Positive Psychology is one of the biggest of the big ideas to emerge during my adult lifetime. It starts with an even bigger idea: that insights into the way our minds work can help us address problems. And then it turns that idea on its head.
The impact has been no less than phenomenal. Yes, it has spawned a vast and growing library of books and self-help programs. But it has also genuinely helped people.
Not only has positive psychology given us the tools to live a more fulfilling and happier life. But it also equips us to make workplaces better, more sustainable, and more productive. So, if that doesn’t interest you, I do wonder just how big an idea has to be to grab your attention.
One facet of emotional intelligence is motivation, and this is front and centre of the work of another psychologist. Angela Lee Duckworth’s research interest is competencies other than general intelligence that predict academic and professional achievement. And she has been putting the spotlight on two of them: self-control and perseverance.
Very Short Biography
Angela Lee was born in 1970, and grew up in New Jersey. She was the third child of immigrants from China, who had fled the cultural revolution. The parents were exceptionally results-oriented, leading to three children who have all excelled. However, as the third child, Duckworth recalls feeling a sense of benign neglect, as her parents focused their attention on her older siblings.
She was exceptionally bright and worked hard, entering Harvard and graduating in neuro-biology in 1992. Two years later, she took up a scholarship to study neuroscience at the University of Oxford, leaving with an MSc in 1996.
From there, she joined consulting firm McKinsey and Company (where she met her husband, Jason Duckworth). Promised opportunities to do pro bono work, but being allocated work in the pharmaceuticals sector, Duckworth left and started teaching, first in New York. During this time, she started paying attention to why some children succeeded and others failed.
She joined a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Positive Psychology Center, under the leadership of Martin Seligman, who supervised her study. She was awarded her PhD in 2006 and took up an academic post there. She is now a Professor of Psychology and leads the Duckworth Lab, which focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.
Grit and Self-control
Duckworth’s work shows that two traits predict success in life:
the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals
the voluntary regulation of behavioural, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.
These two are different. Grit equips you to pursue especially challenging aims over long periods; years or even decades. Self-control operates at a short timescale in the battle against distractions and temptations – willpower, if you like.
Duckworth’s research shows that the two are related, but not totally correlated. People who are gritty tend to be more self-controlled, but the correlation is not total: some people have masses of grit but little self-control, while some exceptionally self-controlling people are not especially gritty. Her team has developed non-commercial scales that measure each.
Duckworth’s research has found that, when they strip out the effects of intelligence, grit and self-control predict objectively measured success outcomes. They have used contexts as diverse as children’s spelling competitions, military officer training, and general high school graduation results.
Because of the importance of these factors, therefore, Duckworth has introduced them into the routines for her family: husband and two daughters. Academically, her team is researching ways to instil self-control and grit into children. She has shown that children can learn and practise strategies to build grit and self-control.
In a recent Pocketblog, we looked at the work of Carol Dweck, on Growth Mindset. Duckworth sees Dweck as a role model and is collaborating with her because she has found that children who have more of a growth mindset tend to be grittier. Once again, there isn’t a perfect correlation, but enough to suggest that one of the things that makes you gritty is a growth mindset: the attitude ‘I can get better if I try harder’. This should help you to be tenacious, determined, and hard-working: gritty.
It is still true that, for most of the history of the discipline of psychology, academics and practitioners have focused on the minority of people whose lives are diminished by their psychological state. But most of us are not and, indeed, some are happy and flourish. Wouldn’t it be a great idea if psychologists turned their focus on understanding this and finding ways to make more of us happy and all of us more happy? That was the question posed by one man, more than any other, and that was Martin Seligman.
Martin Seligman was born in 1946 and grew up in New York. He earned his bachelors degree in philosophy from Princeton, and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he gained a PhD in psychology in 1967, studying learned helplessness in dogs. This is the effect whereby the majority of animals subjected to harsh treatments give up resisting and, even when they are able to escape the discomfort, they do not do so. This work, whilst seen widely as important, has been criticised on animal welfare grounds and probably could not be recreated at universities in the US or many other countries.
Seligman extended his research into the implications for people, moving on to study depression. He worked as Assistant Professor at Cornell from 1967 and was awarded a full professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in 1976, where he remains today, as Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center.
His research led him to write a major textbook on abnormal psychology that was published in 1997, a year after he was elected President of the American Psychological Association. In his inaugural address in 1998, he announced the theme of his presidency would be Positive Psychology. He wanted to move the focus onto the ways that research can be made practical in helping people to thrive and be happy. The term Positive Psychology had been coined by Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology, which focuses on strengths and potential rather than neurosis and pathology. Maslow was a theorist who gathered little experimental evidence to support his ideas. Seligman was determined that empirical research is necessary.
Seligman is now very much seen as a leader – maybe ‘the’ leader – in positive psychology today. He is Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and has authored many widely read and respected popular books on the subject, as well as scholarly papers.
Perhaps the idea that most closely attaches to Seligman is the idea of Character Strengths and Virtues, and the free Values in Action assessment of your signature strengths. This allows you to fully reflect on where your true strengths lie, based on Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s framework of six main character virtues and the three to five components of each. The six virtues and their strengths are:
Wisdom and Knowledge
Love of Learning
Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
Seligman extended this idea, by looking at what makes us happy. His simple model successfully combines the aspects of self-interest and community contribution that have divided philosophers for millennia. He argues that there are three dimensions:
A Pleasant Life
A life of comfort, pleasure and gratification is the start to happiness…
A Good Life
But to be truly happy we also need to put our strengths to work. In this way we can fully engage with what we do, and enter what Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly calls flow states. For a truly fulfilling life, however, we need…
A Meaningful Life
We acquire a meaningful life when we are able to deploy our strengths not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others, for society or for ideas that we feel to be bigger than ourselves. We need to contribute. In this, of course, we can see the influence of Maslow very clearly.
In Seligman’s latest book, Flourish, we see his summary of work to date, in a simple mnemonic that points us to what he sees as the five sources of wellbeing – necessary conditions, if you like.
Positive emotion – how good you feel. Engagement – the total immersion you get in a flow state. Relationships – with friends, family, and society, through collaboration, care, and intimacy. Meaning – finding something you perceive as a purpose that is bigger than yourself. Achievement – the sense of fulfilment in achieving something for its own sake, rather than for the sake of e=positive emotion, meaning, or relationships.
Abraham Maslow never set out to be a management thinker: his attention was on people in the round. It was only his desire to test out his ideas – and those of colleague Douglas McGregor – that led him to be one of the best known names among managers. His model of motivation is almost certainly the most widely known in English speaking organisations. Does it deserve to be?
Abraham Maslow was born in 1908 to Jewish emigré parents, who had come to New York to escape Tsarist pogroms in Russia. There, Maslow grew up amidst antisemitism.
He took his undergraduate degree at City University of New York and then gained his MA and PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin in 1934. His thesis considered dominance and sexuality in Monkeys, which later led noted sexologist Alfred Kinsey to seek out his assistance in the 1940s. Maslow, however, rejected Kinsey, challenging the rigour of his research and later publishing evidence of bias in Kinsey’s sample selection (of young women for his study).
Maslow spend the late 1930s and the 1940s teaching and researching at Brooklyn College, where he published his most notable work on The Hierarchy of Needs in 1943 (A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50, pp370-396). This was later fully documented in his most important book, Motivation and Personality.
In 1951, he moved to Brandeis University, where he stayed until 1969, a year before his death in 1970
A Humanist First
The core of Maslow’s work as a psychologist was his move away from studying the psychology of people with problems, towards people who are successful. He used the term ‘positive psychology’and was almost certainly the first to do so. It is now widely used, since its establishment as a (now very vibrant) field of research by Martin Seligman.
However, the movement he was instrumental in had the name of humanistic psychology and it is one that last week’s Management Thinker, Mary Parker Follett would have embraced.
The Hierarchy of Needs
His major contribution was a model that was designed to explain human behaviour and has subsequently come to be used as a theory of workplace motivation. He built a needs theory of human behaviour by first grouping human needs into classes, and then arranging these classes into a hierarchy. He argued that the prospect of satisfying an unmet need leads to motivation to act or choose.
Often shown as a pyramid, with basal (or ‘deficiency’) needs at the bottom and higher (or ‘growth’) needs at the top, the sequence means that our first instinct is to focus on the lowest level of unmet need.
include warmth, food, sex, sleep and shelter – anything necessary to survival.
Safety and Security Needs
can now be thought of as job, wage or other economic security.
Love and Belonging Needs
are for social acceptance and the development of trusting relationships.
are firstly for power, status and prestige and then, for a self-belief that our place is merited.
was what Maslow was interested in: maximising our potential, living life to the full and contributing to our society.
In more modern needs theories of motivation, like Self Determination Theory of Ryan and Deci (popularised by Daniel Pink), belonging, esteem and self actualisation are still seen as powerful workplace motivators in the forms of relatedness (love and belonging), competence (esteem), and autonomy (actualisation).
There are two critiques that are commonly levelled at the Hierarchy of Needs – one valid, one not.
It is often argued that the hierarchy presents a rigid sequence and that we continually want more, so do not fully escape the lowest levels, whilst some artist, say, will self-actualise away in lonely poverty in a cold garrett ignoring the basement motivators. In fact, Maslow himself said that the hierarchy is neither universal, nor a rigid sequence. The price his legacy pays for fame, is that most people learn the model from a few paragraphs in a text book or fifteen minutes in a management training session – and not from Maslow’s own writing. (Up goes my hand too!)
The more valid critique is the shallow research base for the model, and the reliance Maslow placed on anecdote, interview and subjective interpretation. However, we must understand his motivation: which was to create a springboard for studying what really interested him – Self Actualisation.
In fact, he did spend time in industry, studying motivation, but it was Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y that he was testing – and he found it wanting. Much as he supported it, he found it too simplistic in the real world, where people need a dose of Theory X predictability to feel fully secure.
Above and Below the Pyramid
Interesting to me is Maslow’s argument that we cannot satisfy our needs unless we have sufficient freedoms. As a humanist, he argued strongly for basic human freedoms such as expression and speech, the ability to defend ourselves, and for a society that prioritises justice.
Above the pyramid, he argued we would find needs higher than self-actualisation in the way he described it. These may be some form of aesthetic, spiritual or transcendent needs. This is an idea that Clare Graves developed into Spiral Dynamics, although the merits of that model need careful assessment.
For may years, knowing he came from Russia, I pronounced his name Mazlov. My research for this article shows that I was wrong. The name is common among Polish and Western Ukrainian Jewish families, where the -ow ending is pronounced with the soft w sound. A research student of his from the early 1940s records on a Wikipedia discussion page that Maslow pronounced his own name as Mah-zlow.
It only seems like yesterday when we did our first Adult Learners’ Week blog. Do you remember what the Three R’s really stand for? If not, check back to last year’s blog.
What is Adult Learners’ Week?
Adult Learners’ Week is a campaign that ‘celebrates learning and learners in all their diversity, inspiring thousands of people each May to try something new. The initiative promotes the benefits of all kinds of learning, whether it is for fun or leading to a qualification.’
Of course, with spring in the air, it is a good time to feel happy, but what has this to do with Adult Learners’ Week?
Flow and Happiness
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about flow. Flow is a state where you become so immersed in something that time seems to stop, so that, when you finish, you have hardly an inkling of how much time has passed? You may only then realise how cold, how hungry or even how desperate you are for the loo.
The originator of the concept and author of a fantastic book on the subject (Flow: The Psychology of Happiness) is Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. Note the subtitle of the book: in it, he describes flow states as states of great pleasure and enjoyment. So forget wealth, parties and drugs: get immersed in something with a clear goal and evident measures of progress, which stretches you to perform at your limits.
Flow and Learning
Let’s re-read the last part of that last sentence:
‘…get immersed in something with a clear goal and evident measures of progress, which stretches you to perform at your limits.’
This describes Csikszentmihaly’s three criteria for a flow state: a goal, feedback, and challenge. It also is the definition of learning: knowing what you want to be able to do, understand, or create; being able to monitor your progress; and moving beyond your present capabilities.
Back when I did maths at school, we took a little foray into classical logic, which is based on maths, of course. We learnt about robust and faulty reasoning, and in particular, I recall the concept of syllogism. Take two statements:
Learning creates flow
Flow creates happiness
A syllogism is a form of argument that makes a deduction from two statements of known truth…
Learning and Happiness
Stephen Hawking was told by his publisher that every equation he put into ‘A Brief History of Time’ would halve its sales. He didn’t do so badly! So I’ll take a chance and put one of my own into this blog, knowing you don’t pay to read it anyway:
Learning = Happiness
So here’s the Deal
If it is not already a habit, make this week a week to learn. Here are ten top tips for how.
Check out the Adult Learners’ Week website for ideas and opportunities
Set yourself a challenge to take your hobby or passion to the next level and start working on it
Watch a documentary on TV
Find a new blog to read
Take an hour to research a topic you’ve always been interested in
Go out to lunch with a colleague and ask them to tell you all about their specialism, hobby, degree subject or favourite book
Sign up for an evening class
Pick up a quality magazine or newspaper and read it cover to cover
Go to a library or a bookstore, choose a subject at random, pick the most appealing book on the shelves and read it
Go for a long walk, notice the things around you (weather, buildings, trees, animals, people, vehicles, …) and when you get home, research any one of them that captures your interest
Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy
It’s tempting to say: ‘all of them’ but let’s face it; we all have our favourites and there are some you won’t like as much. So, as a learner, or a trainer, or a teacher, here are some pocketbooks you might like:
A couple of years ago, I spotted something a bit special in an Oxfam bookshop; it was a kind of archaeological relic of a by-gone age. The book was a basic psychology text called ‘Abnormality’. Because I have no more than a passing interest in the subject and ever-diminishing shelf space, I elected to leave it behind.
However, this book marks the end of an era.
A New Field in Psychology
Abnormality was published in 1997. The following year, its principal author, Martin Seligman, was President of the American Psychological Association. In 1998, Seligman officially launched Positive Psychology as a distinct branch of psychology, and lifted it from the level of pop psychology to a topic of serious scientific research.
Abnormality marked Seligman’s last book on the ‘old’ psychology of the damage we accumulate or do to one-another. All his subsequent books have been about aspects of optimal human functioning.
Why this timing? Was it just because Seligman had the opportunity that year? I don’t think so. In his 2003 book, Authentic Happiness, he says:
‘it took Barbara Frederickson … to convince my head that positive emotion has a profound purpose far beyond the delightful way it makes us feel.’
In 1998, Barbara Frederickson published a ground-breaking paper: ‘What good are Positive Emotions?’ In it, she suggests that positive emotions broaden and build our personal resources and help us to cope with the trials of life. She won psychology’s most lucrative award, The Templeton Prize, in its first year, 2000.
But what if I’m stuck with negative emotions?
Seligman himself is a leading thinker in Positive Psychology; most closely associated with two aspects: strengths, and ‘Learned Optimism’.
His 1990 book (now in its third edition); ‘Learned Optimism’ pre-dates Positive Psychology as a field of study with a name, but it is an essential read for anyone interested in the field.
It shows how we can move from helplessness to optimism by changing the way we think, and it presents a very powerful model, developed by Albert Ellis.
Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy
Albert Ellis founded Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) – yes British readers: I have used the US spelling. This is a fore-runner of the better known CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and Ellis is known as the Grandfather of CBT. He died in 2007.
In Learned Optimism, Seligman uses his ABCDE model as a tool for changing the way we think about adversity and and challenge. You will also find this model in The Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC) Pocketbook.
A B C D E
A: Activating event … or Adversity, as Seligman describes it, is the objective event that causes us concern
B: Beliefs The beliefs we have (rational or not) about the event that trigger our attitudes, fears and subsequent behaviours
C: Consequences Ultimately, what consequences do those beliefs have for us in terms of what we do and how that changes our options and opportunities.
D: Dispute Change comes when we confront our beliefs with real-world evidence and start to dispute our interpretation and beliefs.
E: Energization This is the word Seligman uses, which seems more powerful than ‘Exchange’ used in the CBC Pocketbook. Here the new evidence and understanding we have exchanged for the old energises us to make changes, think differently, do things differently, and change our world.