In Positive Psychology there are three main concerns the field tries to focus on – positive emotions, positive individual traits and positive institutions. Positive emotions tend to be those that elicit some immediate sense of joy which is very connected to the present. Positive individual traits are those which we can learn about and adapt to enable us to live better lives. Emotional Intelligence fits quite well with this. Positive institutions are those which surround us and help us to lead our lives in a better way. It’s this last one I’d like to take some time to think about.
Understanding positive institutions entails the study of meaning and purpose as well as the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.
I’ve taken that quote from the FAQs page from the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania website. It really helps to define what we should be thinking about when we think about activities which reach beyond ourselves. We all have a duty to do more and better for society, but what should that look like? When should we do these things? How do we engender better institutions? How do we encourage better behaviours in those around us?
I tend to think of a list of institutions, as defined like this, and record them in this way:
Companionship in life is both wrought with great joy and great sadness. Couples can enjoy long periods of calm, enjoyment and fulfillment in each other’s lives. They can also endure periods of sadness, disappointment and apathy towards each other. This is true of life, and in finding the right partner in our lives we are faced with a decision of if we are living a positive life with our partner or without them. This raises deep and serious questions about what a person believes they need from themselves and from their partner in order to do this. Some will be able to find joy, others will not.
The first support network we all feel or are compelled to have in our lives is a family unit. In this, we find we are with people who at once know how to make us laugh and rile us up. Yet a permeating fact is we always feel ‘at home’ with our family wherever they may be. In this, we have to consider if the family unit is a positive one. How are you helping it to be so? Are you emulating the behaviours you want to see in others? Are they reciprocating and being this way, or are they rebelling? Are there the ‘right elders’ in the family unit who can help guide and provide sage advice where it is needed? In most cases this family unit will be a very subjective definition. And if it’s not positive, how do we overcome that? Are we meant to leave them? What of our relationships with family members? A lot of questions again raised here about where support can come from.
As we start to think beyond the immediate people we know, we start to think about people who we enjoy spending time with. A social circle is of vital importance to our health and well-being. We gain support, encouragement, friendship, loyalty, and a range of other supportive and helpful things. And with them we can start to see if the friendships we have help us to be better people, understand our personal motivations, see things from our point of view. All of which are important in helping us to be positive.
The best hope for anyone in the modern age is that they can gain a meaningful education which gives them a base set of knowledge that enables you to go on and live a positive life. Our schooling needs to be a carefully considered approach, as does our further and higher education. Regardless if it’s state or privately funded institution, the knowledge passed on should only be there to help others understand how they can make a positive difference in their life and for others.
When we enter the workplace, we’re suddenly faced with a plethora of factors which can either make it an enjoyable existence, or, quite simply, not. A lot of work is put into creating engaging work environments, with the right reward and recognition schemes, with the right policies and cultures, all with the aim in mind to create a positive working environment. The challenge here is most organisations are not geared up to give this due consideration. Most are concerned with creating profit and bringing in revenue.
The other aspect to this is engaging in work that you find to be positive and fulfilling in your life. Are you able to derive meaning from what you do? Do you feel some sense of achievement by the work you are engaged in? Have you found your signature strength and using that to drive not just the work you do, but everything you are involved in?
Building on the earlier point about the importance of social structures, your community is vital to helping you understand and see what it is you could potentially be part of. And I talk about community in its widest sense here – the community you live in, the community of professionals you are linked to, the community of cinema-goers you’re part of, the community of book club members. As humans, we will always find ways to engage in communities, and in doing so we create new support structures for the positive directions we would wish to be taken into.
This covers a lot – justice systems, protection services, military, adminstrative systems, governments, retail services and the list goes on. There are those among us who will be actively seeking ways to make any and all of those work better so that they help society to be a better place to live and gain positive interactions from. And in such endeavours, the key is to understanding what role do any of them play in helping people live a better life, and how are they making that happen. Idealistic indeed, but no less desirable.
I think that’s enough for now. A lot to just chew over really, isn’t it?
On Friday 17th August I’m running an event called Positive Psychology in Application. It’s going to cover a range of topics to do with Positive Psychology like the one in this post. Book now to attend and learn more.