his highlights of the Australian Positive Psychology and Well-being Conference.

In my view no-one can afford to ignore the powerful work happening globally to apply Positive Psychology within the business, government and education sectors. Why is that?

It is because mental health issues in both adults and young people are indisputably increasing – in workplaces, schools and communities. In Australia, China, Europe and the US the fact is that despite increasing wealth, technology and opportunity, the spectres of depression, stress, anxiety, envy and social comparison conspire to undermine peoples’ well-being and potential to be their best and flourish. It is also because well-being is not just the absence of mental illness or suffering. It is about being the very best we can be – going from good to great! So everyone stands to benefit from learning about ‘what works well’.

Coming back from the fourth Australian Positive Psychology and Well-being Conference at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, I’m keen to share some of the highlights.

As a taster for the conference Professor Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology, updated us on the latest cutting edge big data research where the language used in Twitter and Facebook is shown to be indicative of both the mental and physical health of the population. He referred to the ever-increasing evidence-base showing that building PERMA – Positive Emotions; Engagement; Relationships; Meaning; Accomplishment – is an academically rigorous approach to increasing levels of well-being, resilience and achievement. PERMA is measureable and teachable and applications in the business, education, government, military and health sectors are undoubtedly enhancing the capacity of people from all over the world to flourish.

At the conference itself Seligman’s opening presentation went a step further to look at where Positive Psychology is heading. He talked of the ‘Science of Prospection’ – our unique ability to have foresight and free will and to imagine and evaluate our future. He challenged any notion that our past or present has to predict our future – that what we are, is what we will be.

He announced the launch of ‘The Imagination Institute’ to make people more imaginative. This work will include ‘Genius Weekends’ to study the world’s 12 most creative and imaginative people from across a range of domains, to see what we can learn from them and apply more widely within the population.

Other key conference takeaways include:

High Performance Mindsets – Professor Michael Bernard spoke on the evidence that high performing organisations are driven by the high performance mindsets of their leaders and employees. He emphasised that it is the building of psychological capital – comprising hope, optimism, efficacy and resilience – that is most important for reducing workplace stress and burn out and increasing employee engagement, job satisfaction and competitive advantage.

Validated interventions such as strengths identification and development, building emotional intelligence, learned optimism and mindfulness practice can all be applied to build a high performance mindset.

Mindfulness – numerous presenters referenced the substantial evidence-base that mindfulness activity in a variety of forms has direct benefits for both mental and physical health.

Professor Felicia Huppert from the University of Cambridge Well-being Institute and University of Western Sydney, went so far as to state that mindfulness practice is the foundation of well-being. Citing studies in schools, the health sector and multi-national corporations, she explained how learning to be aware of the moment, switching off the automatic pilot, being in state of acceptance and non-judgement can reduce pain and depression, build immune systems, increase attention, help emotional regulation, improve sleep and enhance performance in study and work.

Even the UK Parliament is now providing highly popular and oversubscribed mindfulness programs for MPs, Lords and staffers. Smart Phone applications such as ‘Headspace’ have also been proven to be effective and are an easy way to get support in developing mindfulness practice. I am using it and it is great!

Positive Education – a common concern aired throughout the conference was the increase in mental health issues in young people and a potential multi-billion$ well-being crisis facing the millennial generation.

In 21st century schools there has to be a greater emphasis on preventing anxiety and depression in students at risk and in equipping all young people to live flourishing lives. Positive Education is about building the skills of well-being and achievement, developing character as well as intellect. Globally within governments, State and Independent schools and higher education institutions PERMA is being increasingly endorsed as the framework upon which to teach and embed positive psychology for the benefit of students, teachers, parents and community.

A number of Australian schools are undertaking whole school research studies and will share their learning and findings with the wider education sector through the Positive Education Schools Association (PESA) which was launched at the conference.

The overarching conference theme of ‘Developing a Sustained Impact’ posed the question of how Positive Psychology will continue to grow.  I think the answer lies in the increasing evidence that it works, the credibility it is receiving and in the diversity, passion and commitment of those who are researching, applying and living it.