Why I changed my mind about Positive Psychology

By Toni Michel
Tuesday, 17th July 2018
Filed under: ESRBlog

Recently I had the opportunity to visit in the 9th European Conference on Positive Psychology (ECPP) in Budapest. It was a 4-day event under the motto "Positive Psychology for a Flourishing Europe in Times of Transition" with 729 participants from 66 countries.

Every day was filled across multiple tracks with keynotes, symposia, workshops, as well as oral and poster presentations. Plus the occasional sing-along during breaks, that casually swept up half the participants to join in and generated lots of positive energy!

For the uninitiated: Positive Psychology (PP) is a relatively young branch of psychology, which, unlike most of psychology, is not directed at treating the various ailments of the mind. Instead, it aims at identifying and building our strengths and resources, improving resilience, grit, and optimism, and through that, moving people into a state of flourishing, an upwards spiral, propelled by accumulative positive development. For a more comprehensive introduction, have a look at this article.

And until very recently, I was intensely sceptical of it.

As someone who has spent considerable time reading his way through the impressively depressing canon of literature that emerged as a consequence of the catastrophe that defined the first half of the 20th century, the pursuit of happiness, which seemed to me at the heart of PP, appeared like reaching for wealth on top of luxury, like advocating cross-fit in a world where most people walk on broken ankles. In short, without doubting its internal validity, I was sceptical about how useful it would be for most (struggling) people. This view, however, was rooted in a number of faulty assumptions on my side.

ECPP was in many ways eye-opening to me. I had engaged with PP before, I read books and papers and went through online training courses, and I tried to use some PP interventions on myself. But I always failed to get really into it, it never really caught on -- until ECPP. Instead of a focus on improving on top of already well-adjusted life, I saw people apply PP to the whole gamut of human experience. Activities for the young and the old, for people who are well, and people who are struggling. And below that, running through everything, a strong current of humanistic optimism.

The PP community has an ambitious goal. Flourishing, the state of spiraling upwards I mentioned earlier, is supposed to encompass 51% of the human population by 2051. To me, this is a mind-blowing goal, for two reasons. Firstly, it assumes that massive positive transformations on a global scale are possible, across cultures, across vastly different socio-economic factors. And secondly, it explicitly forces PP out of a cushy comfort zone of improving the lives of healthy western overachievers, and deal with the reality of human suffering, that quickly stacks up, as soon as one looks past the infamous 1%.

Thus, the participants of ECPP are on a mission, to spread the word, to stir things up, and, basically, to save the world. Mainly having experience with Computer Science/Human-Computer Interaction conferences, to me, it felt like something different entirely. It seemed like a coming-together of collaborators in an international humanistic movement, sharing their struggles and successes in transforming how we learn, work, teach, raise children, and grow old. Even an old grump like me could not help feeling touched by that.

Stefan Zweig, arguably one of the most influential humanists of the 20th century, once wrote, "the organic fundamental error of humanism was that it desired to educate the common people (on whom it looked down) from its lofty stance instead of trying to understand them and to learn from them." To me, by grounding humanism in science, a science that itself is epistemologically grounded in lived human experience, PP may pick up where the last wave of humanism reached its limitations. It could be the next big leap forward.

So, alongside having fascinating conversations, as well as contact with potential collaborators, and much inspiration for my work, I am also finally on board*.

Let's do this.

(*I want to thank my supervisor for having so much patience with me in this regard.)

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