With the political future of the free world hanging in an ever-tightening, if somewhat undignified, balance, many are wondering how the politicians of the future will support their constituents’ hopes for better community well-being.
From the outset, it should be said that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has proposed policies related to positive psychology.
And positive psychology, being an objective field of scientific inquiry, has no stated position on politics, right?
Wrong! In his 2012 book Flourish, Martin Seligman, the researcher often credited as the founder of positive psychology, has stated very clearly where this field hovers on the political spectrum—it exists squarely above the usual left/right divide.
“There is a politics behind positive psychology. It is not a politics of left versus right, however, . . . positive psychology is a politics that advocates no particular means but rather another end. That end is not wealth or conquest but well-being. Material prosperity matters to Positive Psychology, but only insofar as it increases well-being” (p. 221).
Partisanship and Positive Psychology
Unfortunately, politics seldom respects the neutrality of scientific inquiry–just ask any climate scientist. And despite positive psychology’s clearly stated position of remaining above “political arm wrestling,” some left/right arguments inevitably creep in.
For example, some poignant questions have arisen about whether governments should be in the business of community well-being. Shouldn’t well-being be left to individual responsibility? Should my taxes pay for your wellbeing? And who decides if positive psychology is more deserving than other fields of funding or research grants?
The progressive case for public investment in community well-being has been advanced by people such as Sir Anthony Seldon, a leading academic and positive psychology advocate. Seldon has advocated that the United Kingdom’s government should adopt well-being as a target for national policy. He has also argued that public sector workforces would benefit from resilience and well-being training.
But this view hasn’t gone unchallenged. Stoic philosopher Jules Evans, who opposes such funding, wrote:
“Can you imagine–the Coalition government is cutting public sector budgets across the board, but it finds (let’s say) £1 billion to give to Martin Seligman and the University of Pennsylvania, to train public sector workers to think optimistically? ‘Sorry, guys, we’re cutting your pensions, but hey, here’s a free course in thinking positively'” (2013).
Seligman’s Vision: PERMA 51
For his part, Seligman has set out the positive psychology “manifesto” known as PERMA 51, referred to as the field’s “moon shot.” Like John F. Kennedy’s bold vision of reaching for the heavens, Seligman has envisioned a world in which by the year 2051, 51% of the world’s population will be flourishing.
Seligman also described the role of governments in working toward this vision, stating that the vision will be “aided by a new politics in which government across the world will be judged by how much it increases not just GDP but also the well-being of the governed” (Seligman, 2015, p. 240).
To achieve this on a large scale, positive psychology will need to reach across the political divide. It will need to work in partnership with various ideologies and governments of different political persuasions.
So how can positive psychology appeal to the opposing worldviews of conservatives and progressives in order to make PERMA 51 happen?
Why Conservatives Should Support PERMA 51
The benefits of investing in positive psychology in the business sector, such as increased productivity and better staff retention, are well-documented.
Beyond the growing body of evidence gathered by positive psychology researchers, independent analysis by Gallup (Sorenson, 2014) has found that when companies focus on building employees’ strengths, there are greater improvements in productivity and performance compared to the traditional focus on minimizing weaknesses.
When employees know what their strengths are and how to use them, they are more engaged, perform better, and are less likely to leave their employers.
In addition to this hard-nosed business case for positive psychology, a more subtle example can be seen at Geelong Grammar School in Australia. Geelong Grammar School is a private boarding school whose alumni include Prince Charles.
In his book Flourish, Seligman tells how visiting this school convinced him and 15 leading University of Pennsylvania faculty to stay in residence at the school with the purpose of imbuing the entire institution with the principles of positive psychology and positive education.
The result is an inspired example of what private investment can achieve. Geelong Grammar, along with several other elite schools, has done more than just retain the commercial benefits of positive education for themselves.
Their efforts have culminated in the establishment of the Positive Education Schools Association, whose mission is to widely disseminate positive psychology and positive education resources. Membership is open to any school or institution, and the fees to join are modest.
Membership is also open to individuals who don’t work in schools, including parents, early childhood educators, and grandparents, who are all encouraged to access resources and learn more about supporting the academic and emotional flourishing of students, teachers, and communities.
Conservatives, take heart: no taxpayer funds were used in creating these programs. And taken together, the above examples demonstrate how positive psychology is good for business and can deliver community-wide benefits without fomenting a socialist conspiracy.
Why Progressives Should Support PERMA 51
Progressives likely don’t need much convincing that community well-being is worthy of government funding and policy change. However, the case becomes more compelling when one considers recent studies of the well-being “contagion” that’s been witnessed across multiple regions.
For example, Eichstaedt et al. (2015) analyzed millions of Twitter posts for signs of well-being in social media throughout the U.S. by measuring the frequency with which people used positive language versus negative language when expressing themselves.
The study found that when more people per county used negative emotional language when describing their life, i.e., words like “hate” and obscenities, the messages were strongly predictive of heart disease in their area (as recorded by local coroners), even after variables like income and education were controlled for. Meanwhile, positive emotional language, such as “wonderful,” “friends,” or “celebration,” predicted wellness and lower rates of early death in the vicinity of those Twitter users.
To be clear, this study illustrates the contagious effects of well-being. The people writing the tweets (often younger people) are not necessarily the same people dying (who were usually older people). The tweets simply reflected the emotional well-being of their households, neighborhoods, and communities.
It seems, then, that psychological environments matter. Well-being, and thus longevity, is impacted by the well-being of those around you. And just as vaccination programs work best when they lead to higher levels of herd immunity, your well-being is supported by the improved well-being of your neighbors. In this way, we really are all in this together.
So, while positive psychology may not endorse any particular policy, it does mean that if we really care about ourselves and one another, we should insist that our leaders prioritize the objectives of PERMA 51.
Perhaps we could start with one simple message to our current prospective leaders: build well-being, not walls.
We would love to hear your thoughts on positive psychology and the current political environment. How do you predict the outcome of PERMA 51? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Eichstaedt, J., Schwartz, H. A., Kern, M. L., Park, G., Labarth, D. R., Merchant, R. M., . . . Seligman, M.E. (2015). Psychological language on Twitter predicts county-level heart disease mortality. Psychological Science, 26(2), 59-169.
Evans, J. (2013). Philosophy for life and other dangerous situations: Ancient philosophy for modern problems. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Seldon, A. (2015). Beyond happiness: The trap of happiness and how to find deeper meaning and joy. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.
Seligman, M. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.
Sorenson, S. (2014, February 20). How employees’ strengths make your company stronger. Gallup. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/167462/employees-strengths-company-stronger.aspx