In 1998, Martin Seligman was appointed as the president of the American Psychological Association and is widely recognised as responsible for bringing attention and focus to Positive Psychology, defined as the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions. This focus on wellbeing, growth and expansion, on how to flourish and thrive balances the more deficit and pathology focused traditional school of psychology.
Seligman is often referred to as the “Father” of the positive psychology movement. His prior work on Learned Helplessness, a thought pattern where someone feels unable to change negative circumstances, had led to his developing his theory of Learned Optimism, the contrasting process of recognising and challenging pessimistic thoughts in order to develop more positive behaviours.
This insight opened the door to this whole new area of psychology and Seligman’s PERMA model – five components that he theorised people pursue because they are intrinsically motivating and contribute to wellbeing and happiness. These are:
- Positive Emotion
It’s important to understand that proponents of positive psychology such as Seligman are not suggesting that we need to be in a Perpetual Pollyanna state of happiness – that’s neither possible or desirable. Rather it encompasses a commitment to understanding and applying strategies that allow us to spend more time experiencing positive emotions and less time in the negative emotions. Negative emotions are an appropriate, necessary and normal part of life and only a problem if we become stuck, potentially leading to anxiety, depression and other maladies.
Whilst Seligman is responsible for shining the light on this school of psychology and his work has had significant impact, there are many more inspiring researchers and psychologists whose insights were developed prior to 1998 and who continue to broaden and deepen this field today.
An understanding of the core components of positive psychology can add value to everyone, but I am particularly interested in the impact of insights this field of psychology can have on the entrepreneurial world as I have seen first-hand the challenges the self-employed experience, especially when it comes to self-confidence and self-worth.
Forbes describes depression as an “epidemic amongst entrepreneurs and creatives”. According to a study at UC Berkeley, 72% of entrepreneurs in this sample self-reported mental health concerns. Entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to report a history of depression (30%) and substance use conditions (12%) than the general population.
Thus, as a business owner in uncertain, challenging, competitive and increasingly fragmented markets, having knowledge of strategies that can assist you to flourish psychologically is a significant benefit, an insurance policy if you like, to help you surf the waves of the entrepreneurial ocean.
What are the core concepts in positive psychology?
Positive Psychology is a mix of subjective and psychological wellbeing and is complemented by the concept of mindfulness – defined in this sense, as the art of training the mind into high states of focused awareness. This state brings with it an array of benefits including better quality relationships and better decision making, outcomes we can all benefit from in business and life.
Subjective wellbeing (SWB) refers to how we experience and evaluate our lives and specific domains and activities we are involved with. It’s also referred to as self-reported well-being because, as the name suggests, its measurement relies upon how you see yourself and your experiences.
Professor Ed Diener, one of the world’s foremost SWB researchers, developed a tripartite model of subjective well-being in 1984. It describes how people experience the quality of their lives and includes both emotional reactions and cognitive judgments. To ascertain your level of SWB, we measure:
- Positive affect – how often you experience positive emotions and interact with others and with life’s challenges in a positive way
- Negative affect – how often you experience the world in a more negative way, feeling negative emotions and more negativity in relationships and surroundings
- Cognitive evaluations of life satisfaction – how rich, meaningful, full, or of high quality you feel about your current life and your directions and options for the future
The subjective wellbeing component of positive psychology tends to fall more on the hedonistic side of life – the measurement of pleasure, delight, enjoyment over a short period of time, perhaps even on a given day.
Naturally, being aware of what brings you joy and happiness is an important part of life. From an entrepreneurial perspective, it can also influence your choice of products to create and services to provide in your business based on how you feel when you offer them, but there is another level to explore beyond this immediate measure – psychological well-being.
Expanding your psychological well-being
Professor Carol Ryff created one of the first systematic models of Psychological Well-Being in 1989. Her model is multidimensional, defining a good life as one that is balanced and whole, engaging six core aspects of well-being.
Professor Ryff looked beyond how the pleasures in life create subjective well-being to explore a longer-term approach to enhancing our life. Her model emphasises the interplay of engagement, purpose and meaning, our ability to determine our own choices and activities, to impact our environment, interact with others, and accept ourselves whilst also being open to growth.
Let’s explore how these components of this model are highly relevant to business
We can see the influence of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and perhaps even Carl Jung and others in Ryffs work and feel its depth and truth. This theory resonates with me in my work as a Business Mentor and Self-Worth Educator where I emphasise the importance of a sense of contribution and fulfilment and the importance of wrapping your business around your core values for it to be sustainable. This focus becomes ever more important in your next chapter which I define as the years from your mid 40’s and beyond when we often shift from “ambition to meaning” as described by the author, Wayne Dyer.
I also believe that these components of psychological wellbeing hold the keys to addressing a common challenge I see in business owners –comparison with others and the ensuing doubt that results. Since, as screeds of research by Ryff and others has demonstrated, our well-being is tied to our sense of purpose and autonomy, having the sovereignty to develop a business concept and model that reflects what you stand for and believe, that has your own personal sense of purpose at its core, plays a key part in the generation of positive emotions.
Accepting your own path of growth as you build that business, in accordance with your vision, desires and experiences is an investment in your own well-being. Comparison be damned – as an entrepreneur, you are the epitome of unapparelled, individual expression and that is tremendously good for your psyche!
In my own situation, I have what I call an “intimate business model”, primarily facilitating masterminds and retreats where I definitely develop positive relationships with others that endure over time and am delighted to witness the supportive camaraderie that develops between the participants.
On the Wellbeing Report that I completed as a student in the Diploma of Positive Psychology, I discovered that I have a high level of “flourishing” in the area of psychological health and wellbeing, and I am sure that the deep satisfaction I enjoy from my work plays a strong part in this result. Now that I have a deeper appreciation of the important role our purpose-oriented businesses can play in our psychological wellbeing, I will be exploring how I can further expand and leverage the components of Ryffs model for my clients.
There is an excellent explanation of the six aspects of the model here.
Broaden and build your personal resources
Once you recognise the potential of being personally grounded in psychological and subjective wellbeing through the lens of your business, an understanding of Barbara Frederickson’s ‘Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotions is the next port of call.
In one of my favourite books, Positivity, Fredrickson explains how the 3 to 1 positivity ratio can transform your life. Prior to her work, there was a far higher emphasis on negative emotions in psychology, a dedication to finding the cause and cure for emotions such as anger, depression and stress, as these have measurable, undesirable outcomes.
At the heart of her Broaden and Build theory, Fredrickson argues that negative emotions narrow our thinking and actions and positive emotions broaden these repertoires, allowing us access to a far broader range of possible thoughts and behaviours. Positive emotions help to:
- strengthen our intellectual resources, improve our problem-solving skills and allow us to take in more information
- improve our physical resources, helping to develop our strength and cardiovascular health
- Increase our social resources, solidify bonds between people and facilitate the development of new bonds
- And expand our psychological resources, helping us to develop resilience and optimism, developing our sense of identity and pursuit of goals
Pause for a moment and consider just how much sense this makes. How often have you come up with a fabulous new idea or solution to a problem when you’re feeling negative, stressed and overwhelmed? There seems to be no way through… In contrast, when you are in a positive, hopeful state of mind, possibilities are endless.
How can you increase your positive emotions?
It seems I’m fortunate to have hope and optimism wired into me – I discovered they are in my top strengths when I was profiled as a part of my Diploma studies.
But I know this has not always been the case.
Back in 2006, when I was stepping with fear and uncertainty into my next chapter in the recovery movement as a newly sober woman, hope and positivity were very newly planted seeds, with nothing yet to be seen poking out through the soil.
What I have discovered in the many years since then is that there are practices, definite strategies that increase the experience of positive emotions. You can get the Broaden and Build ball rolling with your own intentions – and that’s where I’ve found Mindfulness, that I touched on earlier comes fully into play.
Mindfulness is defined as a sustained awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. You may associate it with a meditation style of practise, and it is very useful in that context, but it offers so much more. Dr. Ellen Langer, the first woman to gain tenure in Harvard’s psychology department, expands the traditional definition to include the process of actively noticing new things and challenging our natural human tendencies to be inattentive – mindless.
In her book “Mindfulness”, Langer shows us that how we think and where and how we choose to focus directly correlates to the way we feel, what we do, and the level of satisfaction we perceive and experience. We have the ability to consciously choose, generate and experience more positivity in our lives.
In addition to a gratitude journaling practice that has reshaped my mindset by filtering for the good in my life each and every day, two simple strategies I use to generate more positive emotions are my Fabulous File and my Ta-Dah list.
Create a Fabulous File to generate positive emotions
A Fabulous File is a physical collection of your fabulosity, big and small – client feedback, goals achieved, screenshots of comments and feedback on social media, cards received, photographs at events, anything that makes you smile and feel good about what you’ve achieved. The key is, it needs to be physical, not digital.
When I am about to tackle something new or challenging, or when I have an emotional dip in my business, doubting my ability, I deliberately, mindfully, spend time in my Fabulous File. Rereading feedback, pouring over photos, remembering goals achieved and challenges overcome I am leveraging Seligman’s “Accomplishment” arm of his PERMA model of wellbeing, mindfully generating positive emotions ala Ellen Langer and thus, broadening my thoughts and access to new possibilities.
I find my optimism and confidence blossoms every time and encourage every one of my clients to create their own file too.
The motivational power of a Ta-Dah List
As a business owner, it’s safe to say your To-Do list has the ability to replicate itself and propagate like a virus. Someone once observed that they would still have an incomplete To-Do list when they were on their deathbed – a rather sobering thought!
Seeing how much still needs to be done at the end of each day can generate less than positive emotions. And as we know, these feelings can impact your mood, restricting your ability to think clearly, broadly and creatively.
That’s when a Ta-Dah list can flip the script.
Quite simply, at the end of your working day, you take the time to mindfully, thoughtfully, extract and record the actions, large and small that you did accomplish. This is your Ta-Dah list and reflecting on it and the progress you have made, rather than only thinking of what you still have to do and how far you still have to go, is the process I call Reverse Gapping. A Ta-Dah list is a reliable generator of positive emotions, expands your psychological resources, helping you to develop resilience and optimism, in the pursuit of your goals.
Tomorrow really is another day when you have a series of Ta-Dah lists under your entrepreneurial belt.
A commitment to Personal Growth
As we’ve seen, Professor Carol Ryff identified personal growth as a core component of psychological well-being.
Mindful awareness of where you are at today and how you would like to broaden and build your own resources, and then committing to this growth is as important as committing to the development of your business. Indeed, each benefits the other – you can never expand your business more than you expand yourself.
We all desire to grow and make a positive impact in our own way. I believe that’s what we’re ultimately here for and the insights and guidance that positive psychology provides on a personal and community level can increase the ripples of that impact.
I find I best consolidate my learning by sharing it with others and so this is the first of several blog posts I’ll be creating about how the theories, research and developments in the field can assist business owners, leaders, consultants, coaches and practitioners to build their own capacity, so they are able to joyfully contribute to the world at a deeper level.
I’ll be looking for ways to incorporate the principles of the movement and the insights I am gaining into my own work. My first action is to weave the components of Psychological Well Being into the heart of my Next Chapter Business Masterminds and to curate a series of resources – videos, articles and practical worksheets into the program curriculum.
I’m excited by the possibilities and have ideas popping right now. This is a great example of the power of positive emotions on activating more of your brain and increasing your propensity to take action, so I’ll end this post and get cracking!
P.S: To read more about the Next Chapter Business Mastermind program click here –increasing your social resources is a key part of Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build theory, and the opportunity for connection and collaboration is unprecedented in a mastermind!