Introducing positive psychology

In the first of a new series of articles, Chris Johnstone looks at how Positive News reflects some of the principles of positive psychology and how the understandings of this new science can help us cultivate wellbeing

What is it that makes Positive News positive? I can think of four things.

The first is positive reporting, with appreciative enquiry that looks for what’s gone well rather than wrong. The second is about drawing attention to positive responses to areas that concern us, with inspiring examples of people, projects and actions that address the problems we face.

Why does Positive News do this? Because it is driven by positive values, aiming to inform, inspire and empower its readers, contributing to positive change in our lives and the world. I love these three aspects of Positive News; but what’s the fourth?

To succeed in empowering readers, Positive News needs more than just good news, inspiring examples and uplifting values. We also need coverage of insights and practices that help us all to become ‘positive newsmakers’.

Why is it, for example, that we can sometimes respond to problems in an inspiring and constructive fashion, yet at other times not even want to look? What helps us rise to the occasion, find our courage and not be put off by hurdles in the way?

“It is not simply about looking on the bright side; it is more about developing an understanding of how we, individually and collectively, can flourish in the long term”

Positive psychology explores questions like these, looking at what helps us cultivate our better aspects and offer positive responses to the challenges we face.

While often confused with positive thinking, positive psychology is something quite different. Over the last 15 years it has become a recognised branch of psychology taught in universities, as well as an international movement sharing many of the goals of Positive News.

It is not simply about looking on the bright side; it is more about developing an understanding of how we, individually and collectively, can flourish in the long term.

An insight I find helpful here is that change has two directions: away from and towards. In the 20th century, psychology focused more on the negative, on what we might want to move away from, with a hundred research papers on sadness for every one on happiness and joy.

That balance is now changing. Recent research has identified a range of positive psychology strategies that can help people become happier, as well as reduce their risk of depression and anxiety. Could learning such practices also bring wider benefits to our society and planet?

There are important links between personal, social and ecological wellbeing. Greed, for example, and an excessive appetite for resources, can cause problems at all three levels. Yet what is the opposite of greed? And is this something we can cultivate?

Interesting clues come from an experiment carried out in the 1970s by psychologist Alice Isen and her team. They wondered if being on the receiving end of a random act of kindness might increase someone’s inclination to help another in need.

In the experiment, small piles of coins were left in some public phone boxes, so that the next person using the phone would experience the unexpected benefit of a free call. Just as the person finished their call, an experimenter appeared to accidentally drop a pile of papers outside the phone box. They found that the person using the phone would be more likely to help the experimenter pick up their papers if they’d just received a free call.

This experiment is part of a growing body of evidence showing that the experience of gratitude improves our mood, strengthens our desire to help others and possibly also reduces our appetite for consumerism. A simple way to switch gratitude on is to ask yourself “who am I grateful to?”

Gratitude is a social emotion. It points your attention out beyond yourself to all those you receive from. What might happen if we all learned to experience this emotion more often?

Chris Johnstone is author of Find Your Power and co-author, with Joanna Macy, of Active Hope.