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Peggy Kern on Is Positive Psychology Too Focused on the Individual?

Can Wellbeing Be Improved At A Systems Level?

BY Michelle McQuaid

Do you struggle sometimes to maintain your wellbeing? Despite your best efforts at trying to keep up a practice of using positive psychology interventions to feel good and function well, does it feel like circumstances around you just seem to keep pulling you down?

While there’s a growing body of evidence for the effectiveness of positive psychology interventions in improving individual wellbeing in workplaces, the context of your organization can have a massive impact on how you feel and function. The idea of being mindful about your actions, practicing gratitude, staying hopeful and optimistic, and other positive strategies sound good, until you turn to the many stresses that surround your everyday worklife.

In a world where the challenges you face are increasingly complex could an individual focus on wellbeing be too simplistic?

“The field of positive psychology mostly focuses on the individual,” said Dr. Peggy Kern, from the University of Melbourne’s Center for Positive Psychology when I interviewed her recently*. “And it doesn’t really take into account the context you’re living and working in.”

Our lives do not occur in an isolated context – they unfold within a system. A system is as a set of things that are interconnected in some way, and together create a patterned way of behaving. They can range in size from small (such as your own human body system), to large (such as the solar system).

Researchers suggest that to successfully manage and navigate your way through the world, you need to consider the many multi-layered systems that form part of your daily life.  Therefore, Peggy’s current research is exploring ways to merge positive psychology with a systems science approach to create a new field, called Positive Systems Science.

What is positive systems science?

 “With positive systems science, we’re really trying to combine the individual strengths-based lens of positive psychology with the holistic lens of a systems science approach,” explains Peggy. “To bring out not only the best in individuals but also the best in our organizations as a whole.”

Systems science involves the study of the social and organizational structures that you are part of. It offers ways to look holistically at how your relationships and connections with others impact on your actions. However whole systems are overwhelmingly complicated, and it can be hard to know how you can influence what happens, or find the motivation to bring about everyday change.

Positive psychology often ignores the complexity of your context, but it is easy to relate to and apply at work to improve your wellbeing and that of others around you.

“At the individual level there’s a range of positive psychology interventions that you can do to improve your own wellbeing,” says Peggy.  “But if you’re working in a very dysfunctional place, even the best people are going to struggle over time, and so you need structures that will support you to really flourish.”

And by making changes to the way you think, feel and act you can have some direct influence on some aspects of the systems in your life.

So while positive psychology places the responsibility for your wellbeing on you to use practices to feel better and function more effectively, a systems approach acknowledges that the pressures from your organization also matter, and some responsibility for your wellbeing belongs to the systems around you. Positive systems science suggests that each of us need to take responsibility for what is under our control, creating wellbeing opportunities for ourselves and others, while recognizing that some things are also out of our control.

Peggy shares three ways you can take a positive systems science approach to wellbeing:

  • Commit to multiple perspectives –in most organizations, each person has their own perspective, unique history, experiences and interpretations of their experiences. Understanding the perspectives of different stakeholders, what they consider to be a success and how this affects their behavior can help you gain a fuller picture of your workplace environment, and build better relationships within the organization as a whole.
  •  Map your workplace values – consider the things that are valued and cared about in your workplace – by you and the organization. Sometimes these align, but sometimes they can be at odds with each other. Mapping these values together in a systems map can help you identify what are the causes of some of the pressures that are put upon you, and help you recognize the key places you need to be focusing your attention on to manage things better.
  • Consider you impact –different actions can have varying consequences throughout your systems. By comparing how implementing one positive psychology practice versus an alternative one could result in completely different outcomes, it can help you to consider the potential consequences of your actions, and be alert for possible unintended consequences.

For example, it seems that whilst the good intentions of people across the globe to address the effects of the Ethiopian famine in the early 1990s helped feed a lot of people at that time, unfortunately it unintentionally undermined people’s self-reliance, and so six years later they were still on the brink of death.

Positive systems science is a new area, and what this looks like practically is still to be seen. How could positive systems science help improve your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your organization?

*This interview and the emerging field of positive systems science was made possible by the passion, effort and wonderful research of Chistine Siokou who will be greatly missed.  She has left us all an incredible gift to help advance the science and practices of wellbeing in systems around the world.  Vale Christine Siokou.

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