“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The wicked queen in Snow White may not have got the answer she wanted, but performance coaches and psychologists believe that if she’d employed a little positive psychology, her downfall may not have been so drastic.
According to Dr Paula Robinson, UOW alumna and founder and managing director of the Positive Psychology Institute, positive psychology is the science of optimal functioning and is changing the way we live and work.
“Positive psychology is a paradigm shift where the psychological research asks different questions. The focus has shifted from what is wrong with us and how can we fix it to what is right about us and how can we do more of it,” she says.
“This sub-field has produced a growing body of research that allows us to assess and develop positive mental health and wellbeing strategies within ourselves and others.”
Dr Robinson says by understanding our unique self and having a developmental plan in place, we can certainly achieve at higher levels — both in our careers and personal life.
“My own research utilises the mental fitness model with components of strength, flexibility, endurance and teamwork, underpinned by positive psychological research. The subcomponents enable me to look at areas of wellbeing and develop them with my clients utilising a language that is easy to understand.
For example, strengths, meaning, purpose, mindfulness, resiliency, acceptance, competence, autonomy, emotional ratio and relationships were all found to be associated with mental fitness and all can be assessed and developed to improve wellbeing outcomes,” she says.
“Over the years, I have found that the fitness analogy is a very effective way of designing and delivering wellbeing programs, particularly in the organisational and educational sectors because they don’t often like the language of psychology and don’t want to talk about wellbeing, calling it ‘psychobabble’.
“They want to talk about competitive edge and self-development that is not stigmatised by mental health/illness language. ‘Mental fitness’ is an enabler of psychological resources to predict wellbeing outcomes.
Research suggests higher wellbeing is associated to a number of positive workplace outcomes, for example, lower staff turnover, higher productivity and reduced levels of absenteeism.”
We all need to pay attention to our mental health just as we do our physical health with regular practices to form more positive habits of mind
Keeping that competitive edge in business is vital if companies and individuals want to succeed says Dr Robinson and positive psychology is already being applied within the workplace on a larger, more strategic scale with promising results.
“I think this knowledge and its application will play a significant role in the future as the research is suggesting it now can’t be ignored,” she says.
“It is also becoming increasingly clear that an emphasis on wellbeing improves mental health outcomes not only in organisations but also in our children, who are increasingly suffering from mental illness at an alarmingly high level,” Dr Robinson says.
Research has shown that higher levels of wellbeing in students predict academic performance, social emotional learning, engagement and pro social behaviour at school.
We all need to pay attention to our mental health just as we do our physical health with regular practices to form more positive habits of mind.
However, it is important to note this does not mean one should be ‘happy’ all of the time — this is not normal and negative emotions are crucial to our survival and how we operate effectively in the world. However, it is the ‘ratio’ of negative to positive emotions that is causing the most concern. Research clearly suggests that our physical and psychological outcomes are significantly improved when we increase our levels of positive emotion so thoughts and behaviours can be aligned to each person’s daily activities and practices to improve their wellbeing outcomes.
ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY
However, positive psychology is not the only model of wellbeing that is being utilised in the workplace and at home according to another UOW alumnus, Dr Mike Martin, a performance coach, speaker and author.
After years of working with Australia’s elite athletes at the Australian Institute of Sport, and more recently with large corporations and businesses, Dr Martin says there is another wellbeing trend emerging from the US which is having as much impact as positive psychology.
Acceptance and commitment therapy, unlike positive psychology, encourages advocates to accept any negative thoughts about themselves and their possible performance and then refocus on ways in which they move forward with their plans or goals.
In acceptance and commitment therapy rather than individuals getting into an ‘argument’ with their ‘negative self’, they instead accept these less positive thoughts about themselves
“This is the next generation of performance psychology,” says Dr Martin. Dr Martin says that in acceptance and commitment therapy rather than individuals getting into an ‘argument’ with their ‘negative self’, they instead accept these less positive thoughts about themselves but move towards generating strategies that can help them achieve their goals.
“There can be a lot of wasted emotional energy that destroys a person’s focus if they try to change those negative thoughts,” Dr Martin says.
“Our brains are essentially wired as danger detection mechanisms. For example, if you are running really hard your brain will tell you to slow down to protect yourself physically. It can also tell you not to give that talk, take that seminar, or sit that exam to protect you from embarrassment, and even positive psychology can not override that hard wiring.
“Instead, with acceptance and commitment therapy, we instruct clients to not take those negative thoughts seriously. Acknowledge them, but use techniques like mindfulness to diffuse them.
“What people struggle with is that they think that to do well they have to feel good about themselves, but now with this new generation of psychology we are finding that if you can accept the negative thoughts that may arise and focus on what you can do instead to achieve your goals, you can still succeed. It’s about focusing on what needs to be done.”
Dr Martin says mindfulness — a technique of centring the mind and body — is becoming increasingly popular in many psychological and psychiatric practices.
“Mindfulness is about being present and focused in the moment. It turns the volume down on self doubt so you have a breathing space to concentrate on what is important. For example, if you are preparing for a big presentation, rather than listening to the ‘negative noise’ which may be talking about failure, you concentrate on things that are important to that presentation, like delivery, structure and content — the things you may not be able to concentrate on with all the other ‘jibber jabber’ going on,” he says.
Dr Martin says the science of success is showing that acceptance therapy is working and it is being adopted in many situations where high performance is a necessity.
“What I have seen in my career is that the practice of using motivation and positive thinking as a way to overcome negative thoughts loses traction after a period of time,” he says.
“Motivation wears off. I’ve seen it a lot in sport. And when that motivation goes, the negativity remains, and it is that which can affect performance.”
- KEELI CAMBOURNE, AUTHOR
Master of Arts (Journalism), UOW (1994 )
Graduate Diploma in Education Secondary, UOW (2013)
Keeli Cambourne is a UOW alumna with a Master of Arts (Journalism) and a Graduate Diploma in Education Secondary. She worked for Australia’s major newspapers in her journalism career and is now teaching secondary students the joy of writing.
- DR MIKE MARTIN
Bachelor of Arts, UOW (1982)
Diploma of Education, UOW (1982)
Bachelor of Applied Science, UOW (1987)
Doctor of Philosophy (Biomedical Sciences), UOW (1992)
- DR PAULA ROBINSON
Bachelor of Science (Psychology) (Hons), UOW (1999)
Doctor of Philosophy (Psychology), UOW (2014)