Positive Psychology gives us strength in difficult timesavtor Tadej Peric in Natalie Cvikl Postružnik 4. marca, 2023
Today we continue with the second part (the first part can be enjoyed here) of our interview with Sue Langley – founder of the Langley Group and Academic Director of the Langley Group Institute – leaders in the Positive Psychology field.
Tadej: So, tell us a bit more about positive psychology.
Sue: Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing, whether individuals, teams, or organizations. What it means in real life is how do I put as many tools in my toolkit as possible to flourish even through adversity?
And I think that’s where people misunderstand positive psychology. They think it’s about how we can be happy all the time. And it isn’t. It’s about, let me make sure I’ve got as many tools in my toolkit as possible. So, when adversity hits, I’ve got the tools at my disposal, and of course, you don’t need those tools on the good days. It’s all going smoothly. It’s wonderful. On bad days, you need to remind yourself about your sense of meaning or contribution. On your bad days, you need to draw on your strengths to go, ‘Come on, we can do this.’ On bad days, we need to remind ourselves of what we are grateful for.
How do I flourish? How do I regularly have high levels of well-being, even if adversity hits? And that’s what I love about it.
The toolkit that helps us on rainy days
Sue: Positive psychology studies individuals, teams, or organizations at their best and says: What can we learn from this? And what if we did this regularly? How would it help us? And that’s the thing that I love, going back to the inspiration is many messages I get from people that have either done our Diploma or our leadership programs. They message me when they love life and are in difficulty.
So, I had a lovely message on Saturday morning. A WhatsApp message from a lady who did our Diploma in London back in 2018. And she said, “how are you.. Beautiful person… My father is just about to pass away. Thank you so much. I am at peace, thanks to everything you taught me”.
Now her father is in a different country. She’s not going to make it to see him. He’s probably passed away by now. This was Saturday. Previously she may have been anxious, scrambling to get on a plane, and distressed. Yet because of the tools and skills, she could deal with her grief and sadness, say goodbye, and do all the things she needed to do to be at peace about his passing.
That’s what positive psychology is. It’s not ‘let’s all be happy.’ It’s when adversity hits, do I have the tools in my toolkit to handle them? And how do I put them there in advance, so I don’t fall apart, and then try to figure out how to put myself back together again?
Take a tool from the toolkit and make a habit out of it
Tadej: Having the right knowledge and using it when difficult moments occur is crucial.
Sue: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And I practice the tools and techniques every day without fail because I know my well-being would be lower if I didn’t. More importantly, then they’re habitual. So, when I am having a bad day, like this morning, I was having a challenging emotional moment, and probably in about 10, less than 10 minutes, I’d gone through three strategies. And bang. Good to go. I’m sorted. Whereas previously, or for other people, that could last days because we don’t have those habits, we don’t have those tools in our toolkit.
Tadej: They say that people are creatures of habit, right? It is, therefore, true that putting more of the good habits (that would come from the positive psychology toolkit) in place would make it a lot simpler for us.
Sue: Absolutely. And that’s what positive psychology is about. You have a day where you are floundering, procrastinating, or whatever is not going well; you look at your strengths. That’s one of the tools that I use… and I go…. what strengths do I need? Time optimizer, right? Set an alarm, bang, and get on with it. Fifteen minutes later, I am energized because it’s my top strength. So it’s absolutely about putting those habits in place.
The views you have will change the behaviour you engage in
Tadej: The views you have will change the behaviour you engage in. That was also one of the sentences you mentioned in one of your talks, and I thought maybe you could just elaborate on that as well.
Sue: Yeah, so I think that’s interesting. If you look at several theories from emotional intelligence and positive psychology, it’s often about how our perception changes outcomes. For instance, if you think about learned optimism, that’s about challenging your thinking and flipping it. “COVID will always be here. We’ll never be able to travel again”. Or ‘Well, will COVID always be here? Maybe not. Maybe a year or so. Okay, will we be able to travel again? Maybe we can. And what will it look like?’ So, we are challenging and flipping our thinking. And the minute you do that, it changes how you show up.
It changes your narrative if you like. If you think about meaning, human beings make meaning anyway. We make meaning about all sorts of things. Years and years ago, when we didn’t understand things scientifically, we would make meaning. So, we’d see the ball of bright light going across the sky, and in some countries, it was Ra, the Sun God, pulling a ball of light across in his chariot because we didn’t understand it. And we do that all the time. Human beings make meaning of people’s behaviour. ‘Oh, he didn’t look up and smile at me this morning. I wonder what I’ve done wrong.’ We make meaning about that.
Let’s make meaning of »stuff« in a way that is helpful to us and others
We make meaning of natural disasters. ‘It was meant to happen to bring us closer together.’ We saw it a lot with COVID. It taught us what was important, so we make meaning anyway. So again, if you think about the views and perspectives, if I’m going to make meaning anyway, how about I make it positively?
How about I see the best in people? How about I find a way to consider how what I do contributes to other people? And again, it changes then how I show up. If we’re going to make meaning, let’s make it in a way that’s helpful to our well-being and helps the outcome.
People in our lives will die. People in our lives will get sick, and there will be wars you can’t control. You may get made redundant; you may have had no control over certain things. So we can’t necessarily change that, yet we can change how we approach it.
Positive view of aging prolongs life for 9 years
And the last thing I’ll mention is a few studies that I think are lovely. There was one by somebody called Levy, with colleagues Slade, Kunkel and Kasl in 2002. Hundreds of people over 50 years completed a survey.
There were some questions in the survey about their view of aging. ‘Did they view aging as a positive? Did you gain wisdom, et cetera?’ Was it a negative, as you got worse physically, mentally, et cetera? So, they had a few questions in this extensive survey that was to do with aging. And so, what they did is they took all these people’s responses and put them into two groups, those with a positive view of aging and those with a negative view of aging.
And then, 23 years after the survey was completed, they looked at who was alive and who was dead. The results were that people with a positive view of aging lived nine years longer than those with a negative view of aging.
So again, it changes outcomes, yet most importantly, it changes your behaviour because if you have a positive view of aging, you will still be physically active. You will look after yourself from a well-being and exercise perspective as much as you can. You will probably still be engaged in your social groups. You will be probably still giving back by volunteering or doing something that contributes.
I think some of these studies are cool in understanding ourselves better. If we can embrace certain elements, it changes our view, which changes our behaviour and outcomes.
Moaning and complaining can be good (in restrained manner, of course)
Tadej: It’s all about the behaviour; if you are negative about something for a long time, it will get to you in the long run – mentally and physically.
Sue: And there’s some lovely research by a Polish researcher called Wojciszke that looked at when we moan and complain. So sometimes, when we moan to somebody else, we get a reward sensation when they agree with us. We get a little dopamine. You agree with me, and I feel good. And I get it off my chest, which is excellent. So, I get a bit of social bonding, and I get to vent if you like, yet one of the things they found is within less than seven minutes of me moaning, your well-being and my well-being both take a hit. So, it drops. And I think, again, that’s useful to understand, and Tadej, you mentioned watching the bad news earlier. If you are watching the news and it’s all negative, within a few minutes, your mood drops. If you are then sharing, ‘Oh God, did you see the news last night? What are we going to do? This is terrible.’ Everybody’s well-being is taking a hit because of those sorts of things.
We need to be aware. And I have a rule now that if I’m going to vent and complain, I only do it for five minutes. So, after five minutes, that’s it. No more because we’ve both dropped our positivity after seven minutes. It means you get the benefit of bonding with someone in those first five minutes, and you don’t get the downside of the negativity
Natalie: I also have a rule. When there is something that you have to get off your chest or bothers you, you write it down, and then you burn it, and it sends negativity away.
(stay tuned for insights with Sue on happiness, coming on March 20th, the International Day of Happiness)
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