Positive Psychology a theory to improve society!



The recent article in  "Der Zeit" (German newspaper) about our well educated but aimless generation (20-30yrs) claims that we cannot really choose and take responsibility. Despite the fact that we have more opportunities and are well educated.


Our generation (20-30 yrs) is more and more coming to the conclusion that sustainability has to become a certain standard for everybody. Besides, we start to rethink meaning. The game is not that easy anymore that the person with the most money wins. On the other hand we are not taking responsibility on it or political action. 


A theory that can help us on our way to find meaning and create a better society is the use of positive psychology at a broader scale.

In the following positive psychology on an individual level will be discussed and then connected with behaviour in groups in the second part.


Positive psychology on the individual level


Martin Seligman 2004 TED Talk about positive psychology

Positive psychology is concerned with strengthen humans and not focused on their psychological illnesses.



 Positive psychology may be defined as “the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing and optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p.104).


The model is in general based on Aristotelian model of human nature, which is a human is motivated towards achievement and more high developed state of self being.It is interested in building the best things in life as in improving the worst.

As concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling and with supporting high talent as with healing pathology.

(Positive Psychology and Introduction Martin Seligman 2000)


Three “happy “ lives (explained in detail in the video above):


1.     The pleasant life

2.     The good life

3.     The meaningful life


Empirical studies show that when one compares the pleasant life and the philanthropic life, altruistic things last longer. 

Pleasure has a lower contribution to overall life satisfaction than one would expect.


But still the role of happiness and well=being is strongly correlated to the meaningful life. In her article, “the role of positive emotions in positive psychology” Barbara L. Frederickson (2000) argues that positive emotions like (joy, contentment, love, interest) have a reciprocal relation to a broader way of thinking on the other hand people who are more often in negative emotions, face the dangers to become more narrow minded. Plans and aims also proof to help to develop more positive emotions. Positive people are more resilient against stress and therefore more successful. The social interaction of people is also an important fact. What are the techniques those people develop? Problem focused copying, positive reappraisal, infusion of ordinary events with positive meaning.

To return to the three lives from Seligman there is a strong reciprocal relationship between the three different lives. This fits also to Maslows Pyramid of needs.



A further example is given by Daniel Goleman in his book “social intelligence”. He gave the suggestions that “social diversification” could lead to a better life as well, as a kind of positive psychology, for example if you focus on your strengths and use them to serve in the community as well you expand your horizon you can have different cycles of friends. A good relationship can make you more stress resistant and your are able to achieve more in your business carrier. This is proven by empirical studies, in his book.


Reflected activities may be able to improve the life of everybody. Prof. Seligman gives three examples for each life:

-Pleasant life, assignment to design yourself a beautiful day, you reflect what has meaning for you and realize that pleasure fluctuate. (Learn to create pleasure for yourself)

-Gratitude visit, write a 300 word letter to the person, who changed you life most in a positive way. Call the person and ask to visit and then read the letter to the person. This gratitude visit will make you in general happier.

-Strengthen day, a couple should think about their individual strengths and then design a evening where the both can use their strengths best.


A personal experience I can mention here is my alternative military

service. I worked with young criminals and teens that broke up school and with unemployed people at a social station in northern Germany.

This made me happier and thankful for my own circumstances that I am able to study and so on. The key to increase my general well-being was to expand my own reference group and get out of the rat race of status (or carrier) for a longer period. The development of a personal vision for your own life is also essential for a meaningful and happy life.


Steve Jobs in a Stanford Graduation speech (2005) also mentioned one important thing in your daily life is to enjoy what you are doing if you have to many days in a row, where you think you wouldn’t be happy with if this were your last days than change something.

Death is a strong weapon when it comes to meaning and a good exercise might be to use the weapon.


&Samhoud a consulting firm in Europe is currently focused on the issue.

They give their employees the feeling of doing something meaningful and creating value. Their Vision is based on connecting and inspiring people. Every employee working for &Samhoud has to develop his own personal vision and set their own goals every year, this goal is transparent for all employees and everybody is supporting each other by fulfilling their goals.


Another point, which to my mind really works is critical self-reflection. A good friend of mine ones sitting next to me in the library ask me: Fabian why are these rich kids (or students) all looking so unhappy and stressed, they are all in their best age, don’t have to worry that much about money and are able to study. When I am sitting in the library and start of feeling a little bit stressed I think about his sentence and smile and relax. That might also be a kind of framing problem.


For me the best positive psychology (happiness) method is running it gives me a certain dose of “dopamine” and has something meditative for me. I am sure that humans are made for running. Sport is also a good field for social diversification. According to Barbara Frederichson “play” helps to develop your creativity and a broader way of thinking.



Critics comes from the religious scientist, no focus on the values of a meaningful life, Buddhist, Confucian, Seligman’s theory is a non-theological donut (Sundararajan 2005). To my mind, from a philanthropically perspective it is a good theory, which helps not just the individual but also the society. One could analyze the connection with Christens. Finally, the theory from Seligman clearly points out how one can achieve a better life for everybody and advise for certain activities one could try.


Positive psychology in groups


In a group positive psychology is related to groupthink explained in detail below. 

Groupthink refers to "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action" (Janis, 1982, p. 9)


The observation that a group's discussion of a problem generates pressures toward uniformity is hardly novel. These pressures result in a tendency for group members to move toward majority positions, even in the absence of external pressure to reach unanimity and independent of the correctness of the majority position (Janis, 1982)



Group members alter their views in a manner calculated to maintain an image of social desirability because people need to perceive of and present themselves in a favorable light. In contrast, suggest that polarization occurs because the preponderance of arguments and facts adduced during discussion tend to be supportive of the dominant initial position and will therefore reinforce it. Also operative are the biases toward information that are consistent with one's position:



Example for negative groupthink, in situation were a certain loss would have been taken or the possibility to get an uncertain small gain on the one hand or even an uncertain bigger loss on the other hand, groups tend to choose the second opportunity. (Source Glen White Groupthink reconsidered 1989)

One could implement the prospect theory for the utility of a decision as well. This problem results in a lot of political crises.

This basis decision problem could be solved with an advocate diabolist in a group making the group more available of their frame of thinking. The problem could be for example that meaning and sense for yourself depends on your reference group. A group can have a high influence on your values after a certain time you adjust.  


According to Gerald Hörhan“Investment Punk” , the current system leads people to run in a rat race with out critical reflection. Groupthink may be counterproductive because people miss their chances. One has to try to profit from extreme chances. One can only do that if one gets out of the treadmill. According to him there exist a treadmill for the blue-collar worker and for the white-collar worker. This goes hand in hand with Prof. Paul Bloom arguing in an Yale lecture about happiness that the only two ways to increase your permanent level of happiness might be to get out of the treadmill and the other might be to try always new things. So to some extend groupthink can have a negative impact.


On the other hand, there are also a lot of positive things:

People in relationships are in general happier and more successful one reason is the higher stress resistance ( Nettle Happiness).


In addition in his book “Social Intelligence” Goleman shows that we are always in interaction with our environment and behave automatically according to it. He provides evidence that our social environment really effect our long term health and well being. This could work in both direction, positive and negative and is also true for groupthink in both direction. From my own experience there are certain events where I connect positive psychology with groupthink, for example Obamas speeches and the “yes we can” slogan. A good university should be able to let people develop positive psychology influenced by the group. Your environment and your real friends matter for your whole attitude to your life. You’re ability to develop deep friendships to people who inspire you and give you a new perspective is  essential. In a nutshell “groupthink” could clearly have a positive and negative influence in a positive and negative social dimension. Groupthink is also the reason for a lot of bad political decisions. One may argue that religion is also a kind of groupthink, which had its positive and negative impacts on our society and might be correlated to positive psychology.


 Different personality types and how do they affect groupthink



Nassim Taleb is clearly not a Psychological expert but when it comes to characters he uses to interesting examples in his book “black swan”.  Robert and Murat. Robert is a scientist working in the research department of an economical department, he is more introverted has not that many friends, comes to work every day  by the tube is always on time and has a strict discipline, his love is science, he earns an average income and has problems dating woman. Than there is Murat, he founded a small business, is sociable, he always watches out for opportunities, he does not have a good university education but made a lot of money with his business. Taleb ask the question, who could explain better something going on in the economy. From his point of view it would be Murat. But lets look at this from another angle it shows that more extroverted and sociable people  have a better connection and might understand also better what is going on in a social group and also be more keen and open for positive psychology. They have higher odds due to the way they act to achieve things.


We can use the model from Jung here described in his book “Personality types”

One criterion is the personal attitude he distinguishes between extroverted and introverted. On the other hand he uses four mood functions of orientation to distinguish: Thinking, sensation, intuition and feeling. Everybody uses all four, but people in general, tend to use certain functions more often.


The book Personality from Nettle put characters into five dimensions.

1. Extroverted 

2. Consciousness (eagerness to details)

3. Empathy (social intelligence)

4. Art (talent or not)

5. Fear or anxiety


You can clearly analyze persons by these dimensions and think about what kind of mixture might be interesting for the tasks of your group.


Another point is positive psychology and different groups surrounding you combined with certain exercises might help you to change your character in the way you want to be.


 Behavioral biases, which could have an influence in a group


Conformation bias, information is filtered due to believes of the group. The view of the group may not be very open minded, for example economist always focus on physics nobody is able because of groupthink to use other science like biology as a basic model. Groupthink could lead to overconfidence. Everybody believes in the Illusion of success.

One of the best example of negative Groupthink might be Enron.

Group work itself might be not that productive a meeting with 10 people cost you 10 hours working time. In their book getting real from the founders of 37signals argue that meetings are unproductive, group work is dangerous people need time for themselves to get things done, their books provide an interesting new perspective to deal with psychological problems of groupthink. From a personal perspective groupthink could also lead to a better performance of the individual groups can help to gain discipline which is one of the most important aspects to achieve something. Another important bias one can mention in groups is herd behaviour, one of my favourite example: In Germany you are pretty much with 90% confidence interval able to clearly distinguish the business students and the law students from other students due to the way they dress. 

Conclusion positive psychology and its outcome for society


In the way we defined positive psychology the outcome for the society would be clearly higher if everybody uses his strengths also to create value for society by taking responsibility. The connection between people would increase, for example in a good relationship people talk with each other and not about each other. Positive psychology would also boost cooperation in an society which increases the quality of life. (The common good)


Positive psychology may be older than scientist think, Confucius had a strong focus on self-criticism, education, social engagement, culture (sport, music) and true friendship.

Finally, if psychology focus more on “positive psychology “it could help to improve the life of everybody. Our current level of technology and design might help to build the right connection and inspiration for people. Positive psychology could improve society on a broad scale.




Martin Seligman, Eudaemonia, the good life

Daniel Goleman Social Intelligence

Nettle Personality

Nettle Happiness

Yale online lecture Introduction to Psychology Prof. Paul Bloom

Prof. Martin Seligman TED talk 2004, about positive psychology

Nassim Taleb Black Swan

“In Organizational Committees affect quality of group decision making?”

by Caroline Kamau and Deogratias Harorimana

Gerald Hörhan “Investment Punk”

Jung Psychology Types

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