Positive Psychology in a Nutshell, by Ilona Boniwell

Why I read it 

My aim this year (and beyond) is to broaden my reading and to plough energy into what I can do as a person and leader to better understand what motivates people and helps them to thrive. Everything is on the table, and when I saw this book was recommended by some coaches that I follow, I thought I’d give it a go. The clincher for me was that Positive Psychology in a Nutshell was said to take an evidence-based approach, looking at the subject through the lens of studies and critical viewpoints.

In summary    

Positive psychology is a science of positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, wellbeing and flourishing, or in the words of its founder, Martin Seligman, the scientific study of ‘optimal human functioning’. Boniwell suggests that it was perhaps conceived because traditional psychology models focused on negative rather than positive. The book seeks to explore the different models and theories behind positive psychology, and discusses its benefits, how it can be applied to real life, and also reviews its potential limitations. The below reflection barely scratches the surface, I’m afraid, and I fear I cannot do it justice in this format. It is a fascinating book packed with studies, theorists and evaluation – I’ll certainly be re-reading.

Key takeaways

  1. Positive emotions lead to more – the ‘broaden and build’ model by Barbara Fredrickson suggests that positive experiences can have long-lasting effects on our growth and development. In summary, it proposes that positive emotions: lead to more, and a greater variety of them; improve our creativity; help us see opportunities; undo negative emotions; enhance resilience. The model suggests that positive emotions are not an end point, but a means of leading a better life.
  2. We shouldn’t dismiss negative emotions – negative emotions or events can be a trigger to facilitate learning and understanding of ourselves and the wider world. Additionally, experiencing and coping with negative experiences can have positive consequences, such as modesty, moral consideration, care, and empathy.
  3. Factors that can influence wellbeing – interestingly, research suggests some factors that can influence wellbeing include social connections, optimism, leisure activities, being married, religion, meaningful work, good sleep and exercise, and your subjective health; conversely, subjective wellbeing may not be influenced by age, physical attractiveness, money,education level, housing. It’s interesting that many things we deem important in society, have little bearing over our happiness.
  4. Wellbeing linked to goals: Lyubominsky suggests that wellbeing is enhanced when people choose to pursue goals that are: feasible, personally meaningful, intrinsic, valued by one’s culture, being progressed towards, and linked to community, intimacy and growth. Clearly, if we are pursuing things in our personal or professional lives, having meaningful goals is vital, and if they are absent, it can affect our wellbeing. This part of the book really spoke to me as someone who wants to make an impact on the development of staff.

Favourite quote

This is a good opportunity to include some other interesting facts about wellbeing:

  • While real income in prosperous nations has increased dramatically over last 50 years, wellbeing levels have remained flat
  • Desiring wealth leaves one less happy
  • Watching soap operas enhances wellbeing (allegedly!)
  • Spending money on others increases your happiness

Favourite moment

What I enjoyed was that, once the reader is giddy with positivity at the end of the book, Boniwell then includes a chapter that evaluates the possible shortcomings of positive psychology. These include drawing ‘big conclusions from weak findings’, the danger of it becoming an ideological movement, and also that if positivity becomes a societal expectation, it could trivialise or belittle the idea of people experiencing negative emotions. For a novice, it was really useful to be offered counter arguments against a subject that I had warmed to, helping me to become critical and balanced in the way I interpret positive psychology in the future.

Question and reflect

As leaders, is it useful to study psychology? Should we be delving into various models and theories about behaviour and emotions, or are we over thinking? Playing devil’s advocate, here.

What do you want to understand better about people? For instance, I found the chapter on goals (Takeaway 4) the most interesting, and one that I will go over again. For me, I can help people with their goals and development – it’s a factor I can help to influence, therefore it seems worth investing in as a subject. How about you?

Read this if…

You want to understand what positive psychology is, and a range of perspectives on the subject

You’d like to reflect on some of the causes of people’s emotions

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