Research topics

Positive psychology is simply an umbrella term for diverse strands of research that seek to understand the positive side of the human experience and of human nature. As such, most researchers are cognitive psychologists or social psychologists or developmental psychologists who happen to study creativity (in cognition) or cooperation (in social groups) or empathy (in child development). A taste of some of the topics below…

Empathy, compassion, altruism…

Why do help others? Why do we care for people we’ve never met? What prompts many to donate money and time to relief agencies across the world, to create non-profit organizations or to contribute to wikpedia? Recent research in altruism suggests people often act in selfless ways without expectation of recognition or reward.

Philosophical discussions of altruism often involve asking whether there is such a thing as “true” altruism because many seemingly altruistic acts actually benefit the giver as well as the receiver. Give money to the homeless mother on the street? Well, is it to help her or is it to assuage your own guilt? What people fail to realize however is that if helping someone makes you feel better, that says something quite powerful about human nature, namely: It feels good to help people.

Like chocolate and sex, helping others feels good on a very immediate level – the fact that it’s also socially respected is more a bonus than the motivation itself. And like chocolate and sex, helping others feels good because for a long, long time (hundreds of thousands of years), people for whom consuming calories, having sex, and caring for others felt good had more healthy children than those who got a dopamine rush from eating twigs and practicing celibacy. Of course, we’re not nice all the time but in general kindnessfeels betterthan meanness or selfishness. This is obvious in a way, and yet, many people seem to think that other people don’t like being nice. There’s lots of great research outlining the neural boosts we get from caring for others. It is both naive and arrogant to see ourselves (or people in our ingroup – political, religious or ethnic group, or simply those who live our lifestyle) as the only ones who want to make the world a better place and who take pleasure in being kind to others.


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motivation, interest, curiosity…

Some of the charm of the more recent research on motivation and engagement is that people have reserves of motivation and don’t necessarily need money to drive them. Things like feeling a sense of autonomy, a sense of mastery and purpose are often more important than external incentives like money. Along these lines,  we may often underestimate how aversive non-engagement, or boredom, can be.

When we think of negative emotions, anger or fear or grief are the ones that come to mind. We may think of boredom as inconvenient, but we don’t generally think of it as aversive. One of the consequences of this is that we take it as a given part of life – well, sure kids are bored at school, people are bored at work, the elderly may be bored in their daily routines, but what can you do, c’est la vie. At least, we say to ourselves, they’re not suffering.

Research has been increasingly showing, however, how important it is to feel engaged – be it at work, at school, in your daily life. Just as we underestimate the aversiveness of boredom, we underestimate the power of feeling engaged, both on an immediate level as when engrossed in a good conversation professional project, but also on a more abstract level of feeling engaged in a sense of purpose in one’s life.

Enthusiasm, joy, laughter…

Why do we laugh? Why do we have a sense of humor? Why do we dance and sing and make silly faces and exchange conspiratorial glances? These positive emotions are worth studying! Not only do positive emotions feel good, recent research is showing that they do good as well. A host of beneficial effects have been found when people experience positive emotions: we have broader attention, increased working memory, we are more creative and open to new ideas. The implications are important in terms of schools and the workplace. Most of the time, we learn better and are more productive when we feel good. Barbara Fredrickson had proposed that positive emotions allow us to broaden our mindscapes and build resources for the future. As Martin Seligman has said “Positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant; it is a neon sign that growth is under way, that psychological capital is accumulating.”

Category: Research paper

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