European positive psychology conference in Copenhagen: national comparisons, interest conflicts & strengths again (fourth post)
Last updated on 8th July 2010
I blogged yesterday about the second full day of this "5th European conference on positive psychology". So how was the last morning of the conference? In order to catch my flight I only went in for the final two plenary presentations and then left at the coffee break - a pity, but I already have plenty new to chew over from this conference and I don't think I was missing anything too crucial - for the kind of work - I do by coming away a little early.
The first plenary talk was by Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in the Netherlands. The subject was "Why are the Danes happier than the Dutch?" - a catchy title introducing a serious subject. Do societies/nations differ in how happy and satisfied they are with life? Apparently surveys using the same simple question have been done in over 100 different countries - on a 1 to 10 scale with 1 representing "dissatisfied" and 10 representing "satisfied" how would you score your answer to the question "Taking it all together, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" The Danes can validly claim to have consistently scored best in the world on this measure. Costa Rica recently did very well, but this was on the basis of just one relatively small survey while Denmark has been surveyed many times. There are strong differences between countries. Zimbabwe, for example, scores horribly badly. Countries also vary in how they score over time - some have been assessed regularly for over thirty years. What factors look as though they may be important in making a difference to how this question is answered? Front runners seem to include Tolerance, Affluence, Rule of Law, and Freedom. Inglehart & colleagues have published on this in their fascinating paper "Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981-2007)". Interestingly the percentage of the overall health budget spent on mental health also seems of importance - an encouraging suggestion for people in my line of business, especially as it seems more psychological rather than psychiatric approaches may be most relevant here. To follow up these ideas in much more detail, see Ruut Veenhoven's website. There are all kinds of limitations to this kind of correlational research, but it still gives us a better compass socially and politically than we've typically had before. I like the idea of "evidence-based politics", providing the science recognizes its limitations and continually strives to improve the quality, accuracy and applicability of its findings. Exciting and inspiring.
We then had Bo Kruger from "Moving minds" with one of his light-hearted wake-up exercises. I'm sold on these. Despite not being "very British" they seem to help us - or help me anyway - lighten up, wake up & connect a bit. A series of conference talks can become hard to maintain focus on. Finding ways to loosen up makes good sense. So we paired up and one person put up their open right hand. Their partner than prodded it three times with their index finger. The first person tried to close their hand on the prodding finger. We then swapped and tried it the other way round. Then we did the same exercise with one person standing with the both hands open while the othe person prodded using both their hands. Again we swapped. Then - and with most difficulty - we tried both ways at once i.e. each person had one hand open and one hand prodding, so we were trying to prod/avoid and receive/catch simultaneously. Much hilarity and we sat down two or three minutes later more energised and more awake.
Then Alex Linley from the private UK "Centre for applied positive psychology" spoke on "The future of positive psychology - promises and perils". He gave a thoughtful, quite inspiring talk. He particularly focused on the potential value of knowing about and developing one's personal strengths. It's interesting how, as a private practitioner myself, I'm cautious when listening to people speaking who have a financial interest in their ideas being taken up more widely. We're now much more knowledgeable about how such potential conflict of interest slants findings in the drug industry - see, for example, the 2007 British Journal of Psychiatry paper "Influence of drug company authorship and sponsorship on drug trial outcomes". But this effect is not just limited to the "big, bad" pharmaceutical industry. See, in my own field of psychotherapy, the 2010 paper "Efficacy of cognitive-behavioural therapy and other psychological treatments for adult depression: meta-analytic study of publication bias". Bias is often subtle, may well be unintended, and is very widespread. Especially maybe in a relatively new field like Positive Psychology, we need to be cautious and make sure that obvious, potential conflicts of interest are routinely acknowledged. I guess though that the effect is often difficult to notice - so it might be someone fighting for academic reputation & research grants, or even someone (mea culpa) who finds it very hard to let go of outdated ideas and move on. It was the fine biologist T H Huxley who described "The great tragedy of Science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." And I remember experiencing physical pain on finding that a cherished theory no longer seemed to be really accurate. And this is certainly not a problem confined to science.
So Alex went on to speak about his vision of Positive Psychology as a force for good in the world with a potentially multi-level focus from the individual, through couples & families, to schools, organizations & businesses, right up to societies, nations, and humanity as a whole. He talked about the potential value of strength identification and the importance of actually using these strengths. He also highlighted how people involved in the positive psychology "movement" could be catalysts for change. He talked about finding one's greatest contribution/playing to one's strengths, finding the right people to work with, being authentic/true to oneself, role modeling (as Gandhi put it "Be the change you want to see in the world"), and also enjoying life! He highlighted the quote attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead - "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Stirring stuff.
Then I needed to leave to catch the plane. Was this conference worth coming to for a doctor and psychotherapist. Yes, very definitely yes - both for myself as a health professional and myself as simply another human being trying to lead a life that is full and worthwhile. These are the questions that inspired me to want to study medicine as a child. What a joy to continue to explore them with gradually increasing clarity.