Given the ongoing economic, environmental, social and political challenges currently reverberating around our world, it can be hard to feel hopeful about the future of the human race on this planet. Despite the many great feats we’ve achieved in the last century, one in three of us now live in a slum, 800 million of us go hungry each day, almost 11 million children under five years of age die from largely preventable causes each year, 31 million girls of primary school age do not attend school, by 2030 it is estimated we will need the equivalent of two earths to maintain our current lifestyle and the leading cause of disability is depression.
For me there are most definitely days when I wake up and the sheer size and scale of suffering on our planet feels completely overwhelming. As I sit down to breakfast however — feeling lucky that I can take such a simple act for granted — and watch my children’s excitement for the day unfold, I find myself asking again and again: “What would it take to create a world in which our children can truly flourish?”
I understand that may sound idealistic and naïve. What could I really do from my safe, warm middle-class home in Australia to make the world any better? I decided to start by trying to understand what science was discovering about the necessary conditions of human flourishing and set off to complete my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology.
Mistaken by some critics as simply the self-reported study of happiness by white Americans, the recent World Congress of Positive Psychology demonstrated how this field of science is exploring ways to improve the resilience for girls from low-resource settings in India, to boost wellbeing with both teenagers and retirees in China and to try and halt child-bride abductions in Ethiopia.
How does positive psychology help make these kinds of changes possible in the world?
“We live in worlds our questions create so once a world’s question shift in a major way, everything changes,” explained Professor David Cooperrider, the Fairmount Minerals Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at the Weatherhead School of Management for Case Western Reserve University when I interviewed him recently. “Positive psychology is a producer of powerful questions that helps humanity seek for what is it that gives life to human systems and ecological systems when they’re most alive and flourishing.”
As the co-creator and creative thought leader of the strengths-based change approach known as Appreciative Inquiry, Professor Cooperrider has seen first-hand how questions that look for the true, the good and the possible can create incredible change in our world. Sought out by world leaders including the Dalai Lama, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter studies have found the positive psychology inspired questions of Professor Cooperrider and his colleagues have helped:
- Accelerate the growth of the United Nations Global Compact for sustainability from 1,500 firms to 8,000 of the world’s largest corporations.
- Improved energy efficiency across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts resulting in nearly 9 billion of benefits for residents and businesses.
- Transformed a mining company once referred to as “dune-rapers” into a country’s top corporate citizen while still growing their profits.
- United the dairy industry to reduce green house gas emissions by 25 percent in 2 years whilst increasing farm business value by more than230 million.
- Brought together the world’s religious leaders to create over 600 collaboration centers around the globe that have touched the lives of more than 7 million people to unite the strengths of all faiths and build a better world.
How does an Appreciative Inquiry approach enable these kinds of results?
Designed to bring together all the stakeholders in a system around an important need or opportunity, it asks a series of appreciative questions that enable people to connect and capitalize on their shared strengths by discovering the best of their pasts, dreaming of what might be possible, designing pathways forward and deploying actions that create sustainable changes.
“Of course asking positive questions doesn’t mean you ignore the problems people might be facing,” explained Professor Cooperrider. “What I’ve found is there is enough deficit-based analytic capability in any group that ensure the negative will naturally be raised. Once a group connects across the full spectrum of its strengths in a pro-social way that builds trust and confidence, the group gains it’s own wisdom to know when it can go into something that might be very difficult but still come out whole because of the relationships that have already happened.”
“New research from one of my doctoral students reviewing 10 large organizational change efforts suggests that the lowest performers focus on one strength for every four deficits, while the highest performers focus on four strengths for every one deficit,” he shared. “The healthiest condition wasn’t four to zero. I think that’s an important lesson.”
A passionate believer that institutions focused more on the positive can serve to elevate our highest human strengths, connect and magnify those highest strengths and then bring and refract those strengths out into the world, Professor Cooperrider is also the Faculty Director of the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit. With more than 3,000 examples of business as a force for peace in high-conflict zones, for eradicating extreme poverty, for ecological break through and innovation and transition to a bright green economy, it’s easy to understand why Professor Cooperrider’s sense of hope about what we’re capable of as human beings continues to grow.