Lessons for Life, Learning & Longevity

Take aways from the 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology.

I recently attended and presented at the 5th IPPA World Positive Psychology Congress in Montreal. So I’d like to share my top key take aways from the latest science on ‘what makes life WORTH living’!

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teacher smiling at camera

It was an inspiring and enriching few days spent with over 1300 scientists, researchers and practitioners from over 40 countries sharing and connecting around positive psychology and well-being topics including: Work and Organisations; Education; Health; Clinical Populations; Biological Aspects; Culture; Strengths; Emotions; Measures and Methods; Coaching. It was impossible to take in everything but here are a few things that I think are relevant to my world and work in particular.

1. Global Reach – With attendees from every continent Positive Psychology can now be seen as a truly global movement to enhance the capacity of the population to flourish in life, work and study with an increasing number of replicated and longitudinal studies across different cultures, geographies and political contexts. Although there’s no ‘one size fits all’ (see below) this is important for those of us working in international and cross-cultural contexts and to refute some criticisms that Positive Psychology is not applicable outside of Western culture.

2. Positive Energisers – Prof. Kim Cameron from the University of Michigan Centre for Positive Organisations spoke about the 15 years of research he and his colleagues have conducted into what creates thriving organisations – Government, Corporate, Not for Profit, Education and what contributes to their outcomes such as quality; innovation; productivity; profitability; retention; customer satisfaction; family enrichment; employee well-being. Essentially it comes down to ‘Positive Organisational Practices’ such as gratitude; respect; compassion; virtuosity; care; inspiration; trust; forgiveness and lastly positive energy. Kim shared research that showed that Positive Relational Energy as opposed to physical, emotional and mental energy, renews and revives people rather than depletes – people who have it energise themselves and others. So the question is where do you find the people with the positive energy within your school? It is important because they are the ones that will not only be the highest performers but if their energy is harnessed will enhance the work and experience at work of others around them. The big challenge lies in leadership because the research shows that leaders are often not the positive energisers in their organisations and this has implications for both building Positive Leadership and supporting leaders to recognise and embrace those that do.

3. Positive Education – On that note (above), I got to present on my own work introducing Positive Psychology and Coaching to schools in the workshop ‘Harnessing the Positive Deviants – Building Well-being Champions in Schools’. I set the context for ‘Positive Education’ as a global approach highlighting the role of the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) in fostering a more balanced focus on academic achievement, character development, well-being and flourishing in whole school communities. I also made reference to PERMAH as a foundation for flourishing in schools (Positive Emotion; Engagement; Relationships; Meaning; Accomplishment; Health). My colleagues Sonya Papps and Sue Smith then shared the groundbreaking work we have done in their respective schools, where once we had been able to generate a common understanding of well-being and it’s role in engagement we were able to secure leadership participation and support to harness some of the ‘positive energisers/deviants’ in their communities. By doing so these energisers have since embraced, developed and rolled-out programs that have seen measurable increases in well-being in students, staff and parents.

There were a significant number of education-focused workshops and presentations at the congress showing how widely across the world research and applications are taking place in schools and universities. This presence, following the First IPEN Global Festival of Positive Education in Dallas July 2016 and the IPEN London Conference in April 2017, demonstrates the important role of the education sector in bringing well-being and flourishing to the wider population. Indeed Prof. Martin Seligman, recognised as the founder of Positive Psychology stated in his congress address that it’s future lies in education. So to all the schools out there – watch this space!

Pic of Me. Sonya & Sue…Preparing to present at IPPA on ‘Harnessing the Positive Deviants – Building Well-being Champions in Schools’ with colleagues Sonya Papps of The Taipei European School and Sue Smith formerly of the British International School Shanghai Puxi.

 4. Character Strengths – A raft of recent research was presented affirming that supporting character strengths identification and use amongst children, adolescents and adults contributes to increased health, well-being and life satisfaction and reduced anxiety, stress and depression. For example the next generation of validated measurement for the Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths Assessment, which I use widely in my work, was introduced.

Many other character strengths sessions presented a wide range of evidence demonstrating the importance of character development for success in parenting, academic achievement in both school and university, workplace engagement performance & productivity and in living a flourishing, meaningful, healthy and long life. There was also consensus from leading researchers such as Angela Duckworth that there should be equal focus on the development of strengths of the Heart, the Mind and the Will for study, work, career enhancement and leadership development. Take the VIA assessment for yourself here.

5. Mindfulness – Being mindful of our strengths and learning to use them mindfully links nicely to the ever increasing evidence-base for mindfulness and its impact on enhancing physical and mental health and well-being in adults and young people.

Numerous research studies and applications were shared showing how mindfulness is helping executives and leaders make skillful and wise decisions at work and home; better manage work pressures and the associated volatility and uncertainty; improve attention & listening skills; enhance ability to receive and give feedback; improve time management; improve brain functioning with associated happiness and positive affect, pro-social behaviours and physical health.

Mindfulness studies are also being widely carried out in schools around the world and programs rolled out to enhance emotional regulation; reduce anxiety and depression; increase attention; improve self-regulation, school perseverance and psychological flexibility; all leading to the promise of enhanced academic achievement & well-being across the lifespan.

6. Telomeres – This was a new one on me! I learned at a fantastic presentation by Elisa Epel from the University of California that our cellular (biological) ageing can be measured by the length of our telomeres which are like the plastic covers at the end of shoes laces found at the end of our chromosomes. Without this protection our DNA can become damaged causing us (our cells) to age more quickly. We also now know that telomeres can be shortened by our exposure to ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ long term stress along with other lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, lack of sleep and poor diet.

The relevance to Positive Psychology is that interventions designed to help people to better manage stress such as Mindfulness, Positive Challenge Appraisal, Learned Optimism and other activities to boost a more positive state of mind appear to increase levels of the enzyme telomerase and this helps maintain the telomeres and potentially our longevity. So positivity it seems can enhance our resilience, our well-being and keep our cells from ageing prematurely.

7. No One Size Fits All – Sonya Lyubomirsky recognised as one of the world’s leading positive psychology researchers re-affirmed what we know as evidence-based practitioners – that not all positive psychology interventions work for all people, all of the time and in all contexts. It is incumbent therefore upon practitioners to be able to discriminate in their use of interventions subject to the needs of their individual clients, organisations and target populations and the opportunities and challenges that their organisation, environment or life circumstances bring.

8. Coaching – The ‘No one size fits all’ approach provides a great case for coaching. Evidence-based coaching is a positive psychology intervention in itself and studies show it can significantly increase outcomes like hope, resilience, self-regulation, goal attainment and well-being. But it is also a vital tool to ensure that we don’t just throw the promise of a quick fix at people – “learn about Positive Psychology and you’ll flourish for sure!”

Coaching helps individuals, teams and organisations to apply, test and review what works for them in pursuit of their unique challenges, aspirations and goals. As a coach who integrates positive psychology into coaching it is my role to work with people to help them to better understand what well-being is, how it relates to goal striving and achievement, and then to help them identify appropriate interventions and try them out and support their application within the relevant context. No one person or situation is the same so it is the coaching that facilitates self-directed learning, the appropriate fit, the reviewing and reflecting on what does and doesn’t work and the ongoing, albeit short-term support, to achieve sustainable positive change, growth and success.


For me, attending and presenting at the IPPA World Congress was both affirming of my own current practice and inspiring for my future personal and professional development as an organisational coach. I am keen to share my learning with my existing school clients and those schools that might be interested to learn more.  I will be looking forward to the IPPA European Positive Psychology Congress in Budapest 2018 and to visiting Melbourne for the 6th IPPA World Congress in 2019 to learn more about the latest best practice in education and beyond!

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