My Take: 2017 World Congress on Positive Psychology

I recently attended the fifth annual World Congress on Positive Psychology (WCPP) in Montreal with Aimee and Karen. It was four amazing four days of inspiration and reflection. I’m already looking forward to the next WCPP in Melbourne in 2019 (it’s a bi-annual event).

As I did after the the last congress, I’m sharing my thoughts and observations from the four day event. There were many concurrent sessions, so my notes only reflect a small slice of the event.

What is Positive Psychology?

In case you’re wondering what Positive Psychology is all about, here’s a definition from the Positive Psychology Center:

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.

The field is still pretty fragmented, without many standardized definitions. Many of the thought leaders have created their own models (and related books), which push the field into many different (and mostly interesting) directions. Amongst all of that diversity, here’s my takeaway on what positive psychology is all about (and why it’s so important to what we do at Temkin Group):

  • People have the intrinsic ability to be happy and to flourish.
  • Changes in mindset can improve physical and mental well-being.
  • It makes good business sense to help customers and employees flourish.
  • The world will be a better place if more of its inhabitants can flourish.

Highlights from the 2017 WCPP

The 2017 WCPP provided a wide array of content over four days of keynote speeches and breakout sessions. The keynote content was heavily focused on research that covered the connection between positive psychology and education, physical well-being, and organizational effectiveness. Here’s a very, very small portion of highlights from some of the sessions:

  • Martin Seligman shares 5 career highlights. Seligman, who many consider the godfather of the positive psychology movement, shared his thoughts about the five big ideas that he’s been involved with over his career, and where he thought they might be headed in the future. What an inspirational kick off to the event! Here’s a brief glimpse into the five areas:
    • Learned Helplessness: Helplessness is a learned behavior — usually caused after experiencing an adverse situation. Clinical depression and related mental illnesses are often the result  from a perceived absence of control. The research in neuroscience may be able to “unlearn” helplessness and eliminate depression.
    • Preparedeness: Human beings are prepared to learn some things and not others based on how coherent the information is to evidence already in our minds. But why are some things we learn sticky? We tend to listen/observe for 60 seconds and then a default circuit kicks in about every 60 seconds so that we can compare what we’re learning against our existing ideas.
    • Learned Optimism: Optimistic people believe that the cause of problems are temporary and causal, and this thinking can be taught through resilience training. Since pessimistic thinking is a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease, this training can be very helpful for people who have heart disease and depression.
    • Homo Prospectus: We used to think that people think and behave based on what’s happened to them in the past, when in fact people are future oriented. So treating problems with anxiety and depression must deal with how people view their future, not their past.
    • Positive Psychology: The PERMA model has defined what well-being means, and he is seeing it being brought into class rooms, families, organizations, and even nations. He believes that this movement can bring unprecedented prosperity in the world, and it can create a level of human flourishing that only comes along every 500 years.
  • David Cooperrider is improving the world. Cooperrider is one of the most unassuming and amazing people that I have ever met. He’s the creator of appreciative inquiry, which he’s successfully applied to industries, religions, and the United Nations. He’s planning a world summit that is focused on radically improving early childhood education. The approach he will use (which he’s been very successful with in the past) is to bring together representatives from every aspect of the entire system (educators, administrators, politicians, parents, etc) and run appreciative inquiry sessions. This is like a large-scale, co-creation form of design thinking that he calls “Design Democracy.” He expects that this summit will be the start of a decade long effort.
  • Kim Cameron shows the power of positive energy. Cameron shared some of the work being done at the Center for Positive Organizations. He discussed how positive energy is a more important element to understanding the health of an organization than is a mapping of hierarchies or influence levels. The bottom line is that people in organizations who add positive energy (Energizers) are much more more valuable to the performance of an organization than are those who subtract energy (De-Energizers).

  • Steve Cole discusses well-being and genomics. His research was fascinating, as it examined the actual connection between mind and body. He found that eudaimonic happiness (the pursuit of personal fulfillment)  improves a person’s genomes, while hedonic happiness (the pursuit of pleasure) does not.
  • Alejandro Adler improves education. Adler is a postdoctoral fellow at UPenn who won an award for his amazing work on the field of education. He’s shown that infusing well-being into educational curriculum can have a dramatic impact on the success of the children. He discussed extraordinary results with large-scale interventions in Bhutan, Mexico, and Peru.
  • Johannes Eichstaedt measures well-being via social media. Eichstaedt used text analytics to study the correlation between well-being and the language that thousands of people write on Facebook and Twitter. He showed many fascinating connections, including the topics that are predictors of heart disease (see below). He then examined differences by locations and political affiliations.

  • Elissa Epel discussed the biology of aging. Epel showed that our pace of aging is not pre-determined, and that our perception of stress impacts our genomes. Her research shows that chronic stress shortens telomeres, which leads to increased inflammation and disease. In other words, we can lengthen our lives by better coping with stress.
  • Laura King inspires us to appreciate what we have. I need to say this… King was awesome. Her speech was passionate and impactful. She explained that people constantly seek and find meaningful associations in the world… like pavlov dogs. She made the case that we should not strive to “find meaningfulness,” but instead we need to recognize that our meaning in life is deeply rooted in our everyday experiences. We just need to open our eyes and notice the meaning in our lives.

Hopefully some of the connections between positive psychology and customer experience are pretty obvious. In a later post, I’ll more explicitly discuss the linkages between what we heard at the WCPP and CX.  For now, I’ll end with a slide from Kim Cameron’s presentation and urge that you inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.

The bottom line: You can make a positive difference in your life, and in the lives of others.

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

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