Positive Psychology in Australia

Recently I had the pleasure of carrying out a series of interviews with leaders in their respective fields. With their agreement, I’m going to blog about the talks and share the audio and video content.

My second interview was with an Australian psychologist, Tim Sharp (aka Dr Happy). I came across Dr Happy through Twitter some months ago and have enjoyed his daily tweets that help you to focus on the things going right in your life, and how you have choice over being the best you can in your life. Regulars of this blog will know I’m a fan of positive psychology and advocate the philosophy a lot. So it was only natural to ask Tim to do this interview.

We started by talking about how Tim got into the field of positive psychology at all.

Tim: My background is clinical psychology. It was very fulfilling and satisfying for the first half of my career. Probably accidentally in the very early days, I stumbled across something to do with positive psychology. In all likelihood to do with Martin Seligman. It ended up being a life changing moment. I wanted to help people thrive and flourish, although those words didn’t exist in current terms at that time. I wanted to wave the flag, and so started The Happiness Institute.

I wanted to probe a bit more about how Dr Sharp saw the parallels to the work Dr Martin Seligman carried out in terms of helping people to thrive in their lives.

Tim: Over the last decade or two I have three separate but related practices. One is a traditional therapy practice, there’s the Happiness Institute, and the third is an executive coaching practice called Positive Leadership Development. We have specialists within each of those areas who help to deliver our services.

One of the things I had to learn was about marketing and branding. It matters to how you talk to organisations, and the language is important in those contexts. When I take positive psychology to organisations, there are some who love the idea of happiness and positivity, and there are other ones, that I might call the more conservative ones, and I might talk use a different language such as positive management or resilience.

What are the kind of clients who you work with?

Tim: Even the conservative ones buy into the concept, it’s about the language you use. Every individual is different, and every client is different. That means I have to be connect to that individual. With some organisations I have to find the common language that fits their people. One of the questions I get asked regularly is how to get your foot in the door. I don’t really do cold calling or anything as such. For me I’ve just worked with the ones who are ready to listen to what I have to say. I don’t worry about the ones that I don’t as there’s enough work with the people who want to do something with this field.

There’s a myth that it would be the likes of the new technology companies or digital companies. We’ve also worked with some of the big professional firms in Australia, and about to finish a big project within one of the largest financial organisations in Australia. What it comes down to for me, is that people are people. It comes down to a particular individual who takes to the idea and wants to bring it (positive psychology) in.

How do people respond to the work you do?

Tim: The other day I spoke with a couple of hundred people. I don’t expect everyone to like me or the ideas. I find though that it’s hard to not like the idea of the field. It’s very likeable and attractive, and I’ve learned to present it in practical, easy to understand terms. In that corporate context I’ve learned to take off my academic’s hat, and help people to know what they can do and put into practice. I focus more on the strategies and explain about the theories where necessary. Most people are willing to give it a try and take away a few things.

One of the things I pro-actively do is to address the myths and misconceptions. Right up front I’ll help people know what I’m not talking about. I bust those myths straight up, and tell people that it’s not about smiling and laughing every minute of every day, and that it’s ok to get upset at times. Those are the things which can be the elephant in the room.

Positive psychology is about appreciating the good times and getting through the tough times. A lot of people like that message of resilience in that.

What other areas do you see that have natural connections to this field such as resilience?

Tim: I’ll often say I’m partially guilty in that I’m perpetuating a myth about happiness. It’s about thriving and living your best life, but it’s much more. It’s about your values and your meaning, and how you can build character through your strengths. It’s important to understand to do good as well as feeling good, and working towards longer term meaningful goals.

Do you see momentum building on this topic?

Tim: When I started talking about this ten years ago, some people thought I’d gone a bit mad! In the early days there were some who got it, but I had to spend a lot more time educating people about what it is and what it isn’t. These days I can sit with senior executives and most will have heard of the idea. They may have had some exposure to it. Now it’s usual for at least half an audience to have heard of the topic.

It’s now being applied in more and more different areas. It’s being integrated into more traditional therapy, and there are organisations offering seminars and workshops. One of the particularly exciting areas is the work being offered in schools. I think schools in Australia are leading the way here. Martin Seligman spent a long time out here with Geelong Grammar and built the most comprehensive positive psychology programmes around. This is really exciting and shows momentum building.

The programme sees a year group go out to an external environment called TimberTops. These are affluent schools, and through fundraising activities, they built a health and wellbeing centre. They worked directly with Seligman and they trained their teachers and staff in the practice and how to make it practical and part of education.

Do you see this is another weapon in the arsenal of HR/L&D professionals?

Tim: There’s talk at the moment that positive psychology will stop, and just become part of psychology therapy techniques. I see that this could also infiltrate through positive education. I’m personally involved in is health and wellbeing. We need to undo the ‘positive health’, and just talk about ‘health’, or ‘education’, or ‘psychology’ because positive practices should just be part of what these do. HR professionals have been taking an interest. I can’t understand why any organisation wouldn’t be interested in integrating these principles. There’s enough research now to mount a strong argument that organisations that integrate these principles achieve better productivity, engagement, and get the best results.

How do you see the media talking about this field?

Tim: Generally most media outlets tend to be positive about what this field offers. Interestingly a couple of years ago, Oliver Burkeman wrote a book, The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, and ‘Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America’ by Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote a rant against positive psychology and Martin Seligman. What she was actually arguing against was excessive levels of unrealistic optimism or excessive positive thinking. I ended up debating with Burkeman on Australian TV and we actually agreed on 95% of the topic!

Real optimism is about facing up to the cold hard realities and dealing with that in a constructive way. Most of the criticisms is about the myths, and I spend a fair bit of time busting those myths.

Tim rounded off by talking about some of the bigger influences that will start to permeate through the field of psychology. In particular he made mention of neuro-psychology and using more research through MRIs. Also, cultural differences will start to really break through a lot of this too.

He currently does a lot of work with people who have trouble with weight management, and he’s developed a whole methodology called the Happiness Diet.

Another area of strong interest is around the aging population, and the need to not let that go to waste.

If you want to listen to the full interview (approximately 43 mins), you can do that here.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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