E8. Peggy Kern – Positive Psychology at 21

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Today we speak with Dr Peggy Kern, Associate Professor at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. Dr. Kern’s research utilises innovative methodologies to investigate: (a) the understanding and measurement of healthy functioning, (b) the individual and social factors impacting life trajectories, and (c) systems informed approaches to wellbeing.

Dr. Kern received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Arizona State University, a Masters and PhD in social/personality psychology from the University of California, Riverside, and postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked directly with many leading researchers in the positive psychology field, including Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth and Ryan Niemiec, among others.

I was really grateful to speak with someone so eminently qualified to discuss the progress, significance and outlook for the positive psychology field some 21 years on from its birth.

Show Notes

0:06 – On the historical importance of the positive psychology movement to date.

5:48 – On lessons learned from the self-esteem movement.

9:45 – If not happy, how should think about their efforts to make their life more ‘positive’.

11:00 She went to say ‘aspects’ of happiness but reverted to ‘type’. Clarify the language here.

14:05 – On the benefit of negative emotions.

15:00 – On what will universally, or at least usually, be beneficial for our life satisfaction.

19:17 – On personalised positive psychology.

24:15 – On what’s coming up for positive psychology as a field.

28:09 – Advice for people aspiring to conduct research within the positive psychology field.

32:53 – On the environment at the University of Pennsylvania during her time there.

34:00 – On her upcoming research projects.

Highlight  Quote – “A lot of what the positive psychology interventions are trying to do is to awaken people to the narrative that they have of their life and shift that narrative.”

0:06 – On the historical importance of the positive psychology movement to date.

A lot of good and important work on wellbeing had been done over the past century, but in 1998, Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Christopher Peterson launched the modern positive psychology movement. This brought an order and unification to the field that catalysed an enormous wave of effort. This effort has resulted in an explosion of research articles and courses, and an influence well beyond psychology, with a positive perspective being incorporated into medicine, healthcare, organisations, education and even the humanities. The lasting impact of the field on psychology as a science is still an open question.

5:48 – On lessons learned from the self-esteem movement.

The heart of what the self-esteem movement got wrong is that for self-esteem to be healthy, it needs to be grounded on things like hard work and accomplishment. The movement was a classic case of mistaking correlation for causation, and action mobilising prematurely thanks to a receptive media and hopeful audience. Now there is much more rigour in the science and an appreciation for the fact that happy feelings often and profoundly arise in relation to struggle, responsibility and challenge

9:45 – If not happy, how should think about their efforts to make their life more ‘positive’.

The field has moved to a much greater focus on eudaemonic aspects of happiness, which focus on meaning and contentment, compared to more hedonic aspects of happiness in the early days, which focus on pleasant, enjoyable experiences. Living a good life then becomes about authentically, utilising your strengths to contribute to the world. The enjoyable feelings of hedonic happiness then flow as a result of living a good life, and act as signs that we are on the right track.

11:00 She went to say ‘aspects’ of happiness but reverted to ‘type’. Clarify the language here.

14:05 – On the benefit of negative emotions.

Negative emotions can tell us when something is not right. We should be experiencing a full range of emotions, not avoiding negative ones. But equally, we shouldn’t be stuck in negative emotions.

15:00 – On what will universally, or at least usually, be beneficial for our life satisfaction.

Although everyone is different, we’ve long known that certain things tend to be associated with a healthier and more satisfying life. For example, high quality social connection and health-promoting behaviours such as sleep, eating and exercise. The same is true for psychological orientations, such as gratitude and an optimistic mindset.

19:17 – On personalised positive psychology.

Most of the research is not focused on a personalised approach, but instead looking to see whether something applies at a population level. Personalised approaches have been more thoroughly considered in applied setting, such as by coaches who are informed by positive psychological approaches. Peggy sees research done in collaboration with practitioners as a likely approach to delineating personalised approached to positive psychology. However, we are still in the early days of these sorts of collaborations.

24:15 – On what’s coming up for positive psychology as a field.

In the early days, research focused on low-hanging fruit (eg. demonstrating an increase in positive emotion following an intervention) in order to establish the field. But as the field has matured, the importance of individual differences, other aspects of wellbeing, and context have become evident. The next wave of research and researchers will focus on these topics. In terms of methodologies, Peggy expects more research to be produced out of collaborations with practitioners, greater use of qualitative and mixed methods with a focus on better understanding people’s lived experiences instead of quantitative but contrived approaches, such as self-report questionnaires.

28:09 – Advice for people aspiring to conduct research within the positive psychology field.

Peggy recommends that aspiring researchers: (a) train in another area of psychology, or another discipline altogether, as the most innovative work tends to be done at the intersection of different fields, (b) train in methods, such as qualitative methods, mixed methods, big data and machine learning, and especially method that seem potentially useful to you area of interest (c) develop basic programming skills (in for example Python or R) as it’s a skill that will make you a valuable addition to many projects and is very useful for visualisation. (d) connect with others in the field, from peers through to the most distinguished, and (e) work across disciplines and train in other ways of thinking.

32:53 – On the environment at the University of Pennsylvania during her time there.

The University of Pennsylvania was a very collaborative environment. Early collaborations there with for example computer scientists, helped Peggy to realise that she doesn’t need be an expert in everything and take a strengths-based perspective.

34:00 – On her upcoming research projects.

Peggy continues to be interested in the power of language, which is not only a way that we express out thoughts, emotions and personality, but our way of thinking (and by extension feeling and being) can be changed by purposefully shifting language and can be used as an unobtrusive measure of functioning. A lot of what the positive psychology interventions are trying to do is to awaken people to the narrative that they have of their life and shift that narrative. She is also continuing to work on systems-informed positive psychology which shift the focus of the individual to the individual as part of a collective.

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