Positive thinking is often promoted as the panacea of our times, with ideas of wellbeing and positivity flooding social media and corporate leadership programs. But can positive psychology really solve life's challenges?
Mindfulness, gratitude and wellbeing are concepts which have experienced a boom in recent years. Even before the turbulent years of COVID-19, natural disasters and global conflict, people sought ‘new age’ solutions to navigate life's challenges - in the quest to perform better and reach higher levels of inner harmony and happiness.
On the face of it, these ideas form part of ‘positive psychology,’ a relatively new school of thought which features a shift from focusing on the clinical ‘problem’ to the promotion of wellbeing. But not everyone is positive about positive psychology. Some critics disapprove of its simplistic interpretations and aren’t convinced that its research findings are strong enough to move so quickly towards practical interventions.
“One of the things that I see a lot, in terms of the ‘Instagram application’ of positive psychology, is this idea around intentional thoughts and how we can just ‘manifest’ things into our lives,” says Dr Sean O’Connor, Director of the University of Sydney’s Coaching Psychology Unit. “The idea that if we just think positively we can manifest a Ferrari in the driveway or somehow drastically change our experience - it doesn't work like that.”
Organisations have started to recognise over the last decade, how important the fields of coaching and positive psychology are.
Dr O’Connor applies positive psychology techniques to his work as a leadership and executive coach. At the University his research focuses on coaching psychology, which seeks to extend wellbeing, performance and growth beyond the individual, into organisations and workplaces.
“Organisations have started to recognise over the last decade how important the fields of coaching and positive psychology are,” Dr O’Connor says. “They’re realising the significance of values and purpose, and their relationship to wellbeing and performance, and we’re seeing the integration of positive psychology and coaching principles into policy and practice.”
Dr O’Connor says his life had always pointed him, in some ways, towards psychology and coaching. He grew up in Western Sydney with his family who supported over 200 foster kids, cared for by his parents from around the time he was 12 years old.
“On reflection there was this perspective that I built up from quite a young age of thinking about how other people were thinking,” Dr O’Connor says. “Because the foster kids came from such diverse backgrounds and experiences, some of them quite shocking and very different from my own, and this led me to think a lot about other people's experiences and the relation to who they were becoming.”
He did an undergraduate degree in psychology, then worked in various leadership roles across government and business, before backpacking and working in the UK. While there, he heard about a new coaching psychology unit being set up at the University of Sydney. Spearheaded by alumni, the late Professor Anthony Grant (BA Hons ‘97) and Dr Michael Cavanagh (BA Hons ‘97) it was the first of its kind worldwide when it was set up 22 years ago. Dr O’Connor applied and was among the University’s early cohorts for its Master of Science in Coaching Psychology.
“The University of Sydney really set the foundations for what coaching is today,” Dr O’Connor says. “Before that, it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants industry. Tony and Michael produced some of the early research to support it as an evidence-based approach to leadership development, emerging from a psychological evidence base.”
Dr O’Connor coined the term ‘the coaching ripple effect’, after his PhD research found a significant increase in the psychological wellbeing of employees and the attainment of their goals in organisations where leaders had participated in coaching psychology methods. He is now the Coaching Psychology Unit’s Director, a position he has held for nearly three years.
He warns, however, that the popularity of positive psychology has taken some approaches way beyond the science. “We often discover interesting aspects through research, then this gets exaggerated beyond the evidenced claims. Most solutions and change require time and effort, and not all strategies widely promoted have a strong evidence base.”
Get out into the green space, walk through a park. We’ve seen that change of place and space through connecting with nature, can help reduce stress, reset attentional capacity and provide an opportunity to envisage the bigger picture.
Dr O’Connor says that connecting with nature is one idea that does have substantial scientific support. “One of the techniques I often use with business executives, is to ask, ‘What do you do in your break?’ If you want to think more strategically, you need to refresh your attention. Get out into the green space, walk through a park. We’ve seen that change of place and space through connecting with nature, can help reduce stress, reset attentional capacity and provide an opportunity to envisage the bigger picture.”
His current research involves exploring the psychology of ‘place in space’, and he has engaged in an industry partnership with the International Tower Sydney at Barangaroo. His team is researching how the physical environment and sense of community can impact wellbeing and performance. “We’re asking questions like, ‘Does the work environment support autonomy and competence? Does it allow people to use their strengths? Does it allow people to connect with others?’”
Dr O’Connor says research also indicates that goal-setting can increase people’s wellbeing and chances of reaching their goals. “However, often, we inadvertently set what's called ‘avoidant goals’ which actually increases your attention towards the very thing you might be trying to avoid, increasing the likelihood of failure,” he says. “It’s best to focus on the thing you want to move towards, versus the thing you're trying to get away from. Evidence supports that if we think about positive emotions and look more towards possibilities, rather than problems, we can support performance and wellbeing.”
“There’s also a whole area of study around ‘flow’ - the idea that when we engage in certain activities, in which our skill level meets the challenge required, we can lose a sense of time. This tends to impact our performance and wellbeing positively, and there are techniques that you can try, to have more flow in your experiences.”
Positive affirmations can also support self-efficacy and wellbeing. “Some research shows that affirmations can increase self-confidence and lead to improvement in performance, but it’s not simply about manifesting your desires and the universe delivering,” Dr O’Connor says. “In some cases, for those low in self-efficacy or confidence, positive affirmations can actually be more harmful and work in the opposite direction.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic re-shaping the workplace landscape, Dr O’Connor is now in the early stages of research exploring the connection of employees to their workplace, how it affects their identity and how working from home has changed this.
“We’re focused on how we help leaders adapt to flexible workforces, how we can help them to view working flexibly, not just as a problem to be solved but as an innovative way to look at what our sense of self means in that environment. Then we can start to help people identify what performance and wellbeing look like in this new form of working, and perhaps even finding higher levels of satisfaction and engagement.
“It’s going to require quite a lot of adaptation and innovation to transform workplaces and to support leaders and employees in the new way of thinking,” Dr O’Connor says.
“In this field, we need to think about how we can best be critical of new research, so we can give a clear message as academics around what we support and what can be helpful. There’s a lot we can do at both individual and group levels, and leadership coaching - supported by evidence-based positive psychology - is one very strong approach that could benefit individuals, workplaces, organisations and society more broadly.”
Written by Cassandra Hill for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Illustration by Pete McDonald.