Last weekend I attended the International Positive Psychology Association’s Second World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia, PA, with the support of a Travel and Study Grant from the Jerome Foundation. It was an invigorating experience. I gained new concepts, an inspired list of books to read, and a clearer understanding of this growing field.
Positive psychology is a new realm; I’ve encountered skepticism of it based on its name only. But the conference (which I’ll call ‘IPPA,’ pronounced “IH-pah”) featured rigorous empirical researchers and practitioners across clinical psychology, education, business, and the humanities. With 1,200 whip-smart attendees from 62 countries, I felt as though I was part of an emergent domain that will revolutionize psychology as well as culture. I’ve been reading books about positive psychology since 2009; IPPA made me excited to learn more and help advance the field as it intersects with the arts and humanities.
What is positive psychology? Perhaps this is best explained via the words of its founding psychologists, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000), as quoted by Robert Vallerand:
“Psychology should document how people’s lives can be most worth living.”
To paraphrase James Pawelski, IPPA President as well as the Director of Education and Senior Scholar at the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at UPenn, one of the leading centers of research and scholarship:
Positive psychology is not merely a psychology for sunny days. It is also a psychology for rainy days…. [As a young person witnessing the aftermath of the recent terrorist acts in Norway said,] ‘If one man can create so much hate and death, how much good can we create together?’
I think it was also Pawelski, in discussing the positive turn in humanities, who expressed that
We see positive psychology as balancing (negative) psychology
which for the 20th century has been fixated on trauma, illness, and pathology. As in physical medicine, it is high time to expand beyond treatment towards wellbeing. As Chris Peterson put it:
“Health is more than the absence of illness”
and so too, psychological wellbeing is more than the absence of pathology. The positive psychology view according to Martin Seligman is that
People are not driven by the past, but can be drawn to the future.
Rather than seeing the positive as simplistic, positive psychology makes the positive more complex.
What I looked forward to. Many of my drawings in the Positive Signs series, as well as some concepts in my essays on Art Practical, were inspired by Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity. During my residency at Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild immediately preceding IPPA, I read Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. So I was very excited to hear Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi speak.
I was also excited to meet potential partners, especially those whose work intersects with the arts. I suspect that principles of positive psychology can be useful for contemporary artists by informing:
•processes, by becoming aware of flow activities;
•artwork, via increased understanding of relationships created in the art viewing experience and new theories of phenomenology; and
•attitudes, especially in regards to experiencing career setbacks and successes.
Highlights. I was very excited about:
Clearer definitions. University of Illinois researcher Ed Diener identified
preconditions of happiness as optimism, positive experiences, and lack of negative affect.
Gallup Scientist in Residence Shane Lopez pinpoints hope.
“Hope is goal-directed thinking (goals thinking) in which people perceive that they can produce routes to desired goals (pathways thinking) and the requisite motivation to use those routes (agency thinking).
Hope — The ideas and energy we have for the future.
High hope people believe that the future will be better than the present and that they have the power to make it so.”
Matt Gallagher, a clinical psychology researcher at the University of Kansas, distinguishes between hope and optimism:
Hope (Snyder) — Agency and pathways towards goals
Optimism (Scheier & Carver) — Globalized positive/negative expectancies
Emphasis on personal agency [is the] crucial difference
He also explained the difference thusly:
When you mash optimism and self-efficacy together, you get hope.
If a savoring process is elicited when a positive emotion is experienced, then savoring could well be the mediating mechanism through which a person’s cognitive repertoire is expanded when a positive emotion is experienced. Furthermore, when people savor, they often broaden the range of feelings they can have and contexts in which these feelings can occur.
Happiness is not frivolous. Hope can’t wait.
Lopez’s Gallup studies revealed that
Hope, engagement, and wellbeing do not correlate to income.
Clearly this is not an argument against equity, but a call to foster hope without delay. That’s because, as Lopez pointed out,
“When we link ourselves to the future, we behave better today.”
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) is a fundamental psychology concept visually represented as a pyramid. The idea is that basic needs must be met first, and in order of importance, with self-actualization as the pinnacle—and endmost—need.
At IPPA, Diener argued that
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be addressed at all levels, not necessarily in the order Maslow suggested.
Edward Deci, who studies self-determination theory, focused on
three basic human needs: the need to express competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which can be intrinsic, extrinsic, or emotionally motivated. Extrinsic motivations can actually undermine intrinsic motivations for engaging activities.
I especially appreciated Deci’s point that
Autonomy does not mean complete independence; you can be autonomously dependent
because that points to how artists can be autonomous and forge their own paths with the support and encouragement of their peers.
This sentiment was echoed by Karen Skerrett, who studies qualities of resilience in couple relationships:
Resilience is not self-sufficiency.
Deci added that
To foster greater internalization, create social contexts that allow people to feel competent, autonomous, and related. But it must fit with who people are
Which seems like a worthwhile consideration for artists developing participatory and relational projects.
Diener also identified,
“The number one predictor of enjoyment: ‘I learned new things, and I got to use my new skills today.’
In advance of a positive criticality. Since even my wholly optimistic work can inspire projections of skepticism, I was especially keen to hear Pawelski share Csikszentmihalyi’s opinion that
Positive psychology is a metaphysical orientation towards the positive. In other words, the positive is just as real as the negative.
Dan Moores illustrated this with a humorous talk called Ecstatic Poetry and the Limits of Suspicion. In it, he conveyed
we have a hermeneutics [study of interpretation] of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), while lacking a hermeneutics of affirmation.
Such a hermeneutics disserves
“The ecstatic poetic tradition [which] connects many cultures and reaches across vast stretches of time. It represents a positive affirmation of the values of happiness, human connections, festivities, and relatedness to transcendent sources of meaning. The tradition contains countless poems depicting peak states of being and positive, life-affirming emotions, such as serenity, awe, wonder, rapture, joy, gratitude, and love. Such poetry is written in praise of the goodness of life, the abundance of nature, and the intimate interrelation of the whole cosmos.”
Unsurprisingly, Moores shared a Romantic poem. This spurred a sense that contemporary art trends that revisit Romanticism and Transcendentalism (the “New Sincerity”) may find inspiration in this intersection of positive psychology and humanities, if the scientific approach isn’t too much at odds with the intuitive nature of such artmaking.
Elevation and awe. Jonathan Haidt, who studies moral political psychology, presented research
on emotion and elevation, correlating ‘up’ with altruism and admiration
It’s similar to the up-down cognitive metaphors in Lakoff/Johnson’s linguistics, which I diagrammed in Positive Sign #24.
Veronika Huta, who studies awe, inspiration, and transcendence at the University of Ottowa, independently confirmed that
Elevation is correlated with, and is an indicator of, virtuous, pro-social behavior.
Connecting neo-Romantic art and studies of awe was UPenn graduate student Ann Marie Roepke’s diagram relating horror and awe, similar to the 19th century view of the sublime.
Passion. Robert Vallerand, from the University of Montreal, studies obsessive and harmonious passion.
There’s a clear analogy to the arts here, where artists may develop a detrimental obsessive passion driven by extrinsic motivators, rather than a harmonious passion fueled by intrinsic motivation that leads towards increased subjective wellbeing.
Since I think emerging artists can put pressure themselves to see extrinsic rewards to their progress, Vallerand’s final message seems especially relevant.
Information graphics. What follows is a sampling of visuals which appealed to me.
The most frequently presented graphic seemed to be a flow chart whose correlations are represented in nominal tenths or hundredths, rather than the visual hierarchies I would have preferred. It might well be a data-minded scientific idiom. Perhaps visual representation would be misconstrued as non-empirical shorthand.
These graphics, indeed, the positive psychology endeavor as a whole—recall a passage from Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in which the author responds to an engineer’s algebraic formula:
“I was struck by how impoverished ordinary language can be by contrast, requiring its user to arrange inordinate numbers of words in tottering and unstable piles in order to communicate meanings more infinitely more basic than anything related to an electrical network. I found myself wishing that the rest of mankind would follow the engineers’ example and agree on a series of symbols which could point incontrovertibly to certain elusive, vaporous and often painful psychological states—a code which might help us feel less tongue-tied and less lonely, and enable us to resolve arguments with swift and silent exchanges of equations.”
Two projects deserve special recognition for employing terrific graphic design. Both were large-scale public initiatives promoting wellbeing, thus the success of the endeavors was dependent on accessible design and copywriting.
Plus, Marks conducted a drawing exercise in which workshop attendees drew each other without looking at their papers, which enacted the five steps the public initiative promoted. I loved the exercise, as participants’ responses were immediate, hilarious, and relational.
Chris Peterson and Nansook Park, both from the University of Michigan, shared their ___ Makes Life Worth Living campaign, a university-wide year theme. Students wore t-shirts with the blanks filled in.
Conference photos. And inspired by Richard Baker’s quiet and stirring photographs in Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I clicked a few images documenting the visual vocabulary of the conference.