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Is Positive Psychology Proven?

Interview with Dr. Peggy Kern

How confident can we really be about the effectiveness of positive psychology interventions? Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the research around how people can create and maintain their wellbeing, with more than 18,000 peer-reviewed research articles published. But what are all of these studies really telling us?

In our hunger to feel good and function effectively, it’s tempting to devour these evidence-based insights and practices as sure-fire solutions for consistently flourishing. The reality is however, that good science is never proven.

“Science is a process that keeps evolving over time, it makes mistakes, it corrects points of views, it’s always learning and as a result it’s never proven,” explained Dr. Peggy Kern, a senior lecturer in the Center for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education when I interviewed her recently. “It’s through this process that theories, studies, and applications evolve and we move closer to finding out how things actually happen. This is how science is supposed to work.”

To ensure we do no harm as we draw on what researchers are learning, it’s also important we understand when it comes to human behavior even the best studies only tell us what works for some of the people, some of the time. No study guarantees an intervention or practice will work for everybody.

“When it comes to the impact an intervention has there can be a lot of variation between people with different personalities and in different social environments,” explained Peggy. “Just because a study finds a certain practice helped to make a significant number of people happy, doesn’t mean it will work for you. It might. And it might not.”

So how should we use positive psychology research?

Peggy suggests three approaches for leveraging the research on wellbeing effectively:

  • Take an optimistic but cautious approach - While you need to be cautious of single study findings, over time as more and more studies find similar results a consensus view is developed of what works, and these can become your best practice guidelines based on the available evidence at that time. Be open to the process of ongoing feedback about what does and doesn’t work, and don’t fear the critics who help to refine our approaches and take our understanding to a deeper level.
  • Be an informed and active participant – There’s a lot of value in exploring different research ideas, trying different practices and discovering what does and doesn’t work when it comes to improving wellbeing. By playing with multiple possibilities you have the opportunity to become an active participant in learning about and shaping your wellbeing and you’ll be more committed to the practices you’ve chosen. It’s important to remember that you're trying to build a wellbeing mindset and wellbeing behaviors that will be beneficial over time, rather than just finding one perfect intervention.
  • Practice polarity thinkingPolarity thinking allows you to embrace two seemingly opposing values that can complement each other when applied in a balanced way and help you to maintain and improve the outcomes you achieve. It is the “both-and” thinking that recognizes the value of positive and negative emotions, building your strengths and fixing your weaknesses, flourishing and functioning when it comes to your wellbeing. Try to be mindful about what’s working best for you in the situation you’re in and for the outcomes you want to achieve at any moment in time.

You can play further with Peggy’s approaches for using the science of positive psychology to become an informed and active participant in your own wellbeing using the free PERMAH Workplace Survey.