What is Flow (Psychology)?

Introduction

In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterised by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.

Named by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, the concept has been widely referred to across a variety of fields (and is particularly well recognised in occupational therapy), though the concept has been claimed to have existed for thousands of years under other names.

The flow state shares many characteristics with hyperfocus. However, hyperfocus is not always described in a positive light. Some examples include spending “too much” time playing video games or becoming pleasurably absorbed by one aspect of an assignment or task to the detriment of the overall assignment. In some cases, hyperfocus can “capture” a person, perhaps causing them to appear unfocused or to start several projects, but complete few. Hyperfocus is often mentioned “in the context of autism, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – conditions that have consequences on attentional abilities.”

Components

Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
  • Merging of action and awareness.
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
  • A distortion of temporal experience, as one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience.

Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience. Additionally, psychology writer Kendra Cherry has mentioned three other components that Csíkszentmihályi lists as being a part of the flow experience:

  • Immediate feedback.
  • Feeling the potential to succeed.
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible.

Just as with the conditions listed above, these conditions can be independent of one another.

Etymology

Flow is so named because, during Csíkszentmihályi’s 1975 interviews, several people described their “flow” experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along: “‘It was like floating,’ ‘I was carried on by the flow.'”

Brief History

Mihaly Csikszentmihályi and others began researching flow after Csikszentmihályi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work. Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep. The theory of flow came about when Csikszentmihályi tried to understand the phenomenon experienced by these artists. Flow research became prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, with Csikszentmihályi and his colleagues in Italy still at the forefront. Researchers interested in optimal experiences and emphasizing positive experiences, especially in places such as schools and the business world, also began studying the theory of flow at this time.

The cognitive science of flow has been studied under the rubric of effortless attention.

Mechanism

In any given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to each individual. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, that number is about “110 bits of information per second.” That may seem like a lot of information, but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just decoding speech takes about 40-60 bits of information per second, which is why when having a conversation, one cannot focus as much attention on other things.

For the most part (except for basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain, which are innate), people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. According to Csikszentmihályi, this event occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.

The flow state has been described by Csikszentmihályi as the “optimal experience” in that one gets to a level of high gratification from the experience. Achieving this experience is considered to be personal and “depends on the ability” of the individual. One’s capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals leads not only to the optimal experience but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall.

Measurement

There are three common ways to measure flow experiences: the flow questionnaire (FQ), the experience sampling method (ESM), and the “standardised scales of the componential approach.”

Flow Questionnaire

The FQ requires individuals to identify definitions of flow and situations in which they believe that they have experienced flow, followed by a section that asks them to evaluate their personal experiences in these flow-inducing situations. The FQ identifies flow as multiple constructs, therefore allowing the results to be used to estimate differences in the likelihood of experiencing flow across a variety of factors. Another strength of the FQ is that it does not assume that everyone’s flow experiences are the same. Because of this, the FQ is the ideal measure for estimating the prevalence of flow. However, the FQ has some weaknesses that more recent methods have set out to address. The FQ does not allow for a measurement of the intensity of flow during specific activities. This method also does not measure the influence of the ratio of challenge to skill on the flow state.

Experience Sampling Method

The ESM requires individuals to fill out the experience sampling form (ESF) at eight randomly chosen time intervals throughout the day. The purpose of this is to understand subjective experiences by estimating the time intervals that individuals spend in specific states during everyday life. The ESF is made up of 13 categorical items and 29 scaled items. The purpose of the categorical items is to determine the context and motivational aspects of the current actions (these items include: time, location, companionship/desire for companionship, activity being performed, reason for performing activity). Because these questions are open-ended, the answers need to be coded by researchers. This needs to be done carefully so as to avoid any biases in the statistical analysis. The scaled items are intended to measure the levels of a variety of subjective feelings that the individual may be experiencing. The ESM is more complex than the FQ and contributes to the understanding of how flow plays out in a variety of situations, however the possible biases make it a risky choice.

Standardised Scales

Some researchers are not satisfied with the methods mentioned above and have set out to create their own scales. The scales developed by Jackson and Eklund are the most commonly used in research, mainly because they are still consistent with Csíkszentmihályi’s definition of flow and consider flow as being both a state and a trait. Jackson and Eklund created two scales that have been proven to be psychometrically valid and reliable:

  • The flow state scale-2 (which measures flow as a state); and
  • The dispositional flow scale-2 (designed to measure flow as either a general trait or domain-specific trait).

The statistical analysis of the individual results from these scales gives a much more complete understanding of flow than the ESM and the FQ.

Characteristics

The flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is more likely to occur when the task or activity is wholeheartedly engaged for intrinsic purposes. Passive activities such as taking a bath or even watching TV, usually do not elicit a flow experience because active engagement is prerequisite to entering the flow state. While the activities that induce flow vary and may perhaps be multifaceted, Csikszentmihályi asserts that the experience of flow is similar whatever the activity.

Flow theory postulates that three conditions must be met to achieve flow:

  • The activity must have clear goals and progress. This establishes structure and direction.
  • The task must provide clear and immediate feedback. This helps to negotiate any changing demands and allows adjusting performance to maintain the flow state.
  • Good balance is required between the perceived challenges of the task and one’s perceived skills. Confidence in the ability to complete the task is required.

It has been argued that the antecedent factors of flow are interrelated, and as such, a perceived balance between challenges and skills requires that the goals are clear, and feedback is effective. Thus, the coordination of perceived demands and task skills can be identified as the central precondition of flow experience.

In 1987, Massimini, Csíkszentmihályi and Carli published the eight-channel model of flow. Antonella Delle Fave, who worked with Fausto Massimini at the University of Milan, calls this graph the Experience Fluctuation Model. The model depicts the channels of experience that result from different levels of perceived challenges and perceived skills. The graph illustrates another aspect of flow: it is more likely to occur when the activity is a higher-than-average challenge (above the centre point) and the individual has above-average skills (to the right of the centre point). The centre of the graph where the sectors meet represents the average level of challenge and skill across all individual daily activities. The further from the centre an experience is, the greater the intensity of that state of being, whether it is flow or anxiety or boredom or relaxation.

Several problems of the model have been discussed in literature. One is that it does not ensure the perceived balance between challenges and skills which is said to be the central precondition of flow experience. Individuals with a low average level of skills and a high average level of challenges (or the converse) do not necessarily experience a match between skills and challenges when both are above their individual average. Another study found that low challenge situations which were surpassed by skill were associated with enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness, which, they claim, is contrary to flow theory.

Schaffer (2013) proposed seven flow conditions:

  • Knowing what to do.
  • Knowing how to do it.
  • Knowing how well one is doing.
  • Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved).
  • High perceived challenges.
  • High perceived skills.
  • Freedom from distractions.

Schaffer published a flow condition questionnaire (FCQ), to measure each of these seven flow conditions for any given task or activity.

Challenges to Maintaining Flow

Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety. The state of apathy is characterized by easy challenges and low skill level requirements, resulting in a general lack of interest in the activity. Boredom is a slightly different state that occurs when challenges are few, but one’s skill level exceeds those challenges causing one to seek higher challenges. A state of anxiety occurs when challenges are high enough to exceed perceived skill level, causing distress and uneasiness. These states in general prevent achieving the balance necessary for flow. Csíkszentmihályi has said, “If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”

The Autotelic Personality

Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with certain personality traits may be better able to achieve flow than the average person. These traits include curiosity, persistence, low egotism, and a high propensity to perform activities for intrinsic reasons. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality. The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto, meaning self, and telos meaning goal. Being autotelic means having a self-contained activity, without the expectation of future benefit, but simply to be experienced.

There is scant research on the autotelic personality, but results of the few studies that have been conducted suggest that indeed some people are more likely to experience flow than others. One researcher (Abuhamdeh, 2000) found that people with an autotelic personality have a greater preference for “high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth” compared to those without an autotelic personality. It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to experience flow.

Experimental evidence shows that a balance between individual skills, and demands of the task (compared to boredom and overload) only elicits the flow experience in individuals having an internal locus of control or a habitual action orientation. Several correlational studies found need for achievement to be a personal characteristic that fosters flow experiences.

Autotelic Personality also has been shown in studies to correlate and show overlapping of flow in personal life and the Big Five Personality Traits of Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience. More particularly the traits of agreeableness and extraversion. Study of Autotelic Personality is difficult as most studies are performed through self-evaluation as observation of an Autotelic Personality is difficult to observe.

Group

Group flow (or team flow) is notably different from independent flow as it is inherently mutual. Group flow is attainable when the performance unit is a group, such as a team or musical group. When groups cooperate to agree on goals and patterns, social flow, commonly known as group cohesion, is much more likely to occur. If a group still has not entered flow, a team-level challenge may stimulate the group to harmonise.

Applications

Applications Suggested by Csíkszentmihályi versus Other Practitioners

Only Csíkszentmihályi seems to have published suggestions for extrinsic applications of the flow concept, such as design methods for playgrounds to elicit the flow experience. Other practitioners of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept focus on intrinsic applications, such as spirituality, performance improvement, or self-help. His work has also informed the measurement of donor momentum by The New Science of Philanthropy.

Education

In education, the concept of overlearning plays a role in a student’s ability to achieve flow. Csíkszentmihályi states that overlearning enables the mind to concentrate on visualising the desired performance as a singular, integrated action instead of a set of actions. Challenging assignments that (slightly) stretch one’s skills lead to flow.

In the 1950s British cybernetician Gordon Pask designed an adaptive teaching machine called SAKI, an early example of “e-learning”. The machine is discussed in some detail in Stafford Beer’s book “Cybernetics and Management”. In the patent application for SAKI (1956), Pask’s comments (some of which are included below) indicate an awareness of the pedagogical importance of balancing student competence with didactic challenge, which is quite consistent with flow theory:

If the operator is receiving data at too slow a rate, he is likely to become bored and attend to other irrelevant data.

If the data given indicates too precisely what responses the operator is required to make, the skill becomes too easy to perform and the operator again tends to become bored.

If the data given is too complicated or is given at too great a rate, the operator is unable to deal with it. He is then liable to become discouraged and lose interest in performing or learning the skill.

Ideally, for an operator to perform a skill efficiently, the data presented to him should always be of sufficient complexity to maintain his interest and maintain a competitive situation, but not so complex as to discourage the operator. Similarly these conditions should obtain at each stage of a learning process if it is to be efficient. A tutor teaching one pupil seeks to maintain just these conditions.

Around 2000, it came to the attention of Csíkszentmihályi that the principles and practices of the Montessori Method of education seemed to purposefully set up continuous flow opportunities and experiences for students. Csíkszentmihályi and psychologist Kevin Rathunde embarked on a multi-year study of student experiences in Montessori settings and traditional educational settings. The research supported observations that students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings.

Music

Musicians, especially improvisational soloists, may experience a state of flow while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state. In a study performed with professional classical pianists who played piano pieces several times to induce a flow state, a significant relationship was found between the flow state of the pianist and the pianist’s heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, heart rate and blood pressure decreased, and the major facial muscles relaxed. This study further emphasized that flow is a state of effortless attention. In spite of the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist during the flow state improved.

Groups of drummers go through a state of flow when they sense a collective energy that drives the beat, something they refer to as getting into the groove or entrainment. Likewise, drummers and bass guitarists often describe a state of flow when they are feeling the downbeat together as being in the pocket. Researchers have measured flow through subscales; challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clear goals, unambiguous feedback, total concentration, sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, transformation of time and autotelic experience.

Sports

The concept of being in the zone during an athletic performance fit within Csíkszentmihályi’s description of the flow experience, and theories and applications of being in the zone and its relationship with an athletic competitive advantage are topics studied in the field of sport psychology.

Timothy Gallwey’s influential works on the “inner game” of sports such as golf and tennis described the mental coaching and attitudes required to “get in the zone” and fully internalise mastery of the sport.

Roy Palmer suggests that “being in the zone” may also influence movement patterns as better integration of the conscious and subconscious reflex functions improves coordination. Many athletes describe the effortless nature of their performance while achieving personal bests.

In many martial arts, the term Budō is used to describe psychological flow. Mixed martial arts champion and Karate master Lyoto Machida uses meditation techniques before fights to attain mushin, a concept that, by his description, is in all respects equal to flow.

The Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, explained:

“I was already on pole, […] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.”

Former 500 GP rider Wayne Gardner talking about his victory at the 1990 Australian Grand Prix on The Unrideables 2 documentary said: “During these last five laps I had this sort of above body experience where actually raised up above and I could see myself racing. It was kind of a remote control and it’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever had in my life. […]” After the race Mick [Doohan] and in fact Wayne Rainey said: “How the hell did you do that?” and I said: “I have no idea.”

Religion and Spirituality

In yogic traditions such as Raja Yoga, reference is made to a state of flow in the practice of Samyama, a psychological absorption in the object of meditation.

Games and Gaming

Flow in games and gaming has been linked to the laws of learning as a part of the explanation for why learning-games (the use of games to introduce material, improve understanding, or increase retention) have the potential to be effective. In particular, flow is intrinsically motivating, which is a part of the law of readiness. The condition of feedback, required for flow, is associated with the feedback aspects of the law of exercise. This is exhibited in well designed games, in particular, where players perform at the edge of their competency as they are guided by clear goals and feedback. The positive emotions associated with flow are associated with the law of effect. The intense experiences of being in a state of flow are directly associated with the law of intensity. Thus, the experience of gaming can be so engaging and motivating as it meets many of the laws of learning, which are inextricably connected to creating flow.

In games often much can be achieved thematically through an imbalance between challenge level and skill level. Horror games often keep challenges significantly above the player’s level of competency in order to foster a continual feeling of anxiety. Conversely, so called “relaxation games” keep the level of challenges significantly below the player’s competency level, in order to achieve an opposite effect. The video game Flow was designed as part of Jenova Chen’s master’s thesis for exploring the design decisions that allow players to achieve the flow state, by adjusting the difficulty dynamically during play.

It improves performance; calling the phenomenon “TV trance,” a 1981 BYTE article discussed how “the best seem to enter a trance where they play but don’t pay attention to the details of the game.” The primary goal of games is to create entertainment through intrinsic motivation, which is related to flow; that is, without intrinsic motivation it is virtually impossible to establish flow. Through the balance of skill and challenge, the player’s brain is aroused, with attention engaged and motivation high. Thus, the use of flow in games helps foster an enjoyable experience, which in turn increases motivation and draws players to continue playing. As such, game designers strive to integrate flow principles into their projects. Overall, the experience of play is fluid and is intrinsically psychologically rewarding independent of scores or in-game successes in the flow state.

Design of Intrinsically Motivated Computer Systems

A simplified modification to flow has been combined with the technology acceptance model (TAM) to help guide the design of and explain the adoption of intrinsically motivated computer systems. This model, the hedonic-motivation system adoption model (HMSAM) is modelled to improve the understanding of hedonic-motivation systems (HMS) adoption. HMS are systems used primarily to fulfil users’ intrinsic motivations, such for online gaming, virtual worlds, online shopping, learning/education, online dating, digital music repositories, social networking, online pornography, gamified systems, and for general gamification. Instead of a minor, TAM extension, HMSAM is an HMS-specific system acceptance model based on an alternative theoretical perspective, which is in turn grounded in flow-based concept of cognitive absorption (CA). The HMSAM further builds on van der Heijden’s (2004) model of hedonic system adoption by including CA as a key mediator of perceived ease of use (PEOU) and of behavioural intentions to use (BIU) hedonic-motivation systems. Typically, models simplistically represent “intrinsic motivations” by mere perceived enjoyed. Instead, HMSAM uses the more complex, rich construct of CA, which includes joy, control, curiosity, focused immersion, and temporal dissociation. CA is construct that is grounded in the seminal flow literature, yet CA has traditionally been used as a static construct, as if all five of its subconstructs occur at the same time – in direct contradiction to the flow literature. Thus, part of HMSAM’s contribution is to return CA closer to its flow roots by re-ordering these CA subconstructs into more natural process-variance order as predicted by flow. Empirical data collection along with mediation tests further support this modelling approach.

Professions and Work

Developers of computer software reference getting into a flow state as “wired in”, or sometimes as The Zone, hack mode, or operating on software time when developing in an undistracted state. Stock market operators often use the term “in the pipe” to describe the psychological state of flow when trading during high volume days and market corrections. Professional poker players use the term “playing the A-game” when referring to the state of highest concentration and strategical awareness, while pool players often call the state being in “dead stroke”.

In the Workplace

Conditions of flow, defined as a state in which challenges and skills are equally matched, play an extremely important role in the workplace. Because flow is associated with achievement, its development may have specific implications for increased workplace satisfaction and achievement. Flow researchers, such as Csikszentmihályi, believe that certain interventions may be performed to enhance and increase flow in the workplace, through which people would gain ‘intrinsic rewards that encourage persistence” and provide benefits. In his consultation work, Csikszentmihályi emphasizes finding activities and environments that are conducive to flow, and then identifying and developing personal characteristics to increase experiences of flow. Applying these methods in the workplace can improve morale by fostering a sense of greater happiness and accomplishment, which may be correlated with increased performance. In his review of Mihály Csikszentmihályi’s book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning,” Coert Visser introduces the ideas presented by Csikszentmihályi, including “good work” in which one “enjoys doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself.” He then provides tools by which managers and employees can create an atmosphere that encourages good work. Some consultants suggest that the experience sampling form (EMS) method be used for individuals and teams in the workplace in order to identify how time is currently being spent, and where focus should be redirected to in order to maximise flow experiences.

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihályi lays out the following three conditions:

  • Goals are clear.
  • Feedback is immediate.
  • A balance exists between opportunity and capacity.

Csikszentmihályi argues that with increased experiences of flow, people experience “growth towards complexity”. People flourish as their achievements grow and with that comes development of increasing “emotional, cognitive, and social complexity.” Creating a workplace atmosphere that allows for flow and growth, Csikszentmihályi argues, can increase the happiness and achievement of employees. An increasingly popular way of promoting greater flow in the workplace is using the “serious play” facilitation methods. Some commercial organisations have used the concept of flow in building corporate branding and identity, for example, The Floow Limited, which created its company brand from the concept.

Barriers

There are, however, barriers to achieving flow in the workplace. In his chapter “Why Flow Doesn’t Happen on the Job,” Csikszentmihályi argues the first reason that flow does not occur is that the goals of one’s job are not clear. He explains that while some tasks at work may fit into a larger, organization plan, the individual worker may not see where their individual task fits it. Second, limited feedback about one’s work can reduce motivation and leaves the employee unaware of whether or not they did a good job. When there is little communication of feedback, an employee may not be assigned tasks that challenge them or seem important, which could potentially prevent an opportunity for flow.

In the study “Predicting flow at work: Investigating the activities and job characteristics that predict flow states at work”, Karina Nielsen and Bryan Cleal used a 9-item flow scale to examine predictors of flow at two levels: activity level (such as brainstorming, problem solving, and evaluation) and at a more stable level (such as role clarity, influence, and cognitive demands). They found that activities such as planning, problem solving, and evaluation predicted transient flow states, but that more stable job characteristics were not found to predict flow at work. This study can help us identify which task at work can be cultivated and emphasized in order to help employees experience flow on the job. In her article in Positive Psychology News Daily, Kathryn Britton examines the importance of experiencing flow in the workplace beyond the individual benefits it creates. She writes:

“Flow isn’t just valuable to individuals; it also contributes to organizational goals. For example, frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation, and employee development (Csikszentmihályi, 1991, 2004). So finding ways to increase the frequency of flow experiences can be one way for people to work together to increase the effectiveness of their workplaces.”

Outcomes

Positive Experiences

Books by Csikszentmihályi suggest that enhancing the time spent in flow makes our lives more happy and successful. Flow experiences are predicted to lead to positive affect as well as to better performance. For example, delinquent behaviour was reduced in adolescents after two years of enhancing flow through activities.

People who have experienced flow, describe the following feelings:

  1. Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by the minute.
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

However, further empirical evidence is required to substantiate these preliminary indications, as flow researchers continue to explore the problem of how to directly investigate causal consequences of flow experiences using modern scientific instrumentation to observe the neuro-physiological correlates of the flow state.

Positive Affect and Life Satisfaction

Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to “produce intense feelings of enjoyment”. An experience that is so enjoyable should lead to positive affect and happiness in the long run. Also, Csikszentmihályi stated that happiness is derived from personal development and growth – and flow situations permit the experience of personal development.

Several studies found that flow experiences and positive affect go hand in hand, and that challenges and skills above the individual’s average foster positive affect. However, the causal processes underlying those relationships remain unclear at present.

Performance and Learning

Flow experiences imply a growth principle. When one is in a flow state, they are working to master the activity at hand. To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches one’s skills. One emerges from such a flow experience with a bit of personal growth and great “feelings of competence and efficacy”. By increasing time spent in flow, intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning also increases.

Flow has a documented correlation with high performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity, teaching, learning, and sports.

Flow has been linked to persistence and achievement in activities while also helping to lower anxiety during various activities and raise self-esteem.

However, evidence regarding better performance in flow situations is mixed. For sure, the association between the two is a reciprocal one. That is, flow experiences may foster better performance but, on the other hand, good performance makes flow experiences more likely. Results of a longitudinal study in the academic context indicate that the causal effect of flow on performance is only of small magnitude and the strong relationship between the two is driven by an effect of performance on flow. In the long run, flow experiences in a specific activity may lead to higher performance in that activity as flow is positively correlated with a higher subsequent motivation to perform and to perform well.

Criticism

Csikszentmihályi writes about the dangers of flow himself:

…enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative effect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.

Further, he writes:

The flow experience, like everything else, is not “good” in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strengths and complexity of the self. But whether the consequence of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria.

Keller and Landhäußer (2012, p.56) advocate for a flow intensity model because many models of flow have trouble predicting the intensity of flow experiences that can occur under various circumstances where skill and task demands fit together to produce flow.

Cowley et al. found that because self-reported flow happens after-the-fact, it does not really capture the aspect of flow that happens in the moment. Furthermore, that aspect of flow is prone to change, so the self-reported experience of flow cannot be trusted as much.

Cameron et al. found that there is not a lot of information on group flow, and this may be hindering development in managerial and theoretical contributions.

Future Directions

Cameron et al. proposed a research program that focuses on how group flow is different from individual flow, and how group flow affects group performance. These ideas will address some of the issues in group flow research such as poor data collection and interpretation.

Sridhar & Lyngdoh suggested that research should investigate how mobility affects the ethical performance of sales professionals. Furthermore, there should be longitudinal studies done in various fields to understand the ethical implications of flow in sales.

From their study, Chen et al. found that there needs to be more research done on how competition affects game-based learning.

Linden et al. suggest that a neuroscientific model of flow would lead to new research questions that would guide future discoveries, experiments, and less obvious questions.

Thissen et al. propose that more research is recommended in 2020 to understand how traffic affects fiction reading for all types of readers.

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Rick Astley Songs & Mental Health!

Okay, so you might be wondering how Rick Astley songs are related to mental health.

Well, I was listening to his Essentials album (2019) whilst doing my phys this morning (Army lingo for exercise) and two songs stood out.

  • Song 03: Beautiful Life.
  • Song 05: Cry for Help.

My interpretations:

  • Song 03: This is about giving chance a life and finding the positives, and using them to steer a clear path.
  • Song 05: This is about asking for help or noticing when someone needs help.

What is Positive Psychology?

Introduction

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living, focusing on both individual and societal well-being.

It studies “positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions…it aims to improve quality of life.” It is a field of study that has been growing steadily throughout the years as individuals and researchers look for common ground on better well-being.

Positive psychology began as a new domain of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. It is a reaction against past practices, which have tended to focus on mental illness and emphasized maladaptive behaviour and negative thinking. It builds on the humanistic movement by Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, James Bugental, and Carl Rogers, which encourages an emphasis on happiness, well-being, and positivity, thus creating the foundation for what is now known as positive psychology.

Positive psychology focuses on eudaimonia, an Ancient Greek term for “the good life” and the concept for reflection on the factors that contribute the most to a well-lived and fulfilling life. Positive psychologists often use the terms subjective well-being and happiness interchangeably.

Positive psychologists have suggested a number of factors may contribute to happiness and subjective well-being. For example, social ties with a spouse, family, friends, colleagues, and wider networks; membership in clubs or social organisations; physical exercise; and the practice of meditation. Spirituality can also be considered a factor that leads to increased individual happiness and well-being. Spiritual practice and religious commitment is a topic researchers have been studying as another possible source for increased well-being and an added part of positive psychology. Happiness may rise with increasing financial income, though it may plateau or even fall when no further gains are made or after a certain cut-off amount.

Definition and Basic Assumptions

Definition

Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi define positive psychology as “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.”

Basic Concepts

Positive psychology is concerned with eudaimonia, meaning “the good life” or flourishing. It is focused on living according to what holds the greatest value in life and other such factors that contribute the most to a well-lived and fulfilling life. While not attempting a strict definition of the good life, positive psychologists agree that one must live a happy, engaged, and meaningful life in order to experience “the good life.” Martin Seligman referred to “the good life” as using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.

Positive psychology complements, without intending to replace or ignore, the traditional areas of psychology. By emphasizing the study of positive human development, this field helps to balance other approaches that focus on disorder, which may produce only limited understanding. Positive psychology has also placed a significant emphasis on fostering positive self-esteem and self-image, though positive psychologists with a less humanist direction are less likely to focus as intently on such topics.

The basic premise of positive psychology is that human beings are often intrigued by the future more than they are driven by the past. It also suggests that a combination of positive experiences and emotions concerning the past, the present, and the future leads to a pleasant, happy life. Another aspect of this may come from our views outside of our own lives. Author of Grit, Angela Duckworth, might view this as having an other-centred purpose, of which could have a positive psychological effect on our lives. Seligman identified other possible goals: families and schools that allow children to grow, workplaces that aim for satisfaction and high productivity, and teaching others about positive psychology. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has also written extensively on the affects of time perception and happiness.

Those who practice positive psychology attempt psychological interventions that foster positive attitudes toward one’s subjective experiences, individual traits, and life events. The goal is to minimise pathological thoughts that may arise in a hopeless mindset and to develop a sense of optimism toward life. Positive psychologists seek to encourage acceptance of one’s past, excitement and optimism about one’s future experiences, and a sense of contentment and well-being in the present.

Related concepts are happiness, well-being, quality of life, contentment, and meaningful life.

  • Happiness: Has been sought after and discussed throughout time. Research has concluded that happiness can be thought of in the way we act or what we do and how we think in relative terms to it.
  • Well-Being: Has often been referred to what is inherently good for an individual both physically and mentally, though other aspects could be added in to define well-being.
  • Quality of life: Quality of life encompasses more than just physical and mental well-being, it involves socioeconomic factors. It is also perceived differently in different cultures and regions around the world, but can come down to how well you are living and functioning in life.

Research Topics

According to Seligman and Peterson, positive psychology addresses three issues: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Positive emotions are concerned with being content with one’s past, being happy in the present and having hope for the future. Positive individual traits focus on one’s strengths and virtues. Finally, positive institutions are based on strengths to better a community of people.

According to Peterson, positive psychologists are concerned with four topics: positive experiences, enduring psychological traits, positive relationships, and positive institutions. He also states that topics of interest to topics of interest to researchers in the field are states of pleasure or flow, values, strengths, virtues, talents, as well as the ways that these can be promoted by social systems and institutions.

Brief History

Origin

While the formal discipline of positive psychology has only existed since 2000, the concepts that form the basis of it have been the subject of empirical study since at least the 1980s, and present in religious and philosophical discourse for thousands of years. It has been influenced by humanistic as well as psychodynamic approaches to treatment. Predating the use of the term “positive psychology”, researchers within the field of psychology had been focusing on topics that would now be included under this new denomination.

The term positive psychology dates back at least to 1954, when Maslow’s first edition of Motivation and Personality was published with a final chapter titled “Toward a Positive Psychology.” In the second edition published in 1970, he removed that chapter, saying in the preface that “a positive psychology is at least available today though not very widely.” There have been indications that psychologists since the 1950s have been increasingly focused on the promotion of mental health rather than merely treating mental illness. From the beginning of psychology, the field has addressed the human experience using the “Disease Model,” specifically studying and identifying the dysfunction of an individual.

Positive psychology grew as an important field of study within psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. In the first sentence of his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman claimed: “for the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only – mental illness,” expanding on Maslow’s comments. He urged psychologists to continue the earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.

Development

The first positive psychology summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002. More attention was given by the general public in 2006 when, using the same framework, a course at Harvard University became particularly popular. In June 2009, the First World Congress on Positive Psychology took place at the University of Pennsylvania.

The field of positive psychology today is most advanced in the United States and Western Europe. Even though positive psychology offers a new approach to the study of positive emotions and behaviour, the ideas, theories, research, and motivation to study the positive side of human behaviour is as old as humanity.

Influences

Several humanistic psychologists, most notably Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm, developed theories and practices pertaining to human happiness and flourishing. More recently, positive psychologists have found empirical support for the humanistic theories of flourishing. In addition, positive psychology has moved ahead in a variety of new directions.

In 1984, Diener published his tripartite model of subjective well-being, positing “three distinct but often related components of wellbeing: frequent positive affect, infrequent negative affect, and cognitive evaluations such as life satisfaction.” In this model, cognitive, affective and contextual factors contribute to subjective well-being. According to Diener and Suh, subjective well-being is “based on the idea that how each person thinks and feels about his or her life is important.”

Carol Ryff’s Six-factor Model of Psychological Well-being was initially published in 1989, and additional testing of its factors was published in 1995. It postulates six factors which are key for well-being, namely self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive relations with others.

According to Corey Keyes, who collaborated with Carol Ryff and uses the term flourishing as a central concept, mental well-being has three components, namely hedonic (c.q. subjective or emotional), psychological, and social well-being. Hedonic well-being concerns emotional aspects of well-being, whereas psychological and social well-being, c.q. eudaimonic well-being, concerns skills, abilities, and optimal functioning. This tripartite model of mental well-being has received extensive empirical support across cultures.

Influences in Ancient History

While the formal title “positive psychology” has only been in common use since around 2000, the concepts that form the basis of this field have been present in religious and philosophical discourse for thousands of years. The field of psychology predating the use of the term positive psychology has seen researchers who focused primarily on topics that would now be included under the umbrella of positive psychology. Some view positive psychology as a meeting of Eastern thought, such as Buddhism, and Western psychodynamic approaches. The historical roots of positive psychology are found in the teachings of Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics teach the cultivation of moral virtue as the means of attaining happiness and well-being, which he referred to as eudaimonia.

Core Theory and Methods

There is no accepted “gold standard” theory in positive psychology. However, the work of Seligman is regularly quoted. So too the work of Csikszentmihalyi and older models of well-being, such as Carol Ryff’s Six-factor Model of Psychological Well-being and Diener’s tripartite model of subjective well-being.

Initial Theory: Three Paths to Happiness

In Authentic Happiness (2002) Seligman proposed three kinds of a happy life that can be investigated:

  • Pleasant life: research into the Pleasant Life, or the “life of enjoyment,” examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savour the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.). Despite the attention given, Martin Seligman says this most transient element of happiness may be the least important.
  • Good Life: investigation of the beneficial effects of immersion, absorption, and flow felt by individuals when optimally engaged with their primary activities, is the study of the Good Life, or the “life of engagement.” Flow is experienced when there is a positive match between a person’s strength and their current task, i.e. when one feels confident of accomplishing a chosen or assigned task.
  • Meaningful Life: inquiry into the Meaningful Life, or “life of affiliation,” questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g. nature, social groups, organisations, movements, traditions, belief systems).

PERMA

In Flourish (2011) Seligman argued that the last category of his proposed three kinds of a happy life, “meaningful life,” can be considered as 3 different categories. The resulting summary for this theory is Seligman’s PERMA acronym: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishments. It is a mnemonic for the five elements of Martin Seligman’s well-being theory:

ElementOutline
Positive EmotionsInclude a wide range of feelings, not just happiness and joy. Included are emotions like excitement, satisfaction, pride and awe, amongst others. These emotions are frequently seen as connected to positive outcomes, such as longer life and healthier social relationships.
EngagementRefers to involvement in activities that draws and builds upon one’s interests. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains true engagement as flow, a state of deep effortless involvement, feeling of intensity that leads to a sense of ecstasy and clarity. The task being done needs to call upon higher skill and be a bit difficult and challenging yet still possible. Engagement involves passion for and concentration on the task at hand and is assessed subjectively as to whether the person engaged was completely absorbed, losing self-consciousness.
RelationshipsAre essential in fuelling positive emotions, whether they are work-related, familial, romantic, or platonic. As Christopher Peterson puts it simply, “other people matter.” Humans receive, share, and spread positivity to others through relationships. They are important not only in bad times, but good times as well. In fact, relationships can be strengthened by reacting to one another positively. It is typical that most positive things take place in the presence of other people.
MeaningIs also known as purpose, and prompts the question of “why.” Discovering and figuring out a clear “why” puts everything into context from work to relationships to other parts of life. Finding meaning is learning that there is something greater than one’s self. Despite potential challenges, working with meaning drives people to continue striving for a desirable goal.
AccomplishmentsAre the pursuit of success and mastery. Unlike the other parts of PERMA, they are sometimes pursued even when accomplishments do not result in positive emotions, meaning, or relationships. That being noted, accomplishments can activate the other elements of PERMA, such as pride, under positive emotion. Accomplishments can be individual or community-based, fun- or work-based.

Each of the five PERMA elements was selected according to three criteria:

  • It contributes to well-being.
  • It is pursued for its own sake.
  • It is defined and measured independently of the other elements.

Character Strengths and Virtues

The development of the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook (2004) represented the first attempt by Seligman and Peterson to identify and classify positive psychological traits of human beings. Much like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of general psychology, the CSV provided a theoretical framework to assist in understanding strengths and virtues and for developing practical applications for positive psychology. This manual identified 6 classes of virtues (i.e. “core virtues”), underlying 24 measurable character strengths.

The CSV suggested these 6 virtues have a historical basis in the vast majority of cultures; in addition, these virtues and strengths can lead to increased happiness when built upon. Notwithstanding numerous cautions and caveats, this suggestion of universality hints threefold:

  1. The study of positive human qualities broadens the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness;
  2. The leaders of the positive psychology movement are challenging moral relativism, suggesting people are “evolutionarily predisposed” toward certain virtues; and
  3. Virtue has a biological basis.

The organisation of the 6 virtues and 24 strengths is as follows:

  • Wisdom and knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation, prudence.
  • Courage: bravery, persistence, vitality, zest.
  • Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence.
  • Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership, integrity, excellence.
  • Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, self control.
  • Transcendence: appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality.

Recent research challenged the need for 6 virtues. Instead, researchers suggested the 24 strengths are more accurately grouped into just 3 or 4 categories: Intellectual Strengths, Interpersonal Strengths, and Temperance Strengths, or alternatively, Interpersonal Strengths, Fortitude, Vitality, and Cautiousness. These strengths, and their classifications, have emerged independently elsewhere in literature on values. Paul Thagard described examples, which included Jeff Shrager’s workshops to discover the habits of highly creative people. Some research indicates that well-being effects that appear to be due to spirituality are actually better described as due to virtue.

Flow

In the 1970s, Hungarian-American psychologist Csikszentmihalyi began studying flow, a state of absorption where one’s abilities are well-matched to the demands at-hand. Flow is characterised by intense concentration, loss of self-awareness, a feeling of being perfectly challenged (neither bored nor overwhelmed), and a sense that “time is flying.” Flow is intrinsically rewarding; it can also assist in the achievement of goals (e.g. winning a game) or improving skills (e.g. becoming a better chess player). Anyone can experience flow and it can be felt in different domains, such as play, creativity, and work. Flow is achieved when the challenge of the situation meets one’s personal abilities. A mismatch of challenge for someone of low skills results in a state of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed; insufficient challenge for someone highly skilled, results in boredom.

Flow can be extremely beneficial when it comes to parenting children. When flow is enhanced between parents and their children, the parents are more capable of thriving in their role as a parent. A parenting style that is positively oriented will also result in children that experience lower levels of stress and overall improve the child’s well-being.

Research Advances and Applications

Topical and methodological development has expanded the field of positive psychology. These advances have enabled the field of positive psychology to grow beyond its core theories and methods. Positive psychology is now a global area of study, with various national indices tracking citizens’ happiness ratings.

Research Findings

Research in positive psychology, well-being, eudaimonia and happiness, and the theories of Diener, Ryff, Keyes and Seligman cover a broad range of topics including “the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.” A meta-analysis on 49 studies in 2009 showed that Positive Psychology Interventions (PPI) produced improvements in well-being and lower depression levels, the PPIs studied included writing gratitude letters, learning optimistic thinking, replaying positive life experiences and socialising with others. In a later meta-analysis of 39 studies with 6,139 participants in 2012, the outcomes were positive. Three to six months after a PPI the effects for subjective well-being and psychological well-being were still significant. However the positive effect was weaker than in the 2009 meta analysis, the authors concluded that this was because they only used higher quality studies. The PPIs they considered included counting blessings, kindness practices, making personal goals, showing gratitude and focusing on personal strengths. Another review of PPIs published in 2018 found that over 78% of intervention studies were conducted in Western countries.

In the textbook Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness, authors Compton and Hoffman give the “Top Down Predictors” of well-being as high self esteem, optimism, self efficacy, a sense of meaning in life and positive relationships with others. The personality traits most associated with well being are extraversion, agreeability and low levels of neuroticism.

In a study published in 2020, students were enrolled in a positive psychology course that focused on improving happiness and well-being through teaching about positive psychology. The participants answer questions pertaining to the 5 categories known as PERMA. At the end of the semester those same students reported significantly higher scores in all categories (p <.001) minus engagement which was significant at p <0.05. One of the aims of this study was to make it rewarding for positive psychology interventions to stay in the participants lives. The authors stated:

“Not only do students learn and get credit, there is also a good chance that many will reap the benefits in what is most important to them—their health, happiness, and well-being.”

Academic Methods

Quantitative

Quantitative methods in positive psychology include p-technique factor analysis, dynamic factor analysis, interindividual differences and structural equation modelling, spectral analysis and item response models, dynamic systems analysis, latent growth analysis, latent-class models, hierarchical linear modelling, measurement invariance, experimental methods, behaviour genetics, and integration of quantitative and qualitative approaches.

Qualitative

In a 2012 Journal of Positive Psychology article published by Grant J. Rich, the usage of qualitative methodology to study positive psychology is explored and considered. Author Rich addresses the popularity of quantitative methods in studying the empirical questions that positive psychology presents. He argues that there is an “overemphasis” on quantitative methods and suggests implementing qualitative methods, such as semi-structured interviews, observations, fieldwork, creative artwork, and focus groups. Rich states that qualitative approaches are valuable approaches to studying positive psychology. He writes that usage of qualitative methods will further promote the “flourishing of positive psychology” and encourages such practice.

Behavioural Interventions

Changing happiness levels through interventions is a further methodological advancement in the study of positive psychology. Enhancing happiness through behavioural interventions has been the focus of various academic and scientific psychological publications. Happiness-enhancing interventions include expressing kindness, gratitude, optimism, humility, awe, and mindfulness.

In 2005, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade co-authored an academic paper published in the Review of General Psychology. In their research, they created a behavioural experiment using two 6-week interventions. One intervention studied was the performance of acts of kindness. The other was focused on gratitude and emphasized the counting of one’s blessings. The study participants who went through the behavioural interventions reported higher levels of happiness and well-being than those who did not participate in either intervention. The paper provides experimental support for the effect of gratitude and kindness on enhancing subjective well-being and happiness.

Further research conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Rene Dickerhoof, Julia K. Boehm, and Kennon M. Sheldon, published in 2011 in the academic journal Emotion, found that the interventions of expressing optimism and expressing gratitude enhanced subjective well-being in participants who took part in the intervention for 8 months. The researchers concluded that interventions are “most successful when participants know about, endorse, and commit to the intervention.” The article provides support that when individuals enthusiastically take part in behavioural interventions, such as expression of optimism and gratitude, they may be engaging in an approach to increase happiness and subjective well-being.

In 2014, Elliott Kruse, Joseph Chancellor, Peter M. Ruberton, and Sonja Lyubomirsky published an academic article in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science. In their research, they study the interaction effects between gratitude and humility through behaviour interventions. The interventions they studied were writing a gratitude letter and writing a 14-day diary. In both interventions, Kruse et al. found that gratitude and humility are connected and are “mutually reinforcing.” The article also discusses how gratitude, and its associated humility, may lead to more positive emotional states and subjective well-being.

Researchers Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker conducted a series of experiments that showed a positive effect of awe on subjective well-being, publishing their results in 2012 in the academic journal Psychological Science. Their research found that individuals who felt awe also reported feeling higher availability of time, more preference for experiential expenditures than material expenditures, and greater life satisfaction. Experiences that heighten awe may lead to higher levels of life satisfaction and, in turn, higher levels of happiness and subjective well-being.

Mindfulness interventions may also increase happiness. In a Mindfulness article published in 2011 by Torbjörn Josefsson, Pernilla Larsman, Anders G. Broberg, and Lars-Gunnar Lundh, it was found that meditation improves subjective well-being for individuals who mindfully meditate. The researchers note that being mindful in meditation includes awareness and observation of one’s meditation practice, with non-reaction and non-judgemental sentiments during meditation.

National Indices of Happiness

The creation of various national indices of happiness have broadened and expanded the field of positive psychology to a global scale.

In a January 2000 academic article published in American Psychologist, psychologist Ed Diener proposed and argued for the creation of a national happiness index in the United States. Such an index would provide measurements of happiness, or subjective well-being, within the United States and across many other countries in the world. Diener argued that national indices would be helpful markers or indicators of population happiness, providing a sense of current ratings and a tracker of happiness across time. Diener proposed that the national index include various sub-measurements of subjective well-being, including “pleasant affect, unpleasant affect, life satisfaction, fulfillment, and more specific states such as stress, affection, trust, and joy.”

In 2012, the first World Happiness Report was published. The World Happiness Report was initiated by the UN General Assembly in June 2011, which passed the Bhutanese Resolution. The Bhutanese Resolution called for nations across the world to “give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development.” The data for the World Happiness Reports is collected in partnership with the Gallup World Poll’s life evaluations and annual happiness rankings. The World Happiness Report bases its national rankings on how happy constituents self-report and believe themselves to be.

The first World Happiness Report, published in 2012, is a 170-page report that details the state of world happiness, the causes of happiness and misery, policy implications from happiness reports, and three case studies of subjective well-being for:

  • Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness index;
  • The UK Office for National Statistics Experience; and
  • Happiness in the member countries within the OECD.

The World Happiness Report published in 2020 is the 8th publication in the series of reports. It is the first World Happiness Report to include happiness rankings of cities across the world, in addition to rankings of 156 countries. The city of Helsinki, Finland was reported as the city with the highest subjective well-being ranking, and the country of Finland was reported as the country with the highest subjective well-being ranking for the third year in a row. The 2020 report provides insights on happiness based on environmental conditions, social conditions, urban-rural happiness differentials, and sustainable development. It also provides overview and possible explanations for why Nordic countries have consistently ranked in the top ten happiest countries in the World Happiness Report since 2013. Possible explanations include Nordic countries’ high-quality government benefits and protections to its citizens, including welfare benefits and well-operated democratic institutions, as well as social connections, bonding, and trust.

Additional national well-being indices and reported statistics include the Gallup Global Emotions Report, Gallup Sharecare Well-Being Index, Global Happiness Council’s Global Happiness and Well-being Policy Report, Happy Planet Index, Indigo Wellness Index, OECD Better Life Index, and UN Human Development Reports.

Influences on other Academic Fields

Positive psychology has influenced a variety of other academic fields of study and scholarship. It has been applied to various other areas of scholarship, most notably organizational behaviour, education and psychiatry.

Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS)

Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS), also referred to as Positive Organisational Behaviour (POB), began as a direct application of positive psychology to the field of organisational behaviour. One of the first times the term was officially defined and published was in 2003, in the text Positive Organisational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline edited by University of Michigan Ross School of Business professors Kim S. Cameron, Jane E. Dutton, and Robert E. Quinn. In the first chapter of the text, Cameron, Dutton, and Quinn promote “the best of the human condition,” such as goodness, compassion, resilience, and positive human potential, as an organisational goal as important as financial organisational success. The goal of POS is to study the factors that create positive work experiences and successful, people-oriented organisational outcomes.

A large collection of POS research is contained in the 2011 volume The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organisational Scholarship, edited by University of Michigan Ross School of Business Professors Kim S. Cameron and Gretchen M. Spreitzer. This 1076-page volume encompasses nine sections and 79 chapters spanning various topics. Major topics include positive human resource practices, positive organisational practices, and positive leadership and change. Much of the volume expands upon and applies core concepts of positive psychology to the workplace context, covering areas such as positive individual attributes, positive emotions, strengths and virtues, and positive relationships. A further definition of POS, as written by editors Cameron and Spreitzer:

Positive organizational scholarship rigorously seeks to understand what represents the best of the human condition based on scholarly research and theory. Just as positive psychology focuses on exploring optimal individual psychological states rather than pathological ones, organizational scholarship focuses attention on the generative dynamics in organizations that lead to the development of human strength, foster resiliency in employees, enable healing and restoration, and cultivate extraordinary individual and organizational performance. POS emphasizes what elevates individuals and organizations (in addition to what challenges them), what goes right in organizations (in addition to what goes wrong), what is life-giving (in addition to what is problematic or life-depleting), what is experienced as good (in addition to what is objectionable), and what is inspiring (in addition to what is difficult or arduous). (Cameron, Kim S.; Spreitzer, Gretchen M. (2011). “Chapter 1. Introduction: What is Positive about Positive Organizational Scholarship?”. In Spreitzer, Gretchen M.; Cameron, Kim S. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship.)

Psychiatry

Positive psychology has influenced psychiatry by providing additional therapeutic and cognitive behaviour shifts, including well-being therapy, positive psychotherapy, and practicing an integration of positive psychology in therapeutic practice.

In an 2015 academic article published in Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, Mills and Kreutzer argue for the principles of positive psychology to be implemented to assist those recovering from traumatic brain injury (TBI). They make the case that TBI rehabilitation practices rely on the betterment of the individual through engaging in everyday practices, a practice significantly related to tenets of positive psychology. Their proposal to connect positive psychology with TBI vocational rehabilitation (VR) also looks at happiness and its correlation with improvements in mental health, including increased confidence and productivity, as well as others. While the authors point out that empirical evidence for positive psychology is limited, they clarify that positive psychology’s focus on small successes, optimism and prosocial behaviour is promising for improvements in the social and emotional well-being of TBI patients.

Popular Culture

The study of positive psychology has been translated into various popular media outlets, including books and films, and has been an influencing factor in the wellness industry.

Books

There have been several popular psychology books written by positive psychologists for a general audience.

Ilona Boniwell, in her book Positive Psychology in a Nutshell, provided a summary of the current research. According to Boniwell, well-being is related to optimism, extraversion, social connections (i.e. close friendships), being married, having engaging work, religion or spirituality, leisure, good sleep and exercise, social class (through lifestyle differences and better coping methods) and subjective health (what you think about your health). Boniwell further writes that well-being is not related to age, physical attractiveness, money (once basic needs are met), gender (women are more often depressed but also more often joyful), educational level, having children (although they add meaning to life), moving to a sunnier climate, crime prevention, housing and objective health (what doctors say).

Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness, provides advice and guidance on how to improve happiness. According to The How of Happiness, individuals should create new habits, seek out new emotions, use variety and timing to prevent hedonic adaptation, and enlist others to motivate and support during the creation of those new habits. Lyubomirsky gives 12 happiness activities, including savouring life, learning to forgive, and living in the present.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert is another popular book that shares positive psychology research findings for a general readership audience. Gilbert presents research suggesting that individuals are often poor at predicting what will make them happy in the future and that individuals are prone to misevaluating the causes of their happiness. He also notes that the subjectivity of subjective well-being and happiness often is the most difficult challenge to overcome in predicting future happiness, noting that our future selves may have different subjective perspectives on life than our current selves.

Films

Coverage of positive psychology has entered the film industry. Similarly, films have provided the basis of new research within positive psychology.

Happy (2011 film) is a full-length documentary film covering overviewing the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience. It also highlights various case studies on happiness across diverse cultures and geographies. The film features interviews with notable positive psychologists and scholars, including Daniel Gilbert, Ed Diener, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The Positive Psychology News website includes a section on annual Positive Psychology Movie Awards. The Positive Psychology Movie Awards ranks a short list of feature films of 2009, 2014, and annually between 2016 and 2018 that feature powerful messages of positive psychology. The rankings are according to the website’s author, Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D, who is a psychologist, coach, and education director of the VIA Institute on Character. The Positive Psychology Movie Awards presents separate awards for categories including: Best Positive Psychology Film, Award for Positive Relationships, Award for Meaning, Award for Achievement, Award for Mindfulness, Award for Happiness, Signature Strengths Use, among others.

Further research done on positive psychology as represented in feature films has been done in association with the VIA Institute. Contemporary and popular films that promote or represent character strengths are the basis for various academic articles.

Wellness Industry

The growing popularity and attention given to positive psychology research has influenced industry growth, development, and consumption of products and services meant to cater to wellness and well-being.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, as of 2018, the global wellness economy is valued at $4.5 trillion and the wellness industry represents 5.3% of global economic output. Key sectors of the wellness industry include workplace wellness, fitness and mind-body, personal care, and wellness lifestyle.

Highlighting happiness and well-being has been a strategy harnessed by various companies in their marketing strategies. Food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola and Pocky, whose motto is “Share happiness!”, emphasize happiness in their commercials, branding, and descriptions. CEOs at retail companies such as Zappos have profited by publishing books detailing their deliverance of happiness, while Amazon’s logo features a dimpled smile.

Criticism

Positive psychology has been criticized in many different aspects from its conception continuing into the present day.

Reality Distortion

In 1988, psychologists Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathan D. Brown co-authored a Psychological Bulletin article that coined the phrase positive illusions. Positive illusions are the cognitive processes individuals engage in when self-aggrandising or self-enhancing. They are the unrealistically positive or self-affirming attitudes that individuals hold of themselves, their position, or their environment. In essence, positive illusions are attitudes of extreme optimism that endure even in the face of facts and real conditions. Taylor and Brown suggested that positive illusions protect individuals from negative feedback that they might receive, and this, in turn, preserves their psychological adaptation and subjective well-being. However, later research has found that engaging in positive illusions and related attitudes has led to psychological maladaptive conditions. These conditions include poorer social relationships, expressions of narcissism, and negative workplace outcomes, thus reducing the positive effects that positive illusions have on subjective well-being, overall happiness, and life satisfaction.

Kirk Schneider, editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, has said that positive psychology fails to explain past heinous behaviours such as those perpetrated by the Nazi party, Stalinist marches and Klan gatherings, to identify but a few. He also pointed to a body of research showing high positivity correlates with positive illusion, which effectively distorts reality. The extent of the downfall of high positivity or flourishing is one could become incapable of psychological growth, unable to self-reflect, and tend to hold racial biases. By contrast, negativity, sometimes evidenced in mild to moderate depression, is correlated with less distortion of reality. Therefore, Schneider argues, negativity might play an important role within the dynamics of human flourishing. To illustrate, conflict engagement and acknowledgement of appropriate negativity, including certain negative emotions like guilt, might better promote flourishing. Overall, Schneider provided perspective: “perhaps genuine happiness is not something you aim at, but is…a by-product of a life well lived – and a life well lived does not settle on the programmed or neatly calibrated.”

Narrow Focus

In 2003, Ian Sample, writing for The Guardian, noted that, “Positive psychologists also stand accused of burying their heads in the sand and ignoring that depressed, even merely unhappy people, have real problems that need dealing with.” He also quoted Steven Wolin, a clinical psychiatrist at George Washington University, as saying that the study of positive psychology is just a reiteration of older ways of thinking, and that there is not much scientific research to support the efficacy of this method. Gable responds to criticism on their Pollyanna view on the world by saying that they are just bringing a balance to a side of psychology that is glaringly understudied. To defend his point, Gable points to the imbalances favouring research into negative psychological well-being in cognitive psychology, health psychology, and social psychology.

Martin Jack has also maintained that positive psychology is not unique in its optimistic approach to looking at optimal emotional well-being, stating that other forms of psychology, such as counselling and educational psychology, are also interested in positive human fulfilment. He goes on to mention that, while positive psychology has pushed for schools to be more student-centred and able to foster positive self-images in children, he worries that a lack of focus on self-control may prevent children from making full contributions to society. If positive psychology is not implemented correctly, it can cause more harm than good. This is the case, for example, when interventions in school are coercive (in the sense of being imposed on everyone without regard for the individual child’s reason for negativity) and fail to take each student’s context into account.

Role of Negativity

Barbara S. Held, a professor at Bowdoin College, argued that while positive psychology makes contributions to the field of psychology, it has its faults. She offered insight into topics including the negative side effects of positive psychology, negativity within the positive psychology movement, and the current division in the field of psychology caused by differing opinions of psychologists on positive psychology. In addition, she noted the movement’s lack of consistency regarding the role of negativity. She also raised issues with the simplistic approach taken by some psychologists in the application of positive psychology. A “one size fits all” approach is arguably not beneficial to the advancement of the field of positive psychology; she suggested a need for individual differences to be incorporated into its application. By teaching young people that being confident and optimistic leads to success, when they are unsuccessful they will begin to believe it is because they are insecure or pessimistic. This could lead them to believe that any negative internal thought or feeling they may experience is damaging to their happiness and should be steered clear of completely.

Toxic Positivity

A recent critical response to the field of positive psychology is that around toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the phenomenon in which individuals do not fully acknowledge, process, or manage the entire spectrum of human emotion, including anger and sadness. This genre of criticism against positive psychology argues that the field of positive psychology places too much importance on “upbeat thinking, while shunting challenging and difficult experiences to the side.” Individuals who engage in a constant chase for positive experiences or states of high subjective well-being may be inadvertently stigmatizing negative emotional conditions, such as depression, or may be suppressing natural emotional responses, such as sadness, regret, or stress. Furthermore, by not allowing negative emotional states to be experienced, or by suppressing and hiding negative emotional responses, individuals may experience harmful physical, cardiovascular and respiratory consequences. Proponents of combating toxic positivity advocate allowing oneself to accept and fully experience negative emotional states.

Methodological and Philosophical Critiques

Richard Lazarus, who was well known in psychology for his Cognitive-Motivational-Relational theory of emotions, has thoroughly critiqued positive psychology’s methodological and philosophical components. He holds that giving more detail and insight into the positive is not bad, but not at the expense of the negative aspect because the two (positive and negative) are inseparable. The first methodological issue noted is positive psychology’s use of correlational and cross-sectional research designs to indicate causality between the movement’s ideas and healthy lives; there could be other factors not researched and time differences that account for healthier lives that the researchers do not account for. Secondly, he considers that emotions cannot be categorised dichotomously into positive and negative; by nature, emotions are subjective and rich in social/relational meaning. Additionally, he claims that emotions are fluid, meaning that the context they appear in changes over time. He states that “all emotions have the potential of being either one or the other, or both, on different occasions, and even on the same occasion when an emotion is experienced by different persons” The third issue is the neglect of individual differences in most social science research. Many research designs focus on the statistical significance of the groups while overlooking differences among individuals. Lazarus’s final methodological complaint is social science researchers’ tendency to not adequately define and measure emotions. Most assessments are quick checklists and do not provide adequate debriefing. Many researchers do not differentiate between fluid emotional states and relatively stable personality traits.

Lazarus further holds that positive psychology claims to be new and innovative although the majority of research on stress and coping theory make much of the same claims as positive psychology. The movement attempts to uplift and reinforce the positive aspects of one’s life, but everyone in life experiences stress and hardship. Coping through these events should not be looked at as adapting to failures, but should be regarded as successfully navigating stress, but the movement doesn’t hold that perspective.

The US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Programme

The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) programme was established in 2008 by then-Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General George W. Casey, Jr., in an effort to address the increasing rates of drug abuse, family violence, PTSD, and suicide among soldiers. The Army contracted with Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania to supply a program closely based on the centre’s Penn Resiliency Programme, which was designed for 10- to 14-year-old children. Although Seligman proposed starting with a small-scale pilot-test, General Casey insisted on immediately rolling out the CSF to the entire Army. Interviewed for the journal Monitor on Psychology of the American Psychological Association, Seligman said that “This is the largest study—1.1 million soldiers—psychology has ever been involved in.” According to journalist Jesse Singal, “It would become one of the largest mental-health interventions geared at a single population in the history of humanity, and possibly the most expensive.”

Some psychologists have criticized the CSF for various reasons. Nicholas J.L. Brown wrote that “The idea that techniques that have demonstrated, at best, marginal effects in reducing depressive symptoms in school-age children could also prevent the onset of a condition that is associated with some of the most extreme situations with which humans can be confronted is a remarkable one that does not seem to be backed up by empirical evidence.” Stephen Soldz of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis cited Seligman’s acknowledgment that the CSF is a gigantic study rather than a program based on proven techniques, and questioned the ethics of requiring soldiers to participate in research without informed consent. Soldz also criticised the CSF training for trying to build up-beat attitudes toward combat: “Might soldiers who have been trained to resiliently view combat as a growth opportunity be more likely to ignore or under-estimate real dangers, thereby placing themselves, their comrades, or civilians at heightened risk of harm?”

In 2021 the Chronicle of Higher Education carried a debate between Singal and Seligman about whether, with the CSF well into its second decade, there was any solid evidence of its effectiveness. Singal cited studies that, he said, failed to find any measurable benefits in such positive psychology techniques, and he criticized the Army’s own reports as methodologically unsound and lacking peer review. Seligman said that Singal had misinterpreted the studies and ignored the Army’s positive feedback from soldiers, one of whom told Seligman that “if I had had this training years ago, it would have saved my marriage.”

What is the Need for Positive Mental Health?

In an age where society is continually bombarded with information about mental health, individuals are learning that the benefits of positive mental health are hard to overestimate.

This is because they can help individuals in all aspects of their life to live in a way that is meaningful, and which better enables them to have a high quality of life for as long as possible.

What is Learned Optimism?

Introduction

Learned optimism is the idea in positive psychology that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated.

In contrast with learned helplessness, optimism is learned by consciously challenging any negative self talk.

Overview

Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook are many: Optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common; pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to suffer from depression. Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism – one that grew from pessimism – is a learned optimism. The optimist’s outlook on failure can thus be summarised as “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)”.

Other differences exist between pessimists and optimists in terms of explanatory style:

  • Permanence:
    • Optimistic people believe bad events to be more temporary than permanent and bounce back quickly from failure, whereas others may take longer periods to recover or may never recover.
    • They also believe good things happen for reasons that are permanent, rather than seeing the transient nature of positive events.
    • Optimists point to specific temporary causes for negative events; pessimists point to permanent causes.
  • Pervasiveness:
    • Optimistic people compartmentalise helplessness, whereas pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole.
    • Optimistic people also allow good events to brighten every area of their lives rather than just the particular area in which the event occurred.
  • Personalisation:
    • Optimists blame bad events on causes outside of themselves, whereas pessimists blame themselves for events that occur.
    • Optimists are therefore generally more confident.
    • Optimists also quickly internalise positive events while pessimists externalise them.

History

Seligman came to the concept of learned optimism through a scientific study of learned helplessness, the idea that a certain reoccurring negative event is out of the person’s control. As he was performing tests to study helplessness further, he began to wonder why some people resisted helplessness-conditioning. He noticed that, while some subjects blamed themselves for negative outcomes, others blamed the experiment for setting them up to fail.

Seligman shifted his focus to attempting to discover what it is that keeps some people from ever becoming helpless. The answer was optimism. Using his knowledge about conditioning people to be helpless in the lab, he shifted his focus to conditioning people to be optimists. The result of these experiments led to defining the processes of learning optimism.

Research

In a study completed by Martin Seligman and Gregory Buchanan at the University of Pennsylvania and published by the American Psychological Association, learned optimism techniques were found to significantly reduce depression in a class of college freshmen. As incoming students to the university, a survey determined the most pessimistic students and they were invited to participate in the study. They were randomly assigned, half to attend a 16-hour workshop on the techniques of learning optimism, and half were the control group. In an 18-month follow up, 32% of the control group suffered moderate to severe depression and 15% suffered moderate to severe anxiety disorder, whereas only 22% of the workshop participants were depressed and 7% had anxiety issues. Those who participated in the learned optimism workshop also reported fewer health problems over the 18-month period of the study than those students in the control group.

A study done by Peter Schulman at the Wharton School, published in the Journal of Selling and Sales Management, looked to determine the effects of applying learned optimism in business. After measuring the optimism levels of an insurance sales force, it was determined that the optimistic sales people sold 35% more, and identified pessimists were two times more likely to quit in the first year than optimists. As a result of his studies, he recommends testing sales job candidates for optimism levels to fit them to appropriate positions, training employees in learned optimism techniques, and designing an organisation overall to have attainable goals set and good support from management.

Finally, a study conducted by Mark Ylvisaker of the College of Saint Rose and Timothy Feeney of the Wildwood Institute looked at children with executive function impairment. The children had brain functioning impairments affecting motor skills, memory, or the ability to focus. Learned optimism was not taught to the children themselves, but rather to their caretakers, who often are more likely to feel helpless than optimistic in regards to caring for the child. It was found that learned optimism in caretakers of children with brain damage actually led the children to develop more functioning than children without optimistic caretakers. Thus Ylvisaker concludes that the optimism of professional rehabilitators can affect the results of their clients.

Seligman’s Method of Learning Optimism

According to Martin Seligman, anyone can learn optimism. Whether currently an optimist or a pessimist, benefits can be gained from exposure to the process of learned optimism to improve response to both big and small adversities. A learned optimism test (developed by Seligman) is used to determine an individual’s base level of optimism. Being in the more pessimistic categories means that learning optimism has a chance of preventing depression, helping the person achieve more, and improve physical health.

Seligman’s process of learning optimism consists of a simple method to train a new way of responding to adversity, specifically, by learning to talk themselves through personal defeat. It begins with the Ellis ABC model of adversity, belief, and consequence. Adversity is the event that happens, Belief is how that adversity is interpreted, and Consequences are the feelings and actions that result from the beliefs. This is demonstrated in the example below:

  • Adversity: Someone cuts you off in traffic.
  • Belief: You think, “I can’t believe that idiot was so rude and selfish!”
  • Consequence: You are overcome with anger, yelling profanity at the other driver.

In the journey to learning optimism, emphasis is placed on first understanding one’s current reaction to and interpretation of adversity. Learners are asked to keep a journal for two days in which they note small adverse events and the beliefs and consequences that followed. Next the learner returns to the journal to highlight pessimism (e.g. pervasiveness: “it doomed me…”) in their written descriptions of the events.

To the ABC model, Seligman adds:

  • “D” (Disputation):
    • Disputation centres on generating counter-evidence to any of the following: the negative beliefs in general, the causes of the event, or the implications.
    • D also means reminding oneself of any potential usefulness of moving on from the adversity.
    • Disputation for the above traffic example might sound like this: “I am overreacting. I don’t know what situation he is in. Maybe he is on his way to his daughter’s piano recital and is running late. I’m sure I have cut people off before without meaning to, so I should really cut him a break. I am not in a hurry anyway.”
    • Over time, responses like this are predicted to change feelings to be more hopeful and positive.
  • “E” (Energisation):
    • Successful disputation leads to energisation, the E in the ABCDE model.
    • One is energised, and should indeed try to actively celebrate, the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment that come from successful disputation of negative beliefs.
    • Disputation and Energisation (celebration) are the keys to Seligman’s method.

Teaching children learned optimism by guiding them through the ABCDE techniques can help children to better deal with adversity they encounter in their lives. If children are taught early then the thought process of disputation is claimed to become ingrained in them. They do not, then, have to focus on being optimistic, but rather optimism becomes automatic and leads to a more positive life for the child.

Applications

If learnable, optimism techniques could be practical in life. They are used today in many areas such as parenting, business, therapy, and education.

Business would benefit from more optimistic workers, as they are more successful. Seligman’s focus in business is on ‘the personal wall’ that is each individual worker’s set-point of discouragement. Putting the ABCDE model into practice attempts to allow workers to respond to this ‘wall’ with a readiness to conquer rather than to feel dejected. The Attributional Style Questionnaire is often used to measure optimism of job candidates during the interview process by asking the participant to write down causes for situational failures. Participants attributions may be used to help understand if the candidate will be a high or low performer in his/her projected role based on his level of optimism.

Learned optimism has been used to combat depression during cognitive behavioural therapy. This is based on the idea that patients may be depressed in part because they have a pessimistic outlook. Rather than perceiving adversity as a constant thing that cannot be overcome, and taking personal blame for that adversity, patients come out of cognitive behavioural therapy with the belief that they can control how they respond to adversity. A shift toward optimism is a shift away from depression.

Criticism

Martin Seligman’s learned optimism now orients the US armed services’ psychological stance. Keith Ablow, a frequent guest on Fox News, blamed this in part for the actions of the US soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan. He wrote (under the Fox News banner) that soldiers are “taught to deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged, under the banner of ‘resilience.’ It’s a bad, bad idea that pushes soldiers to ‘fake good’ until they fall apart. And, then, the system continues to withhold needed care, particularly of a psychotherapeutic, insight-oriented variety.”

What is Learned Helplessness?

Introduction

Learned helplessness is behaviour exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. It was initially thought to be caused from the subject’s acceptance of their powerlessness: discontinuing attempts to escape or avoid the aversive stimulus, even when such alternatives are unambiguously presented. Upon exhibiting such behaviour, the subject was said to have acquired learned helplessness.

Over the past few decades, neuroscience has provided insight into learned helplessness and shown that the original theory actually had it backwards: the brain’s default state is to assume that control is not present, and the presence of “helpfulness” is what is actually learned.

In humans, learned helplessness is related to the concept of self-efficacy; the individual’s belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

Refer to Learned Optimism.

Foundation of Research and Theory

Early Experiments

American psychologist Martin Seligman initiated research on learned helplessness in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania as an extension of his interest in depression. This research was later expanded through experiments by Seligman and others. One of the first was an experiment by Seligman & Maier:

  • In Part 1 of this study, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses.
    • Group 1 dogs were simply put in a harness for a period of time and were later released.
    • Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs”.
    • Dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks at random times, which the dog could end by pressing a lever.
    • Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a Group 2 dog; whenever a Group 2 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration, but its lever did not stop the shock.
    • To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was their paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop.
    • Thus, for Group 3 dogs, the shock was “inescapable”.
  • In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus (a chamber containing two rectangular compartments divided by a barrier a few inches high).
    • All of the dogs could escape shocks on one side of the box by jumping over a low partition to the other side.
    • The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock.
    • Most of the Group 3 dogs – which had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on shocks – simply lay down passively and whined when they were shocked.

In a second experiment later that year with new groups of dogs, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that, instead of learned helplessness, the Group 3 dogs failed to avert in the second part of the test because they had learned some behaviour that interfered with “escape”. To prevent such interfering behaviour, Group 3 dogs were immobilised with a paralysing drug (curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. When tested as before in Part 2, these Group 3 dogs exhibited helplessness as before. This result serves as an indicator for the ruling out of the interference hypothesis.

From these experiments, it was thought that there was to be only one cure for helplessness. In Seligman’s hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs would need to take in order to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start wilfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.

Later Experiments

Later experiments have served to confirm the depressive effect of feeling a lack of control over an aversive stimulus. For example, in one experiment, humans performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. Those who could use a switch to turn off the noise rarely bothered to do so, yet they performed better than those who could not turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract the noise effect. In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stressful stimuli exhibited changes in the excitability of certain neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit this neural effect and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety.

Expanded Theories

Research has found that a human’s reaction to feeling a lack of control differs both between individuals and between situations, i.e. learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalises across situations. Such variations are not explained by the original theory of learned helplessness, and an influential view is that such variations depend on an individual’s attributional or explanatory style. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”), and are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.

Bernard Weiner proposed a detailed account of the attributional approach to learned helplessness. His attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality:

  • A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts.
    • A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation.
  • A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time.
    • An unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time.
  • An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors,
    • while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.

Research has shown that those with an internal, stable, and global attributional style for negative events can be more at risk for a depressive reaction to failure experiences.

Neurobiological Perspective

Research has shown that increased 5-HT (serotonin) activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus plays a critical role in learned helplessness. Other key brain regions that are involved with the expression of helpless behaviour include the basolateral amygdala, central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Activity in medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus, septum and hypothalamus has also been observed during states of helplessness.

In the article, “Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain”, Benjamin N. Greenwood and Monika Fleshner discuss how exercise might prevent stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression. They show evidence that running wheel exercise prevents learned helplessness behaviours in rats. They suggest that the amount of exercise may not be as important as simply exercising at all. The article also discusses the neurocircuitry of learned helplessness, the role of serotonin (or 5-HT), and the exercise-associated neural adaptations that may contribute to the stress-resistant brain. However, the authors finally conclude that:

“The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of this effect, however, remain unknown. Identifying the mechanisms by which exercise prevents learned helplessness could shed light on the complex neurobiology of depression and anxiety and potentially lead to novel strategies for the prevention of stress-related mood disorders”.

Health Implications

People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. They experience stress, they often show disruption of emotions demonstrating passivity or aggressiveness, and they can also have difficulty performing cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. They are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behaviour, causing them, for example, to neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment.

Depression

Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have found a strong correlation between depression-like symptoms and learned helplessness in laboratory animals.

Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style often suffer from depression. They tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic style also tend to have weakened immune systems, having not only increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g. cold, fever) and major illness (e.g. heart attack, cancers), but also poorer recovery from health problems.

Social Impact

Learned helplessness can be a factor in a wide range of social situations.

  • In emotionally abusive relationships, the victim often develops learned helplessness.
    • This occurs when the victim confronts or tries to leave the abuser only to have the abuser dismiss or trivialise the victim’s feelings, pretend to care but not change, or impede the victim from leaving.
  • The motivational effect of learned helplessness is often seen in the classroom.
    • Students who repeatedly fail may conclude that they are incapable of improving their performance, and this attribution keeps them from trying to succeed, which results in increased helplessness, continued failure, loss of self-esteem and other social consequences.
  • Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness.
    • For example, when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
  • Those who are extremely shy or anxious in social situations may become passive due to feelings of helplessness.
    • Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, which tends to reinforce the passivity.
  • Aging individuals may respond with helplessness to the deaths of friends and family members, the loss of jobs and income, and the development of age-related health problems.
    • This may cause them to neglect their medical care, financial affairs, and other important needs.
  • According to Cox et al., Abramson, Devine, and Hollon (2012), learned helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by inescapable prejudice (i.e. “deprejudice”).
    • Thus: “Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks.”
  • According to Ruby K. Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, treatment of the poor can lead to a cycle of poverty, a culture of poverty, and generational poverty.
    • This type of learned helplessness is passed from parents to children.
    • People who embrace this mentality feel there is no way to escape poverty and so one must live in the moment and not plan for the future, trapping families in poverty.

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable to those entrenched. However, there are various ways to reduce or prevent it. When induced in experimental settings, learned helplessness has been shown to resolve itself with the passage of time. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome. Cognitive therapy can be used to show people that their actions do make a difference and bolster their self-esteem.

Extensions

Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment.

The UK educationalist Phil Bagge describes it as a learning avoidance strategy caused by prior failure and the positive reinforcement of avoidance such as asking teachers or peers to explain and consequently do the work. It shows itself as sweet helplessness or aggressive helplessness often seen in challenging problem solving contexts, such as learning to use a new computer programming language.

The US sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer.

Emergence under Torture

Studies on learned helplessness served as the basis for developing enhanced interrogation techniques. In CIA interrogation manuals, learned helplessness is characterised as “apathy” which may result from prolonged use of coercive techniques which result in a “debility-dependency-dread” state in the subject, “If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him.”