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November 2011


“Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and personal strength,” A Harvard Medical School Special Health Report, eds.


by Harvard Health Publications (Harvard University, 2011).


What are the big take-aways?


This easy-to-read but very comprehensive 37-page report explains the developing science of “positive psychology” and describes the latest research on the state of “happiness.” The bulk of the report focuses on seven strategies for attaining and maximizing positive emotional states: identifying your strengths and virtues; gratitude; savoring pleasure; flow (becoming more engaged in flow-state activities); mindfulness; self-compassion; and finding meaning in life through connecting and contributing to the lives of others.


Why did I like it?


“Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and personal strength” is a superb introduction to the history, philosophical underpinnings and latest findings of positive psychology. The chapters on strategies for developing mindfulness and positive emotional states are cogent summaries with manageable nuggets of information. Each chapter also offers a few practice suggestions for readers who wish to deepen their inquiry by trying a few techniques.


Leadership coaching assumes a strengths-based stance – in both philosophy and practice – toward individual growth, and so does the study of positive psychology. Instead of studying the causes of various dysfunctions and how to fix them (as the traditional science of psychology has done since its inception), positive psychology instead studies the causes of positive emotional states and how to maximize them.


Too often, leaders (and entire organizations) pay more attention than necessary to what’s not working than what is working. In my opinion, while it’s absolutely critical to be able to identify needs, challenges and gaps, it’s equally important – if not more so – to know what your strengths and talents are in order to capitalize on them in the process of meeting those challenges and filling those gaps. In my experience, the most effective leaders are those who exhibit presence, resilience and optimism (all of which are benefits from practicing positive psychology techniques) – and who find significant meaning in their work. These traits are inspiring and motivating to followers, and create productive work environments.


In what situations would this be useful?


This report would be extremely useful to any curious leader who isn’t already familiar with positive psychology and wants a quick briefing on what it is and how it works.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


If this report inspires you, check out the website of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Its Director, Martin Seligman, is the originator of the “authentic happiness” theory that serves, in many ways, as the cornerstone of positive psychology studies. At this website, you can take several free surveys and assessments to help you measure your various positive-psychology strengths (the one I find myself recommending frequently to leaders is the “Values in Action Survey of Character Strengths”).


For a compelling argument for using the tenets and skills of positive psychology in the leadership context, I recommend Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion by Boyatzis and McKee (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).


If further development of mindfulness and other forms of meditation interests you, then I also recommend Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom by Rick Hanson (also previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).


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