Too much of a good thing?

I read a paper recently published by Adam Grant and Barry Schwartz entitled ‘Too Much of a Good Thing: The Challenge and the Opportunity of the Inverted U‘. It’s a long read, and it’s in academic speak, so if you do, take the time to digest it. It’s an interesting one that takes the time to examine some of the work claimed by positive psychologists and evaluate the extent to which we should take heed of the approaches/techniques suggested.

There are a few key concepts that the authors use which are central to the piece. The first is what they call ‘nonmonotonicity’. ‘Monotocity’ says that if you do X activity, and it brings benefits, the more you do, the more you benefit. The authors argue that with the techniques advocated for by positive psychologists, when you carry out the techniques you reach a peak after which continued practice brings deficiency or lower benefits – ‘nonmonotonicity’.

The Inverted U is an illustrative way to understand this concept as highlighted in the image below.

The Inverted U curve

What the paper helps to provide thinking on is that when we talk about use of strengths in day to day life, we have to be mindful that used in excess our strengths can start to hinder our performance / wellbeing. The paper talks in more detail about what this looks like, and I do encourage you to read it to understand how this plays out.

Or you could have a chat with Ian Pettigrew who does a lot of work on strengths based coaching.

It’s a useful bit of reflective thinking to help provide some balance to the many pieces of advocacy and seemingly relentless push for positive thinking, positive living and positive stories.

This isn’t about moderation of happiness either. It’s about finding the right levels of activity which produce longer lasting feelings of positivity and are supportive of wellbeing overall. As we know, no one activity is beneficial without being part of a whole. Our bodies and minds are complex systems and require us to develop whole being approaches to improving our wellbeing.

And I present caution that this paper doesn’t just confirm ‘common sense’. It presents a useful way to consider what are the effects of carrying out particular behaviours in their extreme and how they negatively impact on performance/wellbeing.

The challenging thing about finding your right levels of activity is that it ends up being quite the journey to go on. It’s not about one thing over another, and it’s not about trying one thing one time. Life persists because it has a natural habit of evolution. Life evolves because of natural iterative processes. If we want to be more determined in living positive and better lives, it takes time and effort to find practices, techniques and stuff that works for us as individuals.

When I deliver talks on positive psychology I’m always careful to not position it as a model which can make you feel infinitely better about love, life and the universe cos it’s just not about that. No model or way of thinking can offer you that. Used together, with other models/theories/thinking, that’s how we develop and understand more about what we need to be our best selves.

Positive psychology is quite clearly about how to live a well life. The techniques, models and the theory itself is useful, but it has its limitations. If you’re dealing with particular traumatic experiences, or very difficult life circumstances, it’s not the right support you need. It can form part of the support, but is not enough by itself. If someone is being discriminatory, hurtful or abusive, positive psychology can’t provide you with the tools to fight that or to prevent it from happening. It can help in the support once you’re free from those things, but isn’t particularly useful for dealing with them.

I’m glad to have read the paper. It’s helped to provide me with clarity on what happens when we overuse our strengths. I’m also now better considering on how to speak with clarity on what positive psychology is useful for, how it can support wellbeing and how the techniques have clear and specific purposes.


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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.

2 thoughts on “Too much of a good thing?”

  1. Hi Sukh, I’m a journalist, and just trying to make contact with you for a feature I’m writing for People Management mag on how to raise your profile. I can send more details, but would love to do a quick phone interview with you at some point this week. Can you help? Look forward to hearing…

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