Psychologist and founder of The Positivity Institute, Dr. Suzy Green, joins me to talk about the power of positive thought and her dedication to “a flourishing world”. Wouldn’t it be nice to focus on using the incredible power of your minds, and more specifically how we thought about things, as a positive force for our health and wellbeing? Not just to talk about it, but with some real strategies about how to approach it. We’re familiar with exercising in order to build up strength and endurance, but how about some exercises or strategies for building strength and resilience, mentally and emotionally? Which, in turn, can have very positive effects on our health and wellbeing. Tune in to find out more.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Hello, and welcome to Unstress. I’m Dr. Ron Ehrlich. Now, when you mention the word stress, people immediately jump to the emotional aspect of stress, and if you’re a regular listener, in fact, I’m sure we all would acknowledge that emotional stress is influenced by so many factors. The other stressors: nutritional, environmental, postural, and yes, dental stress. Or not getting enough of the five pillars. It’s all connected. In fact, it’s all connected in one way or another, so I guess we’re all affected. Environment, food, sleep, movement. I think you get the picture.
But today we wanted to focus on think. Now, our thoughts are things. When you have a thought, your body produces a chemical called a neurotransmitter. Dopamine, pleasure. Adrenaline, fear. Serotonin, mood. As well as our endocrine system, and the hormones that produce influences about how our body is regulated. It’s all affected, and all that causes genes to express themselves in one way or another.
Wouldn’t it be nice to focus on using the incredible power of your minds, and more specifically how we thought about things, as a positive force for our health and wellbeing? But not just to talk about it, but with some real strategies about how to approach it. We’re familiar with exercising in order to build up strength and endurance, but what about some exercises or strategy for building strength and resilience, mentally and emotionally? Which, in turn, can have very positive effects on our health and wellbeing.
My guest today is the wonderful Dr. Suzy Green, a clinical and coaching psychologist, and the founder of the Positivity Institute. She lectures, teaches, writes, is published in the scientific literature, coaches locally and internationally. She’s been associated with Sydney University, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the University of Melbourne, and is an affiliate of the Institute of Wellness at Cambridge University. In short, when it comes to positive psychology, we are talking today to a world leader.
The Positivity Institute itself, which Suzy founded, is dedicated, get this, to a flourishing world. Now, why wouldn’t you be attracted to something like that? In fact, the Institute goes on to describe itself as a positively deviant organization dedicated to the research and science for life, school, and work.
Again, like so many of our episodes, there’s just so much here. Suzy mentions things that you can think about, incorporate, and implement straight away. They’re powerful. They’re simple. They’re achievable. They’re sustainable. They’re things that can make a huge difference to you living a life less stressed. Sorry, couldn’t resist that.
I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Dr. Suzy Green.
Welcome to the show, Suzy.
Dr. Suzy Green: Good morning, Ron.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Good morning, Suzy. Listen, psychology, traditionally, it’s looked at problems. It’s gone back and looked at traumas, at problems, at our relationships with people past, as a way of unpacking the past and informing the present, and hopefully guiding the future. But positive psychology takes a different approach. Can you tell our listener, what is positive psychology?
Dr. Suzy Green: Yes, that’s exactly right, Ron, and I think it’s important to give it a little bit of context. Psychology is a field, I guess, formally launched around 1900, and the reason why there was such a strong focus on looking to the past, or resolving trauma or distress, if you like, is primarily coming off the back of the World Wars, but particular the Second World War, where there was a lot of funding given for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression, and anxiety. When we look back, we’re really thankful for that, because we can now successfully treat a number of those disorders. We’ve learned a lot through the investment in that research.
But around the late ’90s, the field of positive psychology was formally launched by Professor Martin Seligman, when he took over the helm of the American Psychological Association as the President. He really, I guess, argued, and said the time has come, and in fact, perhaps we are at a time in history where we don’t have World Wars, and whilst we do have a lot of stressors, if you like, as we’ll talk about today, we’re probably at the best point in time, where in fact there are a lot of good things happening, and we need to start focusing on what’s right with people, rather than what’s wrong with them, and what’s good in the world, rather than what’s all bad.
It’s certainly not to replace traditional psychology. There’s still such a need, and I would like to see greater uptake of, particularly, therapy in our community, but this is really a proactive approach to wellbeing. And so, I think it’s a nice, complementary approach to traditional psychology.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, and you use that term wellbeing, which is, I guess, what we’re all striving for. I know there … And you also mentioned Martin Seligman, who I’ve also referenced in my book, and there’s this model of wellbeing that he coined, PERMA. Can you share with our listener what that actually means, and stands for?
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah, definitely. I guess, when we’re talking about wellbeing from a psychological perspective, we are generally, and a lot of the research has been around psychological wellbeing, but we’ll probably get to this point too, moving forward in our discussions today, around how physical health and psychological health are so intimately related, and they do need to be connected. But most of the research, as I said, on wellbeing and psychology has been from a psychological perspective, and there are a number of theories. There’s still quite a bit of debate happening around what is wellbeing, psychologically speaking.
But Marty Seligman, you’re right, did create this model called PERMA, which stands for “positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.” And he argued that for somebody that has high levels of wellbeing, or what we like to call flourishing, in positive psychology speak, that they actually have a high degree of positive emotions or a higher ratio. So, it’s not as if we’re not experiencing any negative emotions. And I, to be honest, I struggle with those terms, because emotions are not necessarily good or bad. They’re useful, or perhaps not so useful at times.
So, we know that a flourishing individual is experiencing more positivity, generally. They’re engaged, so they’re in that flow state that Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did a lot of research on –
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Who was that, again? Who was that?
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah, it’s a tricky one to pronounce. It’s Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he was also one of the co-founders of the positive psychology movement, and his whole academic career has been focused on the study of flow, or what athletes refer to as being in the zone. That experience, that optimal human experience of being totally absorbed in an activity. You sort of become one with the activity. Time flies. His research has shown that when you come out of that state, people report elevated levels of wellbeing, so it’s an important factor, I guess when we are looking at wellbeing.
And then, R is that positive relationship. It’s not necessarily the quantity. I think, the older you get, you start to realize, it’s quality over quantity. So, we know that a flourishing individual does have quality, positive relationships. They have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life about what’s important, and they tend to know what their values are, and they tend to create a life that’s congruent with their values, or they have a sense of purpose or a mission.
And then, A is achievement. I guess, psychologically speaking, we know that achievement can also actively work against wellbeing. We do a lot of work in schools, and we see this a lot with senior high school students. Also with teachers, but also in the corporate sector, where people are very focused, set really stretch goals, but the achievement, or that striving for high levels of achievement, is detrimental to wellbeing. We know that we need achievement to support wellbeing, rather than undermine it, and so there’s quite a bit of research around that.
And just before I finish, more recently, and I don’t know if Marty Seligman has acknowledged this, but Geelong Grammar, who is one of the first schools in the world to work with Marty, and take his positive education approach, they’ve been adding, and a lot of other schools and workplaces are adding an H to PERMA, and the H stands for health. Again, that acknowledgment of physical health, and how crucial that is.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: And yes, I did pick up on that as well, as the additional word, and I think it’s really timely. And the achievement, of course, we have so many overachievers who are striving for overachievement. But can we just go back to the R, relationship, because I think that’s the most fascinating. I know there was a Harvard study that’s gone on for 75 years, and I’m sure you’re aware of it. And you’ve also mentioned technology because I think there’s this paradox where relationships are being shown to be so important, and yet, technology gives us friends and likes. There’s a difference, isn’t there?
Dr. Suzy Green: There certainly is. Out of all the factors or variables that have been studied in the psychological science that impact on our wellbeing or happiness, relationships, they used to be called the trump card of wellbeing.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yes, well, okay. Let’s not get …
Dr. Suzy Green: Let’s not get into that.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Let’s not get political. I know a lot of my listeners feel very uncomfortable with that.
Dr. Suzy Green: But anyway, we know that they are the most powerful factor that impacts on wellbeing. But on the flip side, there’s a lot of psychological science to show when relationships aren’t doing well. It’s actually the most common reason that brings somebody into therapy when we don’t have positive relationships. So, if you’re going to make an investment, out of all the, I guess, strategies you could implement, we would certainly recommend revisiting your relationships, and really thinking about what matters most.
And it’s also, another strategy we have in positive psych is writing a eulogy and reflecting at the end of your life, for your 80th birthday, and people don’t often reflect on how many hours they worked a week, or how many baskets of laundry they did, but doesn’t it say on our gravestone, loving mother, father, brother, sister? So, it really does come down to our relationships.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: It rarely does say … I don’t think, actually, I’ve ever seen it say, “Did some great work in the office. Gee, he worked hard.”
Dr. Suzy Green: That’s right, exactly.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. That Harvard study did actually show that, didn’t it? Are you aware of that, that 75-year …
Dr. Suzy Green: I am. It’s quite … I think that was George Valance study, and there were a number of factors in there which I can’t completely, but I remember that the relationships, I think, was more powerful than even stopping smoking. It has such a significant impact on our wellbeing. In fact, again, looking to the flip side, isolation, or social isolation, they’re now saying, has such a negative impact as smoking, as well. I just heard recently that the UK Government has appointed a Minister for Social Isolation, to address those issues of social isolation.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yes, I did see a study that was in Somerset in the UK, which showed that community involvement in health care reduced the admissions to emergency, and the amount of hospital stays, the length of hospital stays. It just reinforces that important …
Dr. Suzy Green: It does, and there’s also some supporting research around what’s known as the social and emotional contagion theory, which you’re probably aware of, too. Most of us have intuitively known that, that we catch people’s emotions, particularly from a negative perspective. When you walk away from an interaction, you feel really drained. There’s some great research happening in the US in the workplace, using social network analysis to map out these what they’re calling positive energy networks.
It’s not necessarily that some people are positive energizers for everybody, but it’s an opportunity to think about in your life, who are the people that are supportive, encouraging, rather than … I think, Dr. John Gottman’s research around this, too, rather than the cynicism, the sarcasm, the negativity. We’re not saying that that’s not going to happen at all, but it’s really about building up the positivity.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: We seem to be up against it, though, don’t we? In the sense that if you sat and listened to the news, you would almost be excused for thinking we are living in the worst time in human history. And I think you just mentioned it earlier, that that’s in fact not the case.
Dr. Suzy Green: No, that’s right, and I’m just hoping I’ve got this information correct here, but I’m pretty sure it was Bill Gates that just did a guest editorial for Time magazine, in January or February edition, and it was really about optimism. He quoted all the statistics to show that this time in history, there’s never been so many positive things happening in the world. We’ve resolved so many epidemics and diseases, but we’re still … I think, we look to the nightly news, and the majority of it is negative.
We’re not saying don’t address the negativity, but there’s actually this wonderful body of research to show that when you are more focused on the good stuff, it builds positive emotions, which then help you to be more creative, in terms of addressing quite complex problems. So, if we want to address these world issues that are quite negative and complex, we actually need the positivity to do that.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. Now, we’re talking about the PERMA model, and I think the theory of it is terrific. How do we, once we accept that, yeah, hey, that does make sense, how do we embark on that? What would you say to our listener? Okay, this is important. You’ve accepted it. Now, what?
Dr. Suzy Green: Definitely. I think the first step is to do a bit of an audit, and if your listeners … I’m happy for them to email us on any topic that they’ve heard today, through Info@PositivityInstitute.com.au.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: We’ll have links to that on our website.
Dr. Suzy Green: Fantastic. We’re very happy to share resources. There are resources on our website, too. But one of my students, actually, at Sydney Uni, created a bit of a PERMA will, a self-audit, if you like. You can sort of … We usually recommend you do a bit of an audit, a bit of a reflection as to how would you rate yourself along those five, or six if you include health, dimensions. And then, there are specific recommendations that we make, or there are specific strategies you can implement that have been proven by the science to boost positive emotions, engagement, relationship, meaning, accomplishment.
I could briefly speak perhaps one or two to each of those if we have time.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, we do, Suzy. We do.
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah?
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yes, absolutely. This is such a treat.
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah. We run workshops, full-day, half-day workshops in schools and in workplaces, and this is the content that we cover in one of our days, anyway. So, you’re getting a snapshot of it right now.
For example, positive emotions. We have, actually, a psychologist. We’ve got quite a lot of tools to help us manage those so-called negative emotions, so I’d also encourage your listeners to think about, if they are struggling with some of those more unhelpful emotions, depression, and forms of anxiety, to certainly go and seek some professional help. I would like to see more people in our community seek help around managing those emotions.
But in terms of building positive emotions, I know when I was at university, quite a while ago now, I’d say, Ron …
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: That’s okay.
Dr. Suzy Green: I never had a lecture on how to boost positive emotions, or a lecture on positive emotions, like gratitude and kindness, elevation. Elevation is a positive moral emotion that we experience when we observe others doing good deeds. And you know that goosebumps effect that you get when you see people doing incredible work in the world? That’s actually being studied, and the research has shown that when you observe that, or you’re in a situation where you’re a part of that, you actually … it prompts you to want to do, to act, in a similar way.
So, there are things that you can do to build positive emotions. If I was going to give any, the most powerful strategies to get your mood up in less than a month, the two that I would recommend are mindfulness meditation … There are various forms, as you know, of meditation, but there’s quite a lot of research on just even some brief practices, 5-10 minutes a day, and there are lots of great apps available now. Over the period of a month, with regular practice, being able to improve your mood, and reduce stress as well.
The other one is gratitude, although there is a bit of a disclaimer on that because if you’re already a grateful person, there’s no point keeping a gratitude journal, because you won’t get an extra boost, the research says, and you should already be experiencing those wellbeing effects, anyway. But in our workshops, it’s often a bit of a wake-up call when people realize that they have been taking things or people in their life for granted. That enters their consciousness, and then they make a conscious commitment to really savor, and value, and invest time in those relationships. The research actually shows, just over the period of a month, you can get a significant boost in your wellbeing by bringing your attentional focus onto the things that are good in your life, rather than things that you don’t have with your life.
They’re probably our two big ones. There’s also acts of kindness. That might be just holding the door open for someone, making someone a cup of tea if you can see they’re a bit stressed at work. It doesn’t have to be major altruistic acts, but it can be those simple, kind acts and deeds on a daily basis.
With engagement, I mentioned flow. Some of your listeners, it might be an opportunity to just reflect on their life, work, and outside of work. Often people think that flow only happens when you’re in, as I said, in the zone, doing sports activities, or a lot of creative activities. We’ve actually found that flow occurs in art, dancing, writing. But Csikszentmihalyi, who I mentioned before, the researcher, he actually had a great paper called “The Paradox of Work,” which he found that people do report high levels of flow at work, but it’s finding the activities …
Flow happens where your skill level meets the challenge. So, if you’ve got a low skill level, and your boss gives you a real stretch, you often go into overwhelm or anxiety. Although, if you’ve got a high skill level, and your boss just asks you to do some repetitive, boring task that you’ve mastered years ago, you’re going to be bored. So, you really need to find the activities at work where you get a bit of a stretch, where you’re pushing yourself, but your skill level is meeting the stretch, and that’s where flow happens. That’s a great way to just reflect.
The other way to really get engaged is through knowing and using your strengths. I was just going to say, I know that perhaps you wanted to come back to that, so I might leave that one and come back to that.
In terms of positive relationships, I think you can certainly, as I mentioned before, utilize gratitude, and start to reflect on the people that you do have a sense of gratitude or appreciation in your life, and expressing that to them.
There’s another great activity to build positive relationships that’s called active and constructive responding, or ACR. This research is being done particularly around good news when people share good news with you. I often say to the participants in my workshop, think back to the last piece of really good news that you got. Think about who you shared it with, and think about their response to that.
Shelly Gable is the researcher. She actually found that people respond in four primary ways. One is to sort of not really acknowledge it. I’m trying to think of the labels for this, and I can’t think as clearly this morning around this, but one of the ways is to change the subject and go, “That’s nice, but did you make our booking for dinner on Friday night?” The person, you sort of think, “Did you really even hear what I said?” They don’t …
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: “Enough about me, what do you think about me?”
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah, that’s it. They don’t really acknowledge. It’s like they didn’t even hear your good news, and they change the subject. Then there’s the person that just goes, “Oh, that’s great,” and just continues on with their task.
But then there’s the person that is quite active and destructive. The person that points out the negative in your positive news. For example, if you’re sharing some good news about a promotion that you got, it might be the person that says, “What are you thinking? You were already stressed as it was. What are you thinking, taking on another job that is only going to cause more stress with you?” That person that tends to look for the negatives in it.
Those types of interactions have been shown to have quite a negative impact on the relationship, whereas the person that responds like, “That is just so fabulous. I know you’ve worked so hard for that promotion. We should really go out and celebrate. We should really sit down and take some time to acknowledge the hard work that’s gone into it.”
And it’s really about what we call savoring, because these positive experiences, or good news events in our lives … I don’t know about you, Ron, but they don’t happen to me every day, or even every week if you like. So, we really need to grab them, and we need to savor and get as much joy out of them as possible because they’re quite fleeting.
We also know from a research perspective that those positive emotions are like a little butterfly that sit on your shoulder. They sit there, and then they fly away very fleetingly, whereas the negative emotions, like particularly strong emotions around anger or fear or resentment, they are like Velcro. They take longer to process, and they sort of stick with us. So, with those positive emotions, you’ve got to do as much as you can to get as much out of them as possible, to really experience the wellbeing effect.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: You could almost be excused for thinking, and maybe this is just the manipulation of the media, that we’re drawn towards negativeness or disaster.
Dr. Suzy Green: Well, you’re right. And in fact, there is, I guess, an evolutionary reason, and a biological reason for that. It’s referred to as the negativity bias. As humans, we do have this inbuilt phenomenon that is there to protect us. I guess it was there particularly historically when we really had to fight off other cavemen, or dinosaurs. It really was a matter of life or death. And that, as you would know, in this day and age, and also historically, it’s generally that fight or flight response.
And that fight or flight response is meant to idle. I often say it’s meant to idle like a car. But most people these days, with the stressors in their life, with so many factors, it’s not idling. It’s really revving. So, it only takes one word or one thing to happen, and people fly off the handle because that fight or flight is kicked in, whereas it’s meant to really idle.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. M. This is a big one isn’t it?
Dr. Suzy Green: It is. And I’ve just finished writing a chapter with a colleague, actually, on meaning-based coaching. How do we help, particularly senior executives, that might be looking to leave a legacy. And as you know, the corporations have had quite a lot of spotlight put on them as being a lot of unethical behavior that’s gone on. And in our world, we are starting to see corporations being held to account. I’d like to see it happen a bit more. I think it will over time.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, I do.
Dr. Suzy Green: But a lot of the work that we do in executive coaching is to help the leader to be their best possible selves, to be ethical, to develop their character, to do good in the world. And that can also, then, obviously engage a sense of meaning for them, and there’s an overwhelming amount of research that people that do, as I mentioned, have high levels of meaning in their life report high levels of wellbeing.
Now, in saying that, often people do get that through their relationships, and as we were saying, that seems to be the biggest impact on wellbeing. So, if you can have these personally meaningful relationships. Also, and we’re coming to A in a moment if we can create personally meaningful goals. Being really clear about how we’re spending our days, in the shorter term, in the longer term. Is our job aligned to the things that matter to us? Are we engaged in activities that are aligned to our values?
And that meaning piece is not meant to be addressed superficially or simply. In fact, I would suggest to your listeners that they might want to take stock and really give that some more thought, because one of the activities that we do use to build meaning is a values clarification exercise. Again, people, feel free to email us. We just have a simple list. It’s not exhaustive by any means. We’re working on a set of cards, at the moment, around that. And I am also, working currently with the Black Dog Institute, who are also working on a values project. That’s not ready yet. That will be coming out, probably, next year.
But people can start to reflect on their values. And I’ve had clients that have said to me in the past, “Suzy, I think I need a year. I think I actually need to take a whole year to really reflect and think about what matters most in my life, because I’m not sure if I am living a truly authentic or meaningful life.” Whereas other people are clear, they just haven’t made those values explicit.
It’s also about being quite explicit. I often ask clients that I’ve had, on a scale of 1-10 … Say, for example, health is one of your top five core life values, which is is for many people. I know it is for me. And then you ask the person, on a scale of 1-10, where 10 out of 10 equals my life reflects that I am completely living this value, what score would I give myself?
When people say that health’s important, but they’re not actually engaging in activities that support their health, or they’re engaging in activities that actually actively work against their health, that insight, and that incongruence between knowing that something is important and not living it, that sort of discomfort can often be the motivator to start to make some changes in your life.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Often, we don’t make those changes until we’re confronted with some kind of crisis, and it’s often a health crisis, or a relationship crisis.
Dr. Suzy Green: It is, and I guess, putting my coaching hat on, I would love to see more people proactively engage in not necessarily executive coaching, but personal or life coaching. Rather than waiting for these crises, these health issues, or these relationship issues, why don’t we proactively engage in thinking about what is going to be a well life for me, and how do I design a life around that?
And rather than expecting that we should be able to do it ourselves … I mean, we’ll go and see the accountant for our finances, or we’ll go and see the hairdresser for our hair, or the physio for our body. We need to start to think about engaging proactively with health professionals, which I know is the work that you do, much more proactively.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, take control, build resilience, be the best you can be. That’s a message. Yeah, go on, this is fabulous.
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah. And then the A, accomplishment. I already mentioned that we often see people actively having accomplishment work against them. There are about 40 years of research in psychology on the impact of goals, particularly personal goals, on wellbeing. Now, I know, and I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years, maybe people have quite a strong distaste for goals. I guess I find that curious in many ways because I’m a big goals … I love goals. I have goals in every domain of my life. I have fashion goals.
I’m at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, but I certainly understand for some people that perhaps there are reasons why they don’t like goals. Sometimes people choose not to set them because they’ve set them before and they haven’t achieved them, and they don’t want to be disappointed.
Often I’ve had clients say to me, “What if it doesn’t work out, and I’ve written it down on paper?” My response to that is, “At least you’ve had a go, and what have you learned from that? I don’t want to get to 80 or 90 and look back and say, ‘Why didn’t I have a go?’ I prefer to have had a go and have learned then to have not had a go.” That’s my usual response.
But generally, everybody has goals. Goals are defined in the science as internal representations of desired end states. That’s a long-winded sentence, but it basically means that in our minds, we have desires. As humans, we have desires. And we do often daydream or have wishes, don’t we? All of us have dreams and desires for our own lives, and for people in our lives, our family. We don’t always make those explicit, in terms of setting an explicit goal, but we do all have goals.
I guess it comes down to a personal choice as to whether you want to make them explicit, but I can tell you that the research overwhelmingly shows that when you’re really clear about what matters most to you in your life, that’s your values, which we spoke about before, and you then set longer-term goals and shorter-term goals aligned to that value. It might be something broad, like we mentioned before, improving my relationships with my family, let’s just say. We call that a middle-order goal if you like.
The challenge, then, is to create that into a shorter-term goal. Again, this is a personal choice, but say if I was working with someone in a coaching context over a three- or six-month period, we’d actually get quite specific about, how are we going to know when you have improved those relationships? What are the indicators going to be? And so, we get quite clear on those results, what that’s going to look like, and we come up with a number of strategies or actions on ways that you could do that, that probably have greater chance of success than, perhaps, ways that you’ve tried in the past that didn’t have success.
I guess, working on positive accomplishment, you can certainly do that yourself, although Ron, you and I both know, the statistics around New Year’s resolutions, they’re pretty low.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yes.
Dr. Suzy Green: Most people aren’t bad at setting goals. Where they fall off the wagon is what we call the goal-striving process. That’s staying on track with their goals. Again, I would encourage people to think about not having a coach for life, but say, if it’s a career transition or a particular goal that you’re working on, writing a book … I’ve had lots of people completing books, or their doctoral dissertations. Having someone to support you through that goal-striving process can actually enhance goal-attainment. I’ve actually done four randomized controlled trials myself to show that evidence-based coaching does lead to increases in goal attainment and wellbeing.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, I mean, we started off by saying psychologists, going to see some therapy, is very positive. And it is, because just the process of articulating something to another person is positive, and similarly with the goal. If you just sort of say, I’m going to have a New Year resolution, but to share that with someone else takes it to another level, doesn’t it?
Dr. Suzy Green: It really does, and I guess again, you have to be mindful of who you’re sharing it with because we do know that there are saboteurs. And it can be quite a brave thing to do. Part of the work that I’ve done, and our team do with people, is helping them to have those conversations because when somebody is making significant changes, it can create, I guess, tension in a romantic relationship, or other relationships. And often, you’re not consciously trying to upset people, but it can set off the other person’s concerns about their own wellbeing, or their own goals. It is just something to be mindful, to make sure that if you are going to share your goals with someone, that it is someone that is going to be supportive and a cheerleader, rather than someone that’s going to undermine you.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Which goes back to relationships, about active constructive responding. We want an active constructive respondent, don’t we, not an active destructive, or any of the others. But anyway, listen, this brings us to the point now … That just gives us, me, our listener, a wonderful, wonderful explanation, short but very concise, of PERMA. I want to talk about strength because we all think about strength physically as being easier to identify, but mental strength … How do we define strength in a psychologist’s terms?
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah, and as you said, most people are used to, or have heard the term, you’ve got to play to your strengths. I guess what positive psychology has done is brought the rigorous science to it. It’s important to recognize that in positive psychology, we have two primary approaches to strength or two different types of strengths. The first one I want to talk about is character strengths, and the other one is what’s known as performance strengths.
The character strengths is a big area in positive psychology, and in fact, it was one of the first projects that Marty Seligman did, and another colleague of his, Professor Chris Peterson, who we very sadly lost a few years back. They basically realized that as psychologists, and Seligman is a clinical psychologist like myself historically. He realized that in clinical psych, we have the DSM-5 these days, and we have a classification of disorders. He started to realize that there was no classification of strengths if you like.
And so, what they did was, they looked across cultures, across religions. They looked at philosophy, through history, and they did a bit of a factor analysis. They found that there are six common virtues, and 24 common character strengths. And off the back of this assessment came what’s known as the VIA, which actually stands for the “values in action,” which gets a bit confusing, because it’s really character strengths, as I said.
These are morally-valued character strengths, things like kindness, gratitude, the capacity to love and be loved, forgiveness, leadership, curiosity, creativity. There’s 24 of them, and there’s a significant amount of research that’s being conducted on character strengths since they launched in 2004, and that research is done by the VIA Institute.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. I did that, actually. I did log onto that. I did that.
Dr. Suzy Green: Did you?
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yep.
Dr. Suzy Green: What’s your top strength?
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Oh, look, I’m not going to go into it now. It’s not about me, Suzy.
Dr. Suzy Green: I bet you it’s curiosity or love of learning.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, all of the … I actually … Look, we’ll do a whole other program on me and VIA another time. Go on, keep going.
Dr. Suzy Green: And I guess, what I’ve just shown you there, too, is what we call strength spotting. One of the things, whether it’s … I’ll come to performance strengths in a moment. Whether it’s character strengths or performance strengths, there’s three pieces to it.
One is strengths knowledge, firstly knowing what they are. Here in Australia, we haven’t historically been very good at talking about our strengths, so what this assessment does is, it gives you a vocabulary, a language. It gives you an assessment, but really, it gives you some insight as to what are your character strengths. And generally, we’ve asked people to focus in on their top five, and those top five are quite visible.
Again, as I’ve just illustrated, they’re very easy to see in people when you start to get to know someone. You can guess what they are. You can do this strengths-spotting. But more importantly, it’s not sufficient to just know them, you have to use them. And this is where, I guess, the challenge lies at the moment, because a lot of people have been doing, whether it’s the VIA, or the Gallup Strengthsfinder, which is one of the performance strengths tools, or the Strengths Profiler.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: What was that, Suzy? Sorry, I think the line just dropped. Is it the Gallup?
Dr. Suzy Green: Yeah, the performance strengths. Performance strengths are not morally valued as such. They’re more like talents if you like. They might be things like, I know mine are growth, they’re mission, legacy, strategic awareness. They’re more what we would call in the domain of talents if you like. Things that you tend to be naturally good at, and they’re often more workplace-focused.
Those type of performance strengths assessments, which Gallup, which your listeners would know, have been around a long time in the US, they’ve done a lot of research on these performance strengths, and they’ve actually shown in the workplace that when leaders know what their direct reports’, or their team’s, strengths are, there are higher levels of engagement and wellbeing. They’ve also shown that when leaders give feedback really focusing on strengths, even if it’s for an area of development …
Often people think that we’re saying that means you can’t talk about weaknesses, or you can’t give feedback. No one’s ever said that. What we’re saying is, let’s balance this negativity bias out. We’re going to continue to focus on our weaknesses. It’s a natural human phenomenon, but let’s really, again, much more explicitly and consciously think about our strengths, whether they be character or performance, and think about how we can really use them in our day to day work life, or personal lives.
But also, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with developing a strength, and that’s really important when it comes to those character strengths, because ideally, by the time we leave the planet, and I know for me, I would like to have developed, there’s 24 of them. Now, I don’t think that I’ve developed all of them yet, Ron, but I’m working on it.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: You must be close, Suzy. You must be close.
Dr. Suzy Green: You try, you know. But we’re human, as we know. But it’s really about being a good human being. It’s about being what we call a virtuous organizational citizen, in terms of the workplace. So, those character strengths for me are absolutely crucial, and we’ll often start off with them as a foundation, as an introduction to strengths, but then in the workplace, in particular, we’ll often move to these performance strengths, because those performance strengths are often assessed around energy.
As you and I know, people love this concept of energy. What energizes me, what drains me? And those performance strengths, research has shown that when you’re really using strengths that, they do energize you, that effect is contagious on people around us. So, we’re ideally trying to, as much as possible in our roles at work, utilize strengths that are going to energize us and the people around us.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: I know feedback’s an interesting one because I know when we do that at work, or we reflect on it when we talk about past podcasts, we try not to be negative with each other. We kind of say, that worked well, what could we have done better?
Dr. Suzy Green: Exactly.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Rather than say, gee, that was a terror. That was a ridiculous thing to ask. That’s what you’re talking about there, with the performance and feedback.
Dr. Suzy Green: It is. We’re so harsh on ourselves, generally, as human beings. I guess that also speaks to another area of research that some of your listeners might want to go and have a look at, is around what’s known as self-compassion. Kirsten, Kristen, I get her name confused, Neff, she’s got a great TED Talk, and she’s done significant amounts of research, but there also other researchers now looking at, particularly, young girls in school settings, but also people generally. How do we develop greater levels of self-compassion for ourselves, rather than being so harsh on ourselves?
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: And with our preoccupation with technology and social media, and everyone’s 10 seconds, or 15 or 20 seconds of fame, it’s easy to be hard on oneself, isn’t it?
Dr. Suzy Green: Definitely. It really is. And I think, everything is so immediate, and I just want to talk briefly about this concept of mindfulness. Really, none of what I’ve spoken about today is going to be able to be applied unless you’ve got a level of mindfulness. So, the more that you can increase your levels … And when I say that, in a nutshell, it’s really being present, or being a mindful observer of your thinking, your emotions, what’s about to come out of your mouth, the impact that might have on the person around you.
Now, we’re not expecting people to be mindful 100 percent of the time, because that’s just not possible. Our brains don’t work like that. But imagine a world where everybody’s mindfulness levels went up one or two points, Ron. We’d have less arguments, less accidents. It would be a much better world.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Wow, Suzy, we’ve covered so much ground here, and you’ve given us so many tips. In a nutshell … Well, you’ve given us so many tips. I’m not going to ask you to give me two or three. But listen, here’s one thing that I wanted to ask you, and that is, taking a step back from the specifics of positive psychology, what do you think one of the greatest challenges is that people face in our modern world on their journey?
Dr. Suzy Green: Yes. Well, I guess one of the greatest challenges is that there are so many challenges. I think that can… I often say to people that can be a positive thing, because even if you just look back 30, 40 years … My mum is 91, and when I talk to her about her life as a woman, the opportunities that I have now as a woman, and my daughter has as a woman, in a very short period of time have changed significantly. And not just for women, but for everybody generally, there’s never been a time in history when we have had so many options.
And I know some people have less. I want to acknowledge that obviously, some people are very privileged. We’ve been born into privilege, and I think we need to be responsible for that and do what we can to help people that haven’t had those privileges as well. I think, I know a lot of the people that I see at the other end of the spectrum, where they are privileged. They have had so many options, and they are overwhelmed by those options.
So, often we talk about taking things off your plate. I think we just spoke briefly before we started, about this minimalism movement, the simplification movement that we’re starting to see happen on the planet. I think one of the best things that we can do in this very busy, distracted, technological world, is to start to simplify. And that really comes back to values, again.
I think for me, it would be, if you’re going to do anything, come back to your values, what matters most, and then start to design a life. Take things off your plate before you start doing anything more.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Oh, Suzy, thank you so much. This has been fantastic. We’re going to have links. You’ve given us so many links, but we’re going to have links to your website, to that VIA, to your audit, your relationship audit, and a few of those articles. We’d love to get you back and talk some more about this, but thank you for joining us today.
Dr. Suzy Green: Thank you, Ron. It’s been a privilege to talk with you, and to share some of that information with your listeners, as well. Thank you.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Gosh, I feel like we have just done a complete workshop on positive psychology. I hope you guys agree.
I referenced the PERMA model in my book, and have certainly added the H for health. We keep coming back to relationships, and clearly, they are just so important. And I’m talking not just likes and friends, but real relationships with real people. Suzy mentioned doing a relationship audit. She’s got that on her webpage. We’ll have links to that on our show, and also the values audit, or survey. Well, it was called the Values In Action, or VIA online survey.
Look, I did it. These are interesting tools to get you thinking, and of course, the biggest challenges on our health journey, I love this, taking stuff off the plate. Simplifying our lives. Assessing what is really important to you. The power of thought, recognizing your strengths and weaknesses. So much for us all to think about and aspire to.
After the interview, Suzy mentioned to me that the Positivity Institute is developing some great online programs in the next few months, what she calls a positivity prescription. But I’m sure we’ll get Suzy back to talk about those and build on this. I don’t want this to just be an episode you found interesting and something you just covered, and now that subject is done, let’s move on to the next one. I mean, in so many ways, doing a podcast is such a treat. I know I learn so much from talking to my wonderful guests, and I hope you do too.
So, drop us a line. Leave us a fabulous review on iTunes. And until next time, this is Dr. Ron Ehrlich. Be well.
For more information on Dr. Suzy Green or The Positivity Institute please click here. Or you can email The Positivity Institute on any topic that they’ve heard today, through Info@PositivityInstitute.com.au.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.