Why & how to use positive psychology

Positive psychology is defined as ‘the scientific study of optimal human functioning, that aims to discover and promote the factors that make people thrive and flourish‘. I’ve recently done a course on this fascinating subject, and have included the most relevant findings below.

Why & How to Use Positive Psychology

Historically, psychology looks at what’s wrong with people in order to help them get better. It focuses on negatives such as weaknesses and avoiding pain, but the best it can achieve is to get them to neutral (zero).

By contrast, the positive psychology model helps move people to a place where the focus is on strengths and pursuing happiness, so they can thrive and flourish. Established in 2000, there are now 1.5m papers and over 4,000 books written on the subject, and it’s gaining a lot of credibility.


In positive psychology, ‘flourishing’ refers to optimal human functioning (Fredrickson, 2005). A flourishing life stems from mastering all four of these parts:

  1. Goodness: made up of happiness, contentment and effective performance
  2. Generativity: about making life better for future generations
  3. Growth: involves the use of personal and social assets
  4. Resilience: reflects survival and growth after enduring a hardship

Introducing the PERMA model

Most recent thinking about positive psychology has been evolved by Martin Seligman of Authentic Happiness. He’s developed his initial thinking further and created a model called PERMA that he believes contain the key components that enable us to flourish:

Positive emotions:  To experience happiness, we need to experience positive emotions and enjoy the ‘here and now’, rather than always focusing on the past or future
Engagement: Being ‘in flow’, completely immersed in the moment and losing the sense of time
Relationships: We humans are social creatures and strong positive relationships are essential to our wellbeing (see the ‘happiness scorecard’ below and my previous article on resilience and stress)
Meaning: Having a purpose beyond yourself
Accomplishment/achievement: Having goals and succeeding in whatever you choose to do

At different times in life, these five aspects of wellbeing will vary.

Q. What do they look like at the moment for you?
Q. How do you feel about that?
Q. What would you like them to be?

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”
Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist & Author

Emotions in Action model

The diagram on the right provides a useful way to summarise emotional ‘zones’, whether at work or home. At first glance you may wish to be in the ‘thriving zone’, and this is certainly a great place to be! However, no-one can stay in the thriving zone forever; it’s too exhausting. The recharge zone is very important  and valuable. In my work, I often see people go from thriving to burnout, or from thriving to surviving to burnout – ideally you will be moving between thriving and recharge.

Q. Which zone are you in now?
Q. What value do you get from being there?
Q. What triggers you to go into the surviving zone?
Q. How can you capitalise on being in the thriving zone?
Q. How can you get into the recharge zone? When will this be the best place to be?
Q. What strategies can you use to get yourself out of burnout? To stop yourself going there in the first place?

As the leader, the zone you are in affects the whole team (so you need to role model ‘thriving’ or ‘recharge’ even if you don’t feel like it!).

“A leader is a dealer in hope.”
Napoleon Bonaparte


High-performing teams

Marcial Losada and his team observed 60 management teams and tracked the language they used against three performance dimensions: profit and loss, customer satisfaction surveys and 360 reviews.

It seems that high-performing teams:

  • Use notably more positive language in team conversations
  • Ask questions as much as they defend their own views
  • Cast attention outwards as much as inwards

The research showed that positivity can produce disproportionate outcomes, with lasting flexibility, creativity and – above all – resilience when adversity hits. Other teams crumble under pressure, perhaps because they don’t have enough positivity to ‘bounce back’. Again, this fits with the recent article I wrote about resilience and stress.

Marcial quotes: “A team is most successful when its members are well connected, is able to balance external vs. internal orientation as well as inquiry and advocacy, and keeps a P/N ratio within the Losada Zone (greater than or equal to about 3:1 and not more than about 11:1). We have taken measurements all the way from Finland to Patagonia. In the Losada Zone, a team is able to flourish (and earn a lot of money as a side bonus) and to be ‘in the flow’ (time seems to go by and creativity thrives). Out of the zone, a team languishes visiting over and over the same old routines that keep them stuck, without ever getting to know the best of themselves.”
Potential barriers to happiness

  1. Genetics: What we have inherited by way of an optimistic or pessimistic tendency in your genetic make-up.
  2. Social comparison: We all tend to compare ourselves with others in order to make ourselves feel better (or worse). This is a significant factor  – how often do you do this?  What effect does it have for you?
  3. Adaptation: We believe if we lose weight/go shopping/change jobs etc., we will be happy. However, it doesn’t get to the root cause of what is making us unhappy.

The good news is we can address all of these by taking action and making the right habits, using the PERMA model as a guide. Also, see the ‘Happiness Scorecard’ and ‘Tips for Yourself’ sections below for more thoughts.

Happiness scorecard

Research has found a positive correlation between various things and happiness:

  • Optimism
  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Money up to a surprisingly low point = £22,000 in the UK
  • Close friendships (this has the highest correlation of all)
  • Religion
  • Meaning and purpose in life

Money money money?

Wealth may be strongly correlated with life satisfaction but the correlation between money and emotional wellbeing is weak. The pursuit of money may lead people to ignore leisure time and relationships, both of which contribute to happiness. The pursuit of money at the risk of jeopardising your personal relationships and sacrificing enjoyment from your leisure activities is not a route to happiness.

Money (or pursuit of money) has been shown to hinder people’s ability to savour everyday experiences. In a study, wealthy individuals reported lower levels of savouring ability (the ability to prolong positive emotion) than their poorer peers.

Many studies have shown that nations are happier when people’s needs are met. Some studies suggest, however, that people are happier after spending money on experiences, rather than physical things. In fact, shopping has a negative correlation with happiness, due to social comparison and adaptation which have the most negative impact.

Lottery winners report higher levels of happiness immediately after their win, but their happiness levels return to normal baseline rates within months to years which further suggests that money does not cause long-term happiness.

Tips for yourself

Importantly, your baseline happiness is not entirely determined by genetics, and not even by early life influences. Actions and habits are the way to go. Happiness-boosting habits include gratitude, appreciation, altruistic behaviour, effective exercise, and a healthier diet.

  • Make time for your friends and other relationships that are positive for you
  • Get enough sleep
  • Get the right work:life balance for you
  • Spend time on activities that get you in the ‘flow’
  • Have a personal development plan
  • Pay attention to the needs of others, and be curious/open to the views of others
  • Be able to recognise, understand and manage your emotions
  • Take time to identify your strengths and make sure you integrate them in your work and life (I have some tools that can help you with this, so please contact me if you’d like more information)

Tips for line managers

  • Practice giving positive feedback to a greater ratio than developmental (min 3:1)
  • Know your people as individuals and provide opportunities that play to their strengths and areas of interest
  • Focus on building a culture that: has supportive relationships; has fun and creates positive memories/rituals; provides for personal development; provides work that is meaningful; and allows people to say what they think
  • Maintain a positive frame of mind whilst being realistic (see my article on What’s the role of the leader?)
  • Role model a healthy work:life balance
  • Spend more time in the recharge zone (‘Emotions in Action’ model above) to create space for your team to take a breath, reflect and learn
  • Have team goals and objectives, track progress and celebrate success along the way
  • If things go wrong, focus on how to put it right, then help the team learn from it

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like help to use positive psychology within your organisation.

Next month, we look at charismatic leadership.