Researchers explore the complexity of well-being at the 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology.
The field of positive psychology was born when researchers noticed that psychology was awfully negative—focusing on illness and suffering but mute on the topic of how to thrive and flourish.
Two decades later, you could say that positive psychology is moving past this dichotomy of positive and negative, toward a more nuanced perspective on the good life. At least, that was one of the themes at the International Positive Psychology Association’s 5th World Congress, a four-day conference held earlier this month that brought together more than 1,300 researchers, practitioners, students, and journalists in Montreal, Canada.
Researchers shared the complexities and complications they were uncovering about the elements of well-being, from gratitude and mindfulness to passion and grit. Here are some of their insights.
1. Happiness practices don’t work the same in all cultures or contexts
One focus of positive psychology has been developing practices that boost well-being. But we know that certain activities can backfire if we practice them too frequently, approach them too obsessively, or choose the wrong ones. Now, UC Riverside professor Sonja Lyubomirsky is discovering other situations where things can turn sour.
For example, she found that expressing gratitude isn’t always a positive experience in South Korea. Thanking parents for doing their parental duties, Koreans told her, can almost be offensive—as if the parent could have and might have chosen to do otherwise. Meanwhile, while expressing gratitude across the board appears to make Americans happy, people in Hong Kong don’t seem as moved by saying thanks to strangers.
In another soon-to-be-published study, Lyubomirsky found that witnessing acts of kindness does make us feel inspired and elevated but can also make us envious, wishing we were the recipient of such goodwill, too. Future well-being research will undoubtedly have more to say about when, where, and for whom these types of happiness habits are beneficial.
2. Not all meditation is created equal
As meditation has become popular in the West, retreats and training programs are now teaching a wide variety of practices and activities. But according to emerging results from a research project led by Max Planck Institute professor Tania Singer, some techniques may be less powerful than others.
She and her team offered over 200 participants three types of meditation training:
- Presence: breathing meditation and body scan
- Affect: loving-kindness meditation
- Perspective: observing and becoming less reactive to thoughts
Although Presence did seem to increase attention and gray matter in the brain, Singer reported, only Affect seemed to boost compassion and altruism. And only Affect and Perspective helped participants keep their cool during a socially stressful situation.
The upshot? Apps and programs that stick to basic breathing meditation may not inspire all the benefits that we associate with mindfulness.
3. Passion can be good or bad for us
While we’re all searching for our passion in life, we should be careful how it manifests itself, Université du Québec à Montréal professor Robert Vallerand cautioned. His work separates passion into two distinct types, which have very different effects:
- Harmonious passion is a flexible, healthy inclination toward something we love. It makes us persistent, but still allows us to pursue other fulfilling activities. People with a harmonious passion seem to be more resilient, more mindful, higher in self-efficacy, and more hopeful and optimistic.
- Obsessive passion takes over our lives. Rather than driving us to excel, it pushes us to be better than others and avoid failure. It’s more likely to show up when we aren’t satisfied with other areas of life.
The key to keeping your passion more harmonious? “Take the activity seriously without taking yourself too seriously,” Vallerand advises. People in the grips of obsessive passion don’t necessarily need to give up what they love, but to spend more time cultivating other hobbies and relationships.
4. Grit isn’t the whole story
University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth has faced some criticism (including on Greater Good) for championing the character strength of grit. Some say that it neglects the larger social and structural factors that influence students’ success or failure.
At the conference, Duckworth acknowledged these critiques and insisted that she “violently agreed” with some of them. To put character strengths into practice, she explained, students need to be motivated, to know the right strategies, and to have the opportunity. Addressing systemic problems and inequalities in the education system, it seems, would be part of ensuring opportunity.
And grit, of course, is only one character strength among many. Duckworth calls it a “strength of will,” as opposed to strengths of the mind or the heart. And, if forced to choose, she said she’d have to admit that strengths of the heart are most important in life.
Anyone who’s worked on becoming happier knows that it’s not simple, and research in positive psychology is starting to reflect that. The new insights coming out of the field promise to be more nuanced, practical, and personalized—recognizing individual differences among people and cultures, differentiating between specific practices, acknowledging pitfalls and downsides, and investigating the role of environment and context. And all this new research should contribute even more to helping us thrive.
The Greater Good Science Center was an exhibitor at the 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology. This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. For more, visit greatergood.berkeley.edu
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This was good to read. Especially the parts about South Korea and Hong Kong. It makes perfect sense that different actions and thoughts mean different things in different cultures. I had assumed they were universal. Also, I appreciate that positive psychology is being looked at through research.
“Anyone who’s worked on becoming happier knows that it’s not simple, and research in positive psychology is starting to reflect that. ”
It is note worthy that some in the business of Psychology ( and Psycho-therapy ) choose to add the word “Positive” in front of their profession BUT PLEASE
lets not ignore the fact that the root word for “Psychology” comes from the Greek origin, “Psyche” that aspect of our Human “Being-ness” is now / was / and always will be…. Perfect, Unchanging and Indestructible.
The English language unfortunately has a way of butchering older languages for strange reasons!
As the powerfully (anti- traditional) Psychologist James Hillman pointed out in his “We have had 100 years of Psycho-thereaphy and the world isn’t getting any better”. Psychology is the new religion of the western world and it has become as self-serving and the religions it has replaced!
Perhaps the “Well-Being-ness” industry would do a “positive” by dropping the word “Psycho-” from its vocabulary?
I make this suggestion to reinforce Hillman’s observation that,
“our ‘Ideals of how it aught to be make it so much worse. Our ideals promote the suppression of those dark parts ( within our sub-conscious) ! And they become darker because of therapy’s ( aka Therapists ) ideals!
AMEN! Brother Hillman!
I would vote to change the title of Psychologist to “Desire-ologist” and Psychotherapist to, “Desire-therapist” And add a new branch which would promote true positive-ness named “Self-Introspection-ology”.