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Psychology – Ancient Greek for “study of the soul” – marks a fascination with human behavior far older than its naming. As old as the field is, the Positive Psychology program in CGU’s School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences (SBOS) is making exciting new discoveries about maximizing the human capacity for happiness, creativity, fulfillment, peak performance at work, and even ways to save the environment.

Though it sounds light-hearted, positive psychology is a serious discipline. It emerged from the scientific labs and scholarly work of established clinical, developmental, and social psychologists. Psychologists like SBOS Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Csikszentmihalyi, considered by many to be the world’s leading positive psychology researcher, has created an extraordinary body of published work, including the seminal Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. While that book’s popularity has made the idea of “flow” well-known to the general public, positive psychology has countless other applications to real-world issues

“Education is one area that could be positively impacted,” Csikszentmihalyi said. Today, schools from Australia to central California are working to introduce the key principles of positive psychology into their classrooms. “It’s about creating a learning environment that sustains and supports a student’s natural curiosity and interests,” he noted.

Its potential to develop interventions that promote human welfare and social betterment in many “real world” settings attracted SBOS Dean Stewart Donaldson, an organizational psychologist, to the field. And the commitment to grounding these efforts in rigorous psychological and evaluation sciences is what held his interest. “It fits perfectly with our other academic programs,” he said.

In addition to being the first and only university to offer a doctoral degree in positive psychology, SBOS’s emphasis on statistics and evaluation make it stand out from other programs. For the master’s degree, statistics and evaluation comprise about half the required course work; for the doctoral program, it’s about a third. “Our students generally come to us for strong academic research skills,” said Jeanne Nakamura, assistant professor of psychology in SBOS. “You have to enjoy research – all aspects – to thrive.”

Having only emerged as its own discipline in the last decade, time will tell how this research might impact us individually or as a society. But based on the talent at CGU, the future looks promising.

Orin Davis, a recent alum who earned a doctorate last August, is already off and running. With a research collaborator, he recently presented work on team effectiveness at the European Conference on Positive Psychology in Copenhagen.

For his dissertation, titled “Using Waiting Time Well: Toward a Theory of Microflow,” Davis utilized coding techniques found in Experience Sampling Method studies. The work itself is an extension of Csikszentmihalyi’s research. “It builds on optimal experience, or flow,” Davis said. In it, he explores some of the factors known to lead to positive experiences – even if that experience is as common and brief as waiting for a train.

Attracting the brightest minds to the positive psychology program is a priority at CGU. Yeojin Rho, along with Davis, were two of the first group of students to focus on positive psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Today there are 22 doctoral students and 24 in the master’s program. There are two tracks a student can pursue, organizational psychology or developmental psychology. Students in positive organizational psychology pursue careers in academia or in a wide range of organizational settings including business or the private sector. Nakamura estimates that about half of those in positive developmental psychology will pursue careers in academic research, public service, or teaching. One in three students are likely to select a research or teaching career. While great for research at CGU, this does create a challenge: “Cost,” explained Donaldson. “It can be a factor in deciding which university to attend.”

A generous four-year gift by Lee Hwang has made it possible for CGU to offer tuition and living assistance to positive psychology doctoral students. These are invaluable in making the program competitive with universities offering full scholarships. “It has made a huge difference,” Donaldson said.

In 2007, Hwang contacted Csikszentmihalyi after reading his book The Evolving Self. “It had a profound impact on me,” Hwang said. “That’s when I decided to meet with him and to see how our interests could be aligned.” The meeting generated a creative partnership between Hwang and SBOS that is yielding interesting potential applications for positive psychology.

Hwang, a Harvard Law School graduate, executive director of Hanover Investment LLC, and senior advisor to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, envisions a future where societal well-being is measured and used in policy making, just as the gross domestic product is considered when making economic decisions. Hwang is not alone in this vision. Edward Diener, renowned positive psychologist and a speaker at CGU’s positive psychology conference in January 2009, has written a book about the subject.

The same year he met with Csikszentmihalyi, Hwang founded the San Francisco-based Quality of Life Foundation to do reforestation work in urban communities, a project that uses positive psychology principles to motivate human behavior.

The foundation’s primary focus is to inspire youth and their families to plant trees in neighborhoods around the Bay Area as a way to build stronger and healthier individuals, communities, and ecosystems. On the surface it might seem simple, but it has much deeper roots. “We hope that by giving families with small children this experience, they will want to care for, and be responsible for, their environment,” said Hwang. “When we plant trees, we are planting seeds of hope for the future.”

One of the key principles employed by Hwang goes back to Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “intrinsic motivation,” or the idea that whatever produces flow provides its own reward, thereby becoming a self-motivated activity. In this instance, the fulfillment of physically planting a living thing that flourishes is satisfaction enough. This satisfaction will lead one to want to do it again, and eventually might result in responsible stewardship of our natural world.

This is an important principle, especially when talking about environmental issues. One study by Granada University discovered that housewives who have an identified “moral obligation,” or intrinsic motivation, to recycle are more likely to follow through on that behavior.

At CGU, positive psychology students are working directly with this dynamic. Last May, Hwang met with students and made a presentation on his foundation’s work. He then posed two questions: How can tree planting be framed in a way that promotes personal freedom?; and, how can tree planting be made more meaningful? Hwang found the students’ answers powerfully insightful.

For the first question, it was suggested that tree planting gives us the freedom to breathe by exchanging our carbon for oxygen. “I thought that was a very creative response,” said Hwang. Another student suggested that it could be framed as freedom from a consumer culture, giving back to nature rather than taking from it.

For the second question, students ventured that tree planting incorporate opportunities to pause and reflect on the moment. In doing so a person might create a relationship with the tree itself and certainly with the experience. For instance, students elaborated upon an idea from one of Lee’s colleagues at the Quality of Life Foundation: writing down a positive intention on biodegradable paper and placing it in the earth with the tree on top – a kind of New Year’s resolution. The exercise quite literally gives a positive intention roots.

As with almost any endeavor in a new field, the long-term results of Hwang’s project are unknown, though he welcomes research on his foundation’s work. “It would be great to know the effectiveness of the program,” he said. However, the benefits of his time and money given to the CGU Positive Psychology program are already evident. “My investment has been very well spent,” Hwang said. And however ancient the field, CGU’s work in positive psychology continues to inject new life in psychological inquiry that will improve countless future lives.

For more on this emerging field, look for the forthcoming book from Stewart Donaldson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Jeanne Nakamura

Applied Positive Psychology Improving Everyday Life, Health, Schools, Work and Society

A gift for our students past, present, and future, and for those bold enough to look at the world through positive lenses with scientific discipline and rigor.

Positive psychology has experienced extraordinary growth in the past decade. Emerging research in this area is suggesting new strategies for improving everyday life, health care, schools and education systems, organizations and work life, and societies across the globe. In 13 chapters, guest written by scholars and researchers including Edward Diener and Mihaly Csikszentmialyi, we look at how best to apply the science of psychology to better the human condition.

“This volume is a tremendous resource for scholars, practitioners, educators, and just about anyone else who wishes to apply the findings from the science of positive psychology. It uniquely establishes an effective bridge between the intellectual movement of positive psychology and how it works in the real world. This collection of chapters will inspire the reader to creatively find new opportunities to better the human condition whether these are in our lives, schools, health care settings, workplaces or society.” – Robert A. Emmons, editor-in-chief, the Journal of Positive Psychology

Available February 2011


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