How to be a Positive Psychology Practitioner
By Miriam Akhtar and Dr Chris Johnstone
During planning for the next cohort of our Positive Psychology Foundations online course (January 12 – March 12 2019) we were exploring the theme of what it means to be a positive psychology practitioner. We like using images in our teaching, and one that is relevant here we call ‘the spider diagram’. Developed by Chris for his resilience training, it builds on the Penn Resilience Program perspective check of considering the best, the worst and the most likely outcomes of a situation.
With the spider on its side, its body represents the present moment, with each leg as a different timeline of how the future might go. The upper legs represent better possibilities, the lower legs worse ones, and in-between are those that are probably more likely. We can apply this spider diagram to ourselves – in considering the different ways our lives, personalities, work and relationships can develop. In the 20th century, the dominant focus of psychology was on the lower legs – on looking at what can go wrong with us. With the emergence of positive psychology, the last two decades has seen a shift in our direction of gaze. We look at the upper legs of ‘what’s the best that can happen?’ and then apply scientific rigour in exploring what we can do to make these better possibilities more likely.
The term ‘practitioner’ can be confusing because it is used in two different ways. Wikipedia views it in more professional terms, as ‘someone who is qualified to, or registered to, practice a particular occupation, profession or religion’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary offers a broader definition, seeing it as ‘a person actively engaged in an art, discipline or profession especially medicine’. If, as Martin Seligman suggests, the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing, these two meanings take us different ways.
The Wikipedia route to practitioner-hood focuses on training to be qualified to practice positive psychology on or with others. As an alternative, The Oxford Dictionary perspective places greater emphasis on self-help. Just as a Yoga Practitioner is someone who practices Yoga, this second meaning sees a Positive Psychology practitioner as someone actively engaged in positive psychology practices to promote their own well-being. That is a more democratic model inviting wider participation. Rather than an ‘either/or’, both these meanings bring value. We have developed a three-level framework that combines them.
Three Levels of Positive Psychology Practitioner
Level One Practitioner
If a practitioner is someone who practices, then this first level involves being someone who uses positive psychology practices to support their own wellbeing. The role of being a Level One practitioner is for us all. In coaching sessions, we encourage our clients to see themselves this way. For ourselves as coaches and trainers, it’s important to ‘walk our talk’ so that we guide from a place of authenticity.
After a decade as a practitioner, Miriam is still surprised by the number of people who take positive psychology at the intellectual level, satisfying their curiosity about the field without doing the bit that will really make the difference in their lives – the practices. One of her lightbulb moments on the MAPP at the University of East London was learning about Prof Richard Davidson’s studies of people who’d done the daily practices of the 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course and how they experienced greater activation in the left pre-frontal cortex, the seat of positive emotions. It is applying the science in our lives that rewires neural connections and grows our well-being. That’s why we think of this Level One engagement as the foundation of positive psychology and is what we focus on when training practitioners. We look at practices linked to each of the five PERMA dimensions of well-being (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) and also add practices for Resilience, Mindfulness and Physical wellbeing. We call the model PERMA + or PERMA RMP.
Level Two Practitioner
Many helping professionals are drawn to positive psychology by the prospect of dual benefits – where we gain by using the practices on ourselves, while also helping our clients, patients, students, customers or associates by passing on tools that help them draw out their best side too. We think of this as being a Level Two Practitioner, where positive psychology may not be your main focus or career, but you apply it to support wellbeing in others.
Being a Level 2 practitioner is about passing it on, and the focus expands from self-help to also include interventions and education. A good example of a level two practice is supporting others to recognise their strengths. When we’re training teachers, coaches or managers, we explore with them how they can encourage those they work with to identify and flex their strengths to reach goals and recover their well-being.
Level Three Practitioner
We think of a Level Three Practitioner as someone who has chosen to make positive psychology their main focus or a key area of their expertise. If we are to help each other, our families, clients, students, teams, communities and organisations find their upper legs of positive potential, there is a need for more people to inhabit this role. The mission of Level Three Practitioners is to go further on the path, developing our understanding and application of Positive Psychology so that we have more to offer. We might apply ourselves to particular niches or be generalists in this emerging field that not only hunts the good stuff, but actively cultivates it too.
Spider Diagram Revisited – Resilience as a Two-Part Story
What about the lower legs of the worst possibilities? Even here, when we find ourselves or those we work with on a downward slope, the spider diagram still holds. Wherever we are, whatever we face, there are always different ways it can go and choices of action.
Chris teaches resilience as a two-part story, where the first part involves facing adversity, and the second part is about finding our constructive response. What helps us do that are the practices. They strengthen our ability to find the upslope of the dip.
How to be a Positive Psychology Practitioner. Free webinar April 18