Report from IPPA Conference, Day 2

Day two of the 2nd Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association was simply amazing.  I learned SO much!  At one point I laughed to my friend “Teacher!  My brain is full!”  Here’s a report of the day’s events:

It began with Ed Deci speaking about self-determination and its relationship to positive psychology – in other words: the self-fulfilling prophecy.  He showed scientific proof that believing that you are doomed and things will never get better can actually bring that about.  Using a simple analogy (of my own), if one is drowning and they really don’t think anyone will come to rescue them, they can behave based on this belief by not paddling and dying before help could arrive.  But Deci really wowed the crowd when he reported that studies repeatedly proved that external rewards kill off intrinsic motivation.  For instance, when we try to control our children either by giving them a reward for doing well (the carrot) or punishing them when they do not do well (the stick), we inadvertently are hindering our child’s innate love of learning!  You can bet I will be blogging more about this.

During the short break, I went down to the lobby to hear my name, “Frank!”  There was Lynn Johnson, sitting in a booth, typing on his computer.  He was so excited about the morning session he couldn’t wait to work on his new book.  It was wonderful to see him so passionate about positive psychology that he positively (punned intended) glowed with excitement.  When I left, he was still smiling broadly.  (P.S.: I just got an E-mail from Lynn with a link to his blog. Click here to see Lynn’s account of the IPPA conference).

Todd Kashdan

During the first break-out session of the day, I attended Acadia Park’s “Positive Interventions: New Frontiers”.  This turned out to be a 45 minute session divided up to three other presenters while Ms. Park’s faciliated and introduced the three speakers.  The first spoke about groups of people with people suffering from schizophrenia.  Remarkably, in spite of never discussing symtomology, participants showed a notable improvement.   The second speaker talked about the efficacy of positive psychology when used in a smoking cessation program.  They focused on capitalizing on strengths and building resiliency.  Adding positive psychology to the usual smoking cessation program showed marked improvement in reducing relapse.  Finally, Todd Kashdan got up to speak.  I have seen his name many times, but never had a good sense of his angle.  Boy, did I find out!  I quickly came to dub Todd Kashdan as the “Gadfly of Positive Psychology”.  I did not realize how much we needed one!   A free and critical thinker, Kashdan jostled us to attention by challenging us (we practicing in the field of positive psychology) to not wait for scientific research to take bold steps forward to further the cause; to not wait for a greenlight from guys in lab coats.   I am a pretty smart guy, but Kashdan is brilliant.  He was soon talking over my head and I loved it.  He spoke of discerning whether clients are prone toward reducing anxiety or alleviating boredom through adventure and tailoring their positive psychology program accordingly.  He pointed out that despite the wonderful interventions practiced in positive psychology, that people are not products of cookie cutters; that each person is a complicated cluster of characteristics living in unique situations all; that one size did not fit all and shame on us if we had treated people as such and then congratulated ourselves for doing so.  Kashdan said things that really needed to be said but no one else wanted to say.   This is what I needed – not to hear more of what I already knew but to be challenged to think outside the box.  In short, I was not a fan of Todd Kashdan when I walked into Franklin Hall at the Downtown Marriott this morning, but I was when I walked out.  Kashdan is supposed to speak again tomorrow.  I’ll be there – IF I can find a seat.

Next I went to the workshop on Applied Positive Psychology in Action but once the presenter gave an overview of the talking points, I dashed out.  It was going to be a brief overview of how positive psychology has had an impact in several areas I did not care to know about (such as in organizations, formal education and across cultures).  Instead I ducked into Transformative Research learning how positive psychology performed by students demonstrated a signficant impact on people and students in other countries, with a special focus on Portugal.  The budding researchers reported that simply by focusing and working in the field of positive psychology raised their own level of happiness.  During the Q&A an interesting debate broke out about faith in a higher power and how that can work well for some and seem like damnation on earth to others.  The students were not prepared for such rigorious questions but even raising the question was good grist for the mill.
Barbara Fredrickson

On the way down to the Barbara Fredrickson lunch, I made a fast friend in Meredith Pollock, a professor teaching positive psychology via the internet.  I wish I had taken a picture.  Her smile was broad and her laugh flowed freely.  As we waded through the line for our boxed lunch we spoke in such an animated and excited fashion that others in line we swept up, nodding excitedly and adding the occasional comment.  Meredith and I sat beside one another at the luncheon.  I was star struck like many might be were they to see Brad Pitt and/or Angelina Jolie.  Between bites of chicken wrap, Meredith told how she loved her interactions with students and hearing of their transformation over the weeks of the class. She shared a little about her format and successes.  I shared about how much fun I had teaching Happiness 101 and how I will hold my first webinar in October and how the online class is geared toward rural Utah – since that’s where the suicide rate is the worst.  It was great to have someone with whom I could share my enthusiasm for seeing Barbara Fredrickson for the first time.  And suddenly she was there.

Frank and Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Fredrickson was deeply and intensely studying positive psychology at least a decade before anyone had ever uttered words “positive psychology”.  One attendee asked her to explain her broaden and build theory for which she had won the most prestigious awards available in the field.  She spoke of how feeling happy is not merely the stuff of fluff but an important component that has allowed humans to survive.  When we are happy, we are more likely to help one another and see solution rather than problem.  Imagine the lack of motivation for us as a race if we had no hope of feeling happy.  Positivity builds important relationships, which allowed human beings to work together for the greater good.  I was the last to ask a question asking Dr. Fredrickson to share with us the things she is personally excited about in the field of positive psychology.  Her answer was so amazing the crowd audibly gasped and one person afterward shook my hand and thanked me just for asking the question.  Dr. Fredrickson said she is most excited about the research in her own lab in which they are showing promise of demonstrating that not only can people change using the techniques of positive psychology, they can do so at the molecular level!  Imagine the hope that would be generated throughout the world of people striving to be happier if science could prove that we can change our very DNA to be more positive.  This is akin to the studies of Richard Davidson discovering that Tibetan monks had rewired their brain to be happier to such an extent that they had trained the startle response out of themselves!  With studies like this, we will know that even if our genetics predispose us to lean toward depression, that we can beat it!  Barbara Fredrickson was gracious, authentic and a true inspiration.

While Meredith took in Kim Cameron’s “What We Know About Positive Organizations: Empirical Evidence”, I attended Phillip Friedman’s workshop on forgiveness.   I did so (at least in part) because I have wanted to put together a workshop on forgiveness.  The Friedman expereince was not what I expected.  It was very little lecture and very experiential.  It was also VERY fast paced.  He had a LOT of material and only 45 minutes to share it.  He did give us his E-mail, vowing to forward his powerpoint presentation.  Most impressively, he asked for volunteers who wanted to personally work to reduce their own resentment.  The first volunteer held a resentment she gauged at 8.5 on a scale from 1-10.  Within 10 minutes her anger had fizzled to a 1.  Remarkable!  Friedman also used a lot of meditations and quickly and easily taught us how to incorporate them to help our clients.
For the final break-out of the day, I chose Kirk Brown’s “Mindfulness and the Integration of Bright and Dark Side of Human Psyche”.  Wow!  This guy REALLY knew his stuff!  I took pictures with my iPhone of all his slides rather than taking notes.  I don’t think I could have stayed up with him anyway – I took 108 pictures!  Brown talked about how mindfulness reduces stress, helps us to be more efficient communicators and builds resiliency.  He spoke of the current mindset of many people (including clinicians) who see the struggle for happiness as akin to a chess game; a battle between “good” and “bad”.  He challenged us to transcend the whole struggle and pointed out that if we can see our mind as the chessboard, the very field itself, then there will be no struggle.  It was a facinating talk, one whose depth and width will take me some time to fully digest and appreciate.
Independence Hall

It was time to go.  I took advantage of the light to walk to my hotel.  I savored the moment.  The heat wave had passed and the stroll was quite pleasant.  I marvelled at Independence  Hall, a building I am sure is older than Utah itself.  I snacked on dried cherries, watched the skateboarders top one another and enjoyed the music of a random flute player.  Phliadelphia has a rich culture and I enjoyed seeing skin color of every shade and counted at least five different languages as I strode down Market Street and Chestnut.  A friend called me out of the blue, honoring me with one of those “just wanted to say hi” calls.  I love those.  I found a Subway sandwich shop, where I bought two foot-long turkey sandwiches.  That’ll keep my fridge stocked.

Tomorrow is stacked with more learning opportunities.  To help me choose which breakout sessions to attend, click here.  Barbara Fredrickson will kick the day off with a talk entitled “Love: A New Lens on the Science of Thriving”.  I will get to see the poster exhibit during lunch (there were over 400 posters submitted from more than 60 countries!).  Then tomorrow night is the big gala!  Life is so good.  Thank you for joining me on this adventure.
Frank Clayton, the Happy Therapist

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