Write down your 'what went wells' and use your 'active constructive' words

Guest blogger Jackie Cooper

'Positive psychology' pioneer (and grump) Martin Seligman spoke recently about what's new in this new stream of psychology, and how he learnt how to be optimistic (detailed in his new book, The Hope Circuit). Here are a few doable positive psychology tips and takeaways:

  • How to give up on being grumpy

  • Three positive things you can do at work

  • Plus, three random takeaways

Anxious, grumpy, popular and highly criticised

Martin Seligman is not a naturally positive guy. He also suffers from anxiety. His teens and 20s were fraught. The tipping point came when his daughter Nikki - then five years-old - told him that he should give up on being grumpy because she as able to give up whining.

He told us this story during an hour-long talk called Martin Seligman on Hope and Helplessness. It was hosted by the Melbourne office of The School of Life (TSOL) - an educational company that offers advice on life issues. The talk was held at the Melbourne Convention Centre in a large theatre that was pretty full by the time the local TSOL boss said her bit and the audience lights were turned off.

"Can we have the lights on please?" Seligman asked (or something like it). "I like to see who I'm talking to."

Around 30 minutes into the talk Seligman admitted that being able see attentive, appreciative faces helps relieve the anxiety. The self-doubt and 'I'm too old to be doing this' (he's 75 years-old) thoughts disappear for a while.

His would be a hard job for someone who struggles with anxiety. The guy is very much the face behind the 20 year-old new domain of psychology that has reacted against old domains of 'disease model' psychology (e.g. psycho-analysis and behaviourism).

He's popular. He's quotable. He has written a bunch of bestsellers. He's the chairman of the University of Pennsylvania's 'Positive Psychology Center'. He gets around. He worked with the Pentagon to help with soldiers with PSTD. He has met with Dalai Lama. He has had conversations with Dubai's Minister if State for Happiness. He has helped kick off dozens of school positive psychology programs, including the one at Geelong Grammar School. He told us during the talk that he's even doing some work with the British government.

As the very public face of positive psychology (which he co-founded with two others), Seligman and positive psychology have attracted a fair amount of criticism and people eager to find holes in the theories.

"I was with some uni friends," Master of Applied Positive Psychology student Megan Corcoran said. "We all felt a little odd sitting there having spent the last two months critiquing Seligman's work, pulling it all apart.

"I took a lot of notes and will take a lot of ideas from it. It gave me more hope for my students, and shattered some of my ideas for my current assignment (the need for wellbeing literacy when interacting with traumatised kids)."

Corcoran teaches at a school for disadvantaged teenagers. In recent years she has introduced a number of wellbeing practices - such as meditation and cultivating gratitude through journaling - to help her often traumatised students better engage with their education and classmates.

The positive psychology model - PERMA - was Corcoran's entry into positive psychology. PERMA helped her introduce the language of wellbeing to her students ("my kids understand PERMA").

The PERMA model - which Seligman calls a 'wellbeing theory' - identifies the elements that foster individual happiness as (you need to work on all five):

P - positive emotion E - engagement R - relationships M - meaning A - accomplishments

"The thing I walked away with was the PERMA framework and all the wonderful applications of such a simple concepts. Expressing gratitude seems to put people in a headspace where they're more receptive to information. I'm hoping to use the framework in my PhD research."

Melissa Hatty, psychologist and Monash University Graduate Research Industry (GRIP) program PhD candidate

PERMA isn't the only positive psychology model out there. The others - Keyes (Complete Mental Health Model), Ryff (Six Factor Model for Psychological Wellbeing) and Diener (Subjective Wellbeing) - are similar to PERMA. Some even came out before PERMA.

"It's all about repackaging," Corcoran said. "Despite any holes, the reality is that Martin Seligman has changed the language used in the psychology world, and because of him, grants and studies are going into wellbeing, human flourishing and what makes life worth living. He's achieved a lot with his life.

"And the world is a lot better for it. He's also super genuine. At a recent education conference he spent the breaks mingling, drinking cups of tea with everyone and wanting to meet people."

Popular Martin Seligman draws in a diverse audience.

"How many of you are psychiatrists?" he asked the audience.

Around 40-50 psychiatrists put their hands up. Around 10-15 relationship counsellors had put their hands up a few minutes earlier. There were no doubt a large contingent of psychologists, academics and students. But there were also people like you and me there - project managers, writers, facilitators, office managers, lawyers, teachers, etc.

This is because positive psychology practices can be applied to pretty much everything we do in life. Here are a few things that can be tackled individually or at work.

How to give up on being grumpy

According to Seligman, we fall into two camps - negative thinkers and positive thinkers. When negative thinkers experience something bad, they feel as things will stay bad. Positive thinkers believe that the bad is temporary.

As a naturally negative thinker, he worked/works hard at learning 'hope' to turn off the 'helplessness' that comes from thinking that bad things will stay bad. Here are a few ways he maximises happiness in his own life:

#1 He works at staying positive (the P in PERMA).

"Someone asked if optimism is innate for him now," Corcoran said. "He said that it is a learnt experience now and is always a conscious process for him."

#2 He's 75 and still gets up on stage and gets involved in projects (the E in PERMA)

Seligman is very engaged in many aspects of positive psychology - the scientists, researchers, students, studies, projects, funding, promotion, etc.

#3 He works at relationships and engages with people (the R in PERMA)

During his TSOL talk he acknowledged and gave gratitude to the many people who he has worked with over the years. He uses his 'active constructive' words with his wife Mandy. He stepped off the stage to be face-to-face when answering audience questions.

There's more detail about how he made the shift from helplessness to optimism is in his new book, The Hope Circuit (apparently only the last third of the book has material not published in his previous books).

This The Hope Circuit review points out that he really cares a lot about the legacy he will leave. So it's unlikely he will retire soon. So expect him to continue to find meaning (the M in PERMA) and pursue a number of things he wants to achieve in the field (the A in PERMA).

Three things you can do at work

We're better at problem solving when we're experiencing positive emotion (according to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson).

So how can we experience positive emotions at work?

#1 Talk about your 'what went wells'

Seligman set us a bit of homework - for seven days, we had to write down three things that well each day. It's one of his little tricks, something he still does every day.

How can this work in the office?

To kick off a meeting, maybe each team member can start with one 'what went well' before going through what they did the day before and what they'll be doing today. If your team has weekly meetings, perhaps kick off with a whip-around of 'what went wells'.

Want to do the Seligman homework? Here's a 'what went well today' worksheet.

#2 Use your 'active constructive' words

Seligman told the story about 'the pink tie'. It may end up being the story most people will remember from the night.

Wife Mandy bought him a pale pink tie before the Sydney TSOL talk. 'It's too expensive!' he told her (or something like it). He recognised that he'd responded with 'active destructive' and not 'active constructive' words (e.g. 'thanks, I have a pink shirt that'll go well with it').

"In short there are ways we tend to respond to each other in intimate relationships -

active and passive, with constructive or destructive," Corcoran said.

Active destructive: points out negative aspects of the situation

Passive destructive: ignores the situation/person completely

Passive constructive: supports someone, but in a passive way

Active constructive: supports someone in a positive way

To get your 'active constructive' words flowing, ask open-ended questions, talk about common experiences, acknowledge your/their feelings, be physically present in the conversation and celebrate the wins together.

#3 Foster a culture of helping others

Find someone who is struggling and help them. This was Martin Seligman's tip to begin the journey towards optimism in order to offer some relief from the effects of depression.

"It's a quick way to feel happy," said a university lecturer who has lived with depression on-and-off for a couple of decades. "And in a work context, strengthens teams and builds/maintains morale, leading to a better work environment."

If you're a boss, maybe you can institute a practice where teammates offer an hour or two of their time each week to helping a colleague. As an individual, you can keep an eye out for a struggling colleague, offer one or two hours of your time to lessen the load. Or just talk…

Plus, three random takeaways

#1 Ask someone else to introduce wellbeing practices to your teen

Seligman said that teenagers don't listen to their parents. They listen to their peers first, then their teachers, mentors, etc.

So, based on this, if you have a negative teen struggling with anxiety and/or depression, find an alternate route to introduce them to positive psychology. Or maybe an after-school program with more positive-inclined peers.

#2 Get the men in your life to think positively - they'll live longer

Pessimism is a health risk. Seligman said that the health risk(s) of pessimism is equivalent to smoking 2.5 packets of cigarettes per week. Pessimistic middle-aged men are particularly at risk - from heart disease.

#3 Have 'hope' that future generations will not have to live with depression

Depression may no longer exist by the end of our lifetimes. Yes, Seligman said this. It's a big call.

During the first half of his TSOL talk, he looked at research into the 'dorsal raphe nucleus' and the 'ventro medial prefrontal cortex'. The connection between these two bits of the brain is what he calls this the 'hope circuit'. Activating a blocked 'hope circuit' (through shock) may reduce passivity and helplessness.

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