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Mark Hodder

Happiness and success through learning


Applied Positive Psychology Workshop - The Science of Happiness

This is a workshop I designed to share the ideas of Positive Psychology with a general audience.  


The frame of the workshop is the idea presented in Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage, that success flows from happiness.  Many people still hold the idea that when they are successful in gaining a certain job, promotion or ideal weight they will then become happy.  Using the evidence based research from positive psychology the aim of this workshop is to demonstrate the reverse is true and that when we are happy we are much more likely to be successful.


The aim is to give practical tips on application, rather than cover the research in detail and all ideas are referenced to the originator and the books where further information can be found as required.


The good news is all the activities mentioned in this workshop are free and cost you nothing more than a few moments of your time each day to do.


The first concept covered is John Medina’s brain rules, a neuroscientist who has given us a manual for the brain.  Being more positive, positive psychology, and neuroscience, how our brain works are intriniscallt linked.  Understanding the brain, as far as that is possible is, essential to understanding positivity.


John Medina discovered an amazing fact, as shown by in the graph here – people don’t listen to boring things!  Until seeing this research I was still working on the old training belief that people had a 20 minute attention span so was surprised to find out it’s more like 10 minutes.  


At each 10 minute interval during the workshop a new idea or concept was introduced.  The rest of this presentation was also produced using the ideas in brain rules, lots of pictures rather than text and stories and ideas that stick.


Next I asked the audience to participate in some experience sampling throughout the workshop, to pre-frame and engage people in the ideas used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his research on Flow.  The idea of designing jobs that engage people in Flow is becoming more and more popular in workplaces.  Here I use the experience sampling method in the London School of Economics (LSE) Mappiness App.


Creating hooks throughout the workshop.  Later I will tell you the one free act per day that can boost productivity by 31%.  I also ask that participants to go away from the workshop and carry out this one free activity.


Next (often accompanied by some laughing, oohing & ahhing at this picture) we look at why the belief that our behaviour matters is essential to our well being and a foundation of positive psychology.  Introducing Martin Seligman as the founder of Positive Psychology and using the stories of how he discovered the concept of learned helplessness (See Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman) in experiments with dogs, and more importantly how we can overcome learned helplessness and skill people to have a more positive outlook.  


This exercise asks participants to write down 3 things that went well for them in the last 24 hours, these can be the smallest things.  Being British some participants need some help finding things they are grateful for, but everyone can eventually.  Using the first concepts in ‘The Happiness Advantage’ by Shawn Achor we help people find gratitude in their day.  People are asked to write down their 3 as we use them again later in life streaming.  No further explanation of the exercise is given at this time, other than to ask people how they feel after doing this – usually it’s pretty good.


George Miller’s Magic No 7+-2 is up for examination next, to make the connection between how positive psychology and where we place our attention in life (the 7+-2).  


Have you observed behaviour like this happening in the world?  Why does it happen?  This section of the workshop discuses the discovery of mirror neurons and how we match and copy the behaviours of other, often when we least expect to.


These are some of the leading thinkers in positive psychology referenced in this workshop:  


Martin Seligman, UPENN, the founder of Positive Psychology and his latest book Flourish.


Ellen Langer, Harvard, and her work on aging and the book CounterClockwise.


Carol Dweck and her work on Mindset, goals and how we give feedback.


Shawn Achor and ‘The Happiness Advantage’ book where the What Went Well and 20 seconds/21 days exercises come from.


Tal Ben-Shahar I reference briefly here for Being Happy – the best book I’ve read on overcoming perfectionism.


Finally Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the concept of Flow which we return to later and is the main point of all of this work – helping people find more purpose and Flow through work and coaching.


If you are wondering why I use pictures of these influential people – see John Medina, the mind learns far easier with visual images than words alone which the brain sees as little black squiggles, before it turns them back into pictures.


For a more in depth study of strengths you can use the UPENN website of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology.  There are many free diagnostic tests available on this site.  The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is the place to start.  This can be used effectively in coaching to give clients an understand their own strengths.  In the workplace I use the top 5 VIA Strengths with teams to help them understand the strengths of each team member and design more engaging work as a result.  For team events participants can be asked to complete the VIA Survey and then come to the event to talk about their top 5 strengths.  This is a good way to increase understanding and deepen working relationships.


Having covered the importance of positive communication and expression at home, we then turn our attention to home and the importance to consider the whole person and their life.  Here I reference John and Julie Gottman  (Gottman Institute, who John Medina the Neuroscientist also highly recommends).  Using his Love Lab Gotman is able to predict the likelihood of divorce with a high degree of accuracy, noting it’s not that we argue, we pretty much all do, but what is important is the way we argue.  


I briefly outline Gotman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling and some simple examples to illustrate them.


The good news once more is that once we catch ourselves in these behaviours we can use the techniques in this presentation – gratitude's, positive communication and strengths identification to find more productive patterns.


Just one piece of authentic praise per day changes team performance, the praise must be authentic (only give praise when there is something to praise) and specific (as we will see later the empty ‘well done’ type praise is little better than no praise at all).


It’s also important to remember the most verbally and non verbally expressive person sets the mood – and most often in work that means senior managers, giving effective feedback is an essential skill and behaviour in improving how we work.


Examples to illustrate the key difference between performance goals that tend to drive us toward a fixed point and limit our ability to use that behaviour in different contexts.  The alternative being Learning Goals that drive us toward Mastery, the never ending goal to simply be better at what we do.  A simple example is the difference between learning French to pass an exam (performance goal – how many of you can remember the languages you learned at school?) versus learning French to use frequently and with purpose in your life (learning goal that never ends and you will continue to improve and master over time).


Explaining the importance of difference between how we give praise. Praising ability leads to ‘success anxiety’ and the belief we need to avoid failure at all costs.  Praising effort rewards our ability to learn and grow and encourages us to solve problems and believe that we can.

Adding to the one piece of effective praise per day is the way to respond when people tell you their news.  


Active Constructive responses are the positive way to respond.  Giving enthusiastic support and asking for details. The good thing here is all you need to do is be interested.  Ask questions, find out more, let the other person tell their story.  Also works well at parties where you don’t have to say much at all, just listen and the people you talk to will say they’ve had a great time!


Passive Constructive support adds little, it’s the “well done” approach to feedback, if you find yourself doing this add specific and authentic comments to improve this type of response.


The destructive pair require little extra comment, either taking energy from (passive) or quashing the event (active), a sure fire way to cause problems in any work or home relationship.


You might also note how closely the non constructive behaviours relate to John Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in personal relationships.


This all leads back to the grandfather of the positive mindset, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and the concept of Flow.


By helping people, identify daily gratitude's, improve positive communication and expression and find their key strengths we can help them spend more time in Flow.  Flow is most easily defined as the absence of boredom and anxiety, where our level of skill meets the level of challenge presented to us.  If you are new to a role and the challenge is too high, we feel anxiety.  If you’ve ever had that busy but bored sensation at work you’ve experienced your skill level being too high for the level of challenge the work presents.


The more time we can keep people in Flow the happier they will feel, tested to use their skills but not overstretched.  Flow is now a widely used word which athletes also often call the Zone.


The Experience Sampling we have been doing throughout the session is an example of how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered Flow.  He used pagers (remember those) to ask similar questions of people at random intervals in their day. He would ask them what they were doing, who they were with and how much they were enjoying what they were doing.  For people unsure what activities lead to Flow for them this can be a real revelation.


Also see Daniel Kahneman and the difference between the experiencing (moment to moment mind) and the remembering mind (after the event).


Which brings us to then end of the session and your chance to take something away from today.  From the Happiness Advantage we have the idea of 20 seconds and 21 days in order to change any habit.  


21 is the number of days (or repetitions) required to form the new habit (if the new habit is the gym you might need more than 21 physical days as you are unlikely to go to the gym daily).


Shawn Achor tells the story of finding it difficult to exercise and helping himself by sleeping in his gym kit, so he could roll out of bed and exercise!  I have give a similar example with the exercise bike shown here in front of the TV.  Having the item you want right to do more of in front of you lowers the ‘activation’ energy required to start.  If we lower the activation energy by 20 seconds we are more likely to do the activity.


Conversely if we want to stop doing a negative behaviour we need to raise the activation energy by 20 seconds.  The example I have shown here is seen in the film Confessions of a Shopaholic where the main character, unable to stop spending money she doesn’t have, freezes her credit card in ice – thus taking way more than 20 seconds to chip the card out before use and giving time for more logical thinking to take over the impulse.  


A pairs activity to design an change experiment.  What one thing can you take away from today and use?  


Before you leave we should also mention 2 other activities that are widely reported to have a huge impact on maintaining a positive mind.


Walking 10,000 steps a day increases your chances of remaining healthy (Martin Seligman, Flourish) and specifically reduces your chances of Alzheimer's disease by 50% (John Medina, Brain Rules).


Meditation is the other activity that helps to find peace of mind and resolution to the events of the day.  I highly recommend the meditation practices taught by Jack Kornfield, the world renowned Bhuddist Meditation teacher.  Just a few minutes meditation a day can rapidly change your outlook on life.


Can wed all learn to be a little happier and more successful?  Science suggests we can, if we stop looking in the wrong places.  By adding a handful of practical and easy to apply techniques and behaviours to our lives, that take no more than a few moments each day, you and the people around you will all benefit.  


Happiness matters as much at work as at home too.  Boosting happiness increases engagement and productivity and the effect is contagious.  The behaviours in your social networks spread and catch on.  This asks the question which behaviours do you display and want to become the way you do things?


This workshop explores the many proven ways we can improve happiness levels at work and home.  All exercises are interactive and the main aim is to give you a range of practical tools you can choose to take away and apply in your work and life straight away.

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