Positive Psychology Research






Einstein (Scientist) 


 'Towards Flourishing: 


If you think of psychological health as a continuum with -10 as very unhappy, 0 is neutral and +10 is very happy, clinical psychologists and therapists will aim to get you to 0. Positive psychology aims to get you past 0 into the plus scale of happiness and flourishing. MIRIAM


'Beyond Therapy ...

Putting the Positive into Practice'


Miriam Akhtar MAPP


Miriam Akhtar

Miriam is one of Britain's pioneering positive psychologists.   She holds a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP), the science of optimal human functioning and well-being, from the first programme of its kind in Europe, the partner to Professor Martin Seligman's MAPP at Pennsylvania University.

Until the late 1990s, psychology was very much focused on the negative aspects of life and had lost sight of the other end of the spectrum like what makes life worth living, what are our strengths and what makes us happy? Positive psychology, the science of well-being, has begun to redress the balance by providing a research basis for what really makes us happy (relationships - yes, money - no) and what helps us to be at our best (find new ways of using your strengths and use the 3:1, more on that later).

Positive psychology is still quite new in the UK and the theories are only just beginning to be applied in health, education and business. But it adds up to a paradigm shift in thinking. For example most business training focuses on fixing weaknesses and yet research shows that the best you can expect from that is mediocrity. If, on the other hand, you focus on developing someone’s strengths then you create the circumstances for then to excel with ease. People who play to their strengths at work are more successful, productive, creative and happier as a result.

It’s a similar shift in thinking for the health sector, which traditionally operates according to a disease model. What that means for mental health practice is that the focus is generally on what’s wrong rather than what you want to be and as the saying goes "what you focus on is what you get." The best you can hope for if what’s wrong is depression is an absence of depression but that is not the same as the presence of happiness.

If you think of psychological health as a continuum with -10 as very unhappy, 0 is neutral and +10 is very happy, clinical psychologists and therapists will aim to get you to 0. Positive psychology aims to get you past 0 into the plus scale of happiness and flourishing. So if you’ve ever felt stuck in therapy chewing over the same unhappy events over and over again, a positive psychology approach could help you to move beyond that into a state of well-being.

A year ago I began the first ever study applying positive psychology to alcohol-misusing adolescents at a location in Bath. The results have been astonishingly positive. As the teenagers became happier, their drinking declined to a third of what it had been previously with drug consumption also down substantially. Most of the adolescents, who were all dropouts from school, are back in education now. Some have new jobs, others are in new accommodation having been homeless or ‘sofa-surfing’. In fact most of the young people who took part have gone from being drunk and directionless to motivated young people with goals for the future. What fuelled this transformation is one of the most remarkable pieces of research to come out of positive psychology - the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.

When people experience more positive emotions than negative emotions at a ratio of 3:1 ratio or above, they go into upwards spirals of flourishing, which can result in transformation.

My prediction is that positive psychology will transform training,

teaching and therapy in the next decade.

Miriam Akhtar (2009)

Miriam Akhtar is one of the first positive psychologists in the UK. She co-presents the self-help CD, The Happiness Training Plan.  If you wish to know about about Miriam's CD and how to obtain it, go to directly to her site.  You can do this by going to USEFUL LINKS and clicking on 'Happiness Training Plan'.  Also, in Miriam's portfolio is consultancy work with small and large organisations.  Here, she applies the strategies of positive psychology in coaching and well-being programmes.


Lorphil Love of My Life

'The Dogged Pursuit of Happiness:

Are Dogs the Positive Psychologists of the Animal World?'


Miriam Akhtar

The Animal World?

The arrival of the First Dog, Bo, into his new kennels at the White House, has got me thinking this month about how our canine companions contribute to our well-being. Amongst my friends for instance, three of them directly attribute their recovery from depression to getting a dog. So why is it that dogs seem to succeed where often anti-depressants or therapy fail? I took a straw poll amongst my pals to gain insight into how their pets have helped them into the plus scale of the well-being continuum.

Molly: Having a dog made me feel better because I had a dependent, the dog needs you to take it out and feed it. The dog gives you love and you have something to love in return. Dogs are upbeat, they’re enthusiastic and when your dog is wagging its tail looking forward to the next thing, you can’t help but be taken somewhere else in your mood.

Noni: I can honestly say that getting Sabbi was a significant part of healing for me after my father died. I had lost interest in the world, gained lots of weight, lost confidence and stopped socialising. Getting Sabbi ensured I had to walk her outside each day which had a twofold benefit; it connected me to nature which was very nourishing and it got me exercising again so I gradually started to lose the weight and gain a desire to interact with the world around me again.

Jo B: What I realised was that getting a dog helped me not to fall back into depression. I had to look after something. It’s the responsibility that made the difference. I’ve got to look after somebody else and so I have to look after myself.

Jo G: It was kindly pointed out to me the other day that my lurcher Bob is in fact my longest male relationship! Currently 10 years, not only is he loyal, dependable and trustworthy, he is kind and loves me 100% unconditionally. Of course he helps with my well-being!

In these individualistic times with solo living and social isolation on the rise, dogs have a particular role to play in enhancing well-being. Having a dog to look after distracts from rumination. Walking the dog not only has physical benefits but leads to social interaction – my friends can barely get around the park without half a dozen conversations with other dog-walkers, something that simply doesn’t happen without a dog. We know good relationships to be one of the keys to a happy life and the relationship with a pet is just as significant. Researchers in Japan say that dog owners get a surge of the ‘love drug’, the bonding hormone oxytocin, when playing with their pets, which dampens stress and combats depression. Dog-walking can even lead to a relationship – I know a couple who met through walking their pets and are still together twenty years later.

In the UK the charity The Dogs Trust has recently launched a Canine Charter for Human Health based on a compilation of independent academic research from around the world over the last twenty years. The Charter highlights nine areas in which owning or interacting with a dog can improve health.

1. Dog owners make fewer visits to their doctors

2. Owning a dog can help reduce stress and anxiety

3. Owning a dog can help reduce blood pressure

4. Owners who walk their dogs are healthier than non-dog owners

5. Dogs can help the development of children with autism and children with learning difficulties

6. Owning a dog can boost your immune system

7. Dog owners are likely to recover quicker from heart attacks

8. Dogs can help safeguard against depression

9. Trained dogs can detect a variety of health conditions – including epileptic fits, cancerous tumours and hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose)

The Canine Charter draws on a body of evidence that dogs promote psychological well-being to call on doctors to prescribe the benefits of dog-ownership to their patients. My friends’ experience echoes that of Serpell’s study (1990) quoted in the Charter, which shows that people who have newly acquired a dog experience significant improvements in psychological well-being and a notable improvement in self-esteem. In Australia three nursing homes took part in a long-term study of the impact of visiting and resident dogs on elderly people (Crowley-Robinson, Fenwick & Blackshaw, 1996). One nursing home had a dog visit each week, another had a live-in dog and the third made do with the visiting researcher. Guess which group turned out to be top dog? It was the resident dog group that showed significant decreases in depression compared to the others.

‘Pet therapy’ has developed as an intervention to improve patient well-being in nursing homes where you’re as likely now to receive a visit from a pooch as a priest. Though more recent research (eg. Phelps et al, 2008) questions the beneficial effect of dog visits, suggesting that it may simply be an enjoyable experience for residents, rather than impacting on underlying depression levels.

However looking around my own friends, I can see what a huge benefit dogs have made to their well-being, acting as a buffer against depression, aiding recovery from bereavement, facilitating social interaction and physical activity, being loyal companions and the conduit for positive emotions like love. So could dogs be the positive psychologists of the animal world? I vote yes. What about you?


Canine Charter for Human Health (2008). Retrieved from


Crowley-Robinson, P., Fenwick, D.C. & Blackshaw, J.K. (1996) A long-term study of

elderly people in nursing homes with visiting and resident dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 47, (1-2) 137-148

Nagasawa, M. et al. (2009). "Dog’s Gaze at Its Owner Increases Owner’s Urinary

Oxytocin During Social Interaction," Hormones and Behavior (forthcoming). Retrieved from http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16412-pet-dogs-rival-humans-for-emotional-satisfaction.html

Phelps, K. A, Miltenberger, R.G, Jens, T & Wadeson, H (2008). An investigation of the effects of dog visits on depression, mood, and social interaction in elderly individuals living in a nursing home. Behavioral Interventions, 23(3), 181-200.

Serpell, J. (1990) Evidence for long term effects of pet ownership on human health In

Pets, Benefits and Practice Waltham Symposium 20, April 19 1990

Miriam Akhtar, MAPP 09 at the University of East London, has made programs for broadcast on TV and radio and is currently creating programs of positive psychology for disaffected and substance-misusing adolescents. She is a trainer, coach, and author, and producer of The Happiness Training Plan (www.happinesstrainingplan.com), an audio program to enhance well-being. www.miriamakhtar.co.uk

"We can do no great things - only small things with great love."

Mother Teresa



Dr. Chris Johnstone & Miriam Akhtar

"Training to be happy? Can it possibly be done? Can listening to a CD actually make us feel more alive, solve our problems and lead to an inner state of joy?  It sounds impossible but what wouldn't we give to be able to do this!  The Happiness Training Plan suggests that far from being a random process, we actually have some control over our happiness, health and consciousness. Listening, relaxing and practising is what it takes to bring about profound and far-reaching changes, which help us to tune in to the inner voice of love and the source of our divinity.  I have seen people change in this way and know that it can happen." 

Pat Pilkington MBE, Co-Founder, Penny Brohn Cancer Care (formerly Bristol Cancer Health Centre)

Positive Psychology News Daily  - 29 January 2010




Louis Alloro

I want to travel to Pandora, the fictional planet depicted in Avatar.  The message inherent in the panoramic view is profoundly positive and especially relevant to our world today.  I saw James Cameron's newest film that has rocked box offices since its release in December on 1-MAX 3-D and have since been urging friends to run, not walk, to see this movie.

Leona Lewis "I See You" video

Theme song from James Cameron's new epic film, Avatar.

The film is set in the year 2154 on Pandora, the faraway moon place where indigenous Na'vi people roam.  The film's title refers to the genetically engineered Na'vi bodies used by the film's human characters to interact with the Na'vi.  In the film, some humans are interested in mining Pandora's reserves of a precious mineral called unobtanium.  Human greed threatens the continued existence of the Na'vi and the Pandoran ecosystem.  Avatars that are part-Na'vi and part-human are created to cohabit with the Na'vi in order to gain their trust.

According to Hindu mythology, an avatar is the personification of a god.  The more modern Urban Dictionary, defines avatars as computerized images representing a person, like the icon you create and use when playing Nintendo Wii.  Avatars resemble real human form, but are digitized.

The perceived need to have Na'vi Avatars exemplifies the social psychological research on own-race bias, the tendency of humans to gravitate towards those who look like them.  Research by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues shows that positive emotions reduce own-race bias: people with higher levels of positive emotion see more similiarities and fewer differences.  When we open ourselves up to the wonder of the universe, we see more wonders.  Then we ourselves can be seen as wonders.  It feels good to be seen.

The Na'vi use "I see you!" as a token of love and respect, signifying knowledge, empathy, and compassion.  But being seen requires we let ourselves be seen - a conscious choice to be open and vulnerable.  This relates to Carol Dweck's research on mindset: the kids who choose harder puzzles are open to the fact that they may not be able to complete them.  They take the risk anyway.  The have faith in themselves (in our lingo, this is self-efficacy).  The Na'vi people exemplify this faith, not only in themselves, but in the universe as well.  Perhaps ...

"Your cup is too full," say Mo'at (played by C. C. H. Pounder), a shaman who is also the mother of Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana).  Mo'at encourages her daughter to teach Jake the ways of the Na'vi people.  "My cup is empty." Jake pleads as if to suggest that he is open and willing to learn.  This spirit of learning is at the heart of the movie, and also at the core of positive psychology.  Fredrickson's Broaden and Build Theory is essentially a learning of theory.  Positive emotions put us in spaces that allow for learning, for seeing things anew, for opening, for growing.

Interconnectedness.  Positive emotions happen in social situations.  The film demonstrates the power of interconnectedness.  One of the most fascinating scenes shows hundreds of Na'vi people linked together physically, arm to arm, with a brilliant white light radiating between them.  This same light is shown throughout the planet's natural world, as if to suggest a oneness, a peace, and the positive evolution inherent in the interconnectedness of all beings.

It is energy giving.  I hypothesize this interconnectedness requires trust.  Trust comes from a willingness to be vulnerable and from faith (the Na'vi people have this).  Faith comes from appreciating the wonders of the universe.  The wonders of the universe come from seeing and being seen.  Seeing and being seen take intention, mindfulness, risk, and - yes - love.

The Message is for Us.  Avatar is real-life, not just a sci-fi epic, if you're open to seeing it that way.  Ultimately, this is what positive pyschology is about for me - being willing to see things in different and perhaps more positive ways.  It is a mindset that can be built consciously, over time by challenging old habits of thinking, speaking, doing, and ultimately, of feeling.

Hey look, the truth is that I'm working on this process, myself.  Maybe you are too?  Perhaps then, we'll co-create the brilliance of Pandora right here within the miraculous beauty of our own planet, mother Earth. 

To discover how Avatar is relevant today, click here to watch Wade Davis’ TED Talk on indigenous cultures and why it’s important we save both the biosphere and ethnosphere.


Dweck, C. (2007).  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998).  What good are positive emotions?  Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

Fredrickson, B. (2009).  Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.  New York: Crown.

Johnson, K. & Fredrickson, B. (2005).  We all look the same to me: Positive emotions eliminate the own-race bias in face recognition.  Psycholgical Science, 16(11) 875-881.

Wright, R. (2000).  Nonzero: The logic of human destiny.  New York: Fintage Press.

Theme Song, "I See You!.

Louis Allora, M.Ed., MAPP,  is a change-agent who consults with individuals and systems (particularly school districts and communities) interested in truly flourishing.  He collaborates with MAPP colleagues at Flourishing Schools to offer workshops and consulting services that integrate best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. 

Positive Psychology News Daily  - 5 June 2010

Healing Loss

through Positive Psychology

By Sherri Fisher on June 5, 2010

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., CPBS, combines 25 years experience in PK-12 education with positive psychology to uncover engaged learning and working solutions for both individuals and organizations. She is a principal of two education-related businesses: Student Flourishing and Flourishing Schools. Full bio.

Sherri writes on the 5th of each month, and her past articles are here.

Kathryn Britton recently wrote about using positive psychology to deal with a sudden loss as she mourned her dear friend Linda. Grieving is an individual process, but while no two people have an identical experience of losing a loved one, there are several patterns that emerge. I’d like to offer some observations about how Positive Psychology is at work while people heal after a loss, even in the long term.

When the Memories Align

During the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to be with a community of people who were my colleagues, students, and friends very early in my career. Each of these reunions resulted from the loss of someone of our group. In one case it was a woman who, though childless herself, had touched the lives of thousands of children through her work with them and their teachers. While she finally died from cancer in her 80s, she had already slowly drifted away from this community because of Alzheimer’s disease. There was nothing sudden about the loss, and people felt free to share stories about Alice, her generosity, her quirkiness, her brilliance. While there was a sense that the life of someone special was over, it was not a stinging loss. In fact there was much to celebrate. Everyone felt they had known Alice, that they had had a long time to say goodbye, and no stories shared at her memorial service came as a surprise to those who attended. People left smiling.

Beyond Loss: From Resilience to Meaning

Last month many of the same people met to celebrate a man who also changed the lives of children. He had also died of cancer, but in his 60s. He had lived a colorful and inventive life which included being an aerospace engineer, having a wife and children, divorcing and leaving them, and later becoming one of the founding teachers of a school for children who had struggled mightily to learn in other education settings. Unlike the example above, most of the people attending this remembrance, now 10 years after his death, had been Joe’s students.  Now grown up, they shared fantastic true tales of their resilience and successes.

One man, who had become a commercial jet pilot, told of sending his first pair of wings to Joe in gratitude for sharing with him a love of flying. Young women, now with children of their own, recalled road trips in a homemade camper that they had helped build with acetylene torches, and they thanked their parents for letting them travel together across the country in it. A former head of school pointed to photos of Joe with students, experiments, inventions, and the camper, noting how many of these adventures would be unacceptable now in a more litigious age.

A once shy boy, now a filmmaker with a major motion picture studio, showed a film that brought Joe right into the room with us.

Even though this reunion was ten years after his death, people still wept openly when they described what Joe had meant to them and how he changed their lives. Their palpable gratitude had deepened in the years since he had died, as had the resilience and self-confidence he instilled in them.

Memories: Virtual Filmclips, Soundbites, and Snapshots

Also present to celebrate Joe were two of his children. I had always wondered when I worked with him what it must’ve been like to have your father leave you and take on the responsibility of guiding and caring for thousands of children who weren’t even his.

My own father, a consummate workaholic, had two-plus careers and was rarely home until after the children’s bedtime. After his death from a freak accident, several hundred people whom I did not even know came to his standing-room-only memorial service. Following the carefully prepared and delivered eulogy, people were invited to give their spontaneous remembrances. The person they described was someone I had never imagined, much less known, and it was difficult not to feel envious of their wonderful experiences with him. Yet I was glad that they shared their stories, for otherwise, I would never have known these other sides of my dad. It was like getting little film clips of his life outside of our family.

One of Joe’s daughters described how angry she had been for many years and how unwilling she had been to share her father with the many children who loved, admired, and depended on him. Ten years later, seeing many of these children now grown up, hearing their stories and seeing the delight and engagement clearly evident in hundreds of photos and video clips submitted in Joe’s honor, his daughter felt grateful instead. She thanked people who had kept in touch with her long after her father had passed away for caring enough to invite her family to events held in his name. She was so elevated, she said, by seeing her father’s legacy in the school’s alumni community, that instead of feeling that her dad had been taken away from her, she felt that the former students had given him back.

Counting Up or Counting Down? Finding the Meaning in Grief

As Kathryn points out in her article, dealing with a sudden loss leaves survivors feeling blind-sided. Responding to, facing, suffering, and eventually emerging from that initial pain may take a very long time. If there is unfinished business or a back story to deal with, and most people have those, the grieving process can be in various states for years.

A healthy adjustment helps the survivor make meaning from what may seem meaningless. If you care about a survivor of a loss, you may have a film clip, a sound bite, or a snapshot that helps make meaning. Numerous positive psychology themes are at work in the above stories. Here are ten for you to try. (Researchers/practitioners associated with the concepts are in parentheses.)

  1. Be connected. Other people matter. (Chris Peterson)
  2. Words make worlds, and stories matter. Share them, especially with people who have experienced a loss. You are creating film clips, soundbites, and snapshots for a very personal video library. (David Cooperrider and Diane Whitney)
  3. Be gracious and act in elevating ways. Elevating behavior elicits elevation in others. (Jon Haidt)
  4. Be grateful. Gratitude trumps negative emotion. It’s never too late to say thank you, and it’s both easier and more desirable than saying I forgive you. (Robert Emmons)
  5. Build resilience. Take the time to build resilient children. See possibility and inspire belief.  (Martin Seligman, Karen Reivich and Jane Gillham)
  6. Build strengths and relationships. Engaging students through strengths and relationships is key to teaching them. (John Yeager, Sherri Fisher, Dave Shearon, Louis Alloro)
  7. Be curious and help others be this way, too. Cultivating curiosity helps us discover meaning and purpose in life and supports us through loss and adversity.  (Todd Kashdan)
  8. Keep living! Well-being tends to increase with age. Perspective is a powerful healer. (Ed Diener)
  9. Love. It’s about noticing what is right, diluting the “sulfuric acid” of contempt and developing respect, gratitude, affection, friendship. (John Gottman)
  10. Savor. Memories that are painful at first are the stuff of meaning later. (Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff)



  1. Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
  3. Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
  5. Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
    Maymin, S. & Britton, K. (Eds.) (2009). Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves. Positive Psychology News.
  6. See Flourishing Schools.
  7. Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.
  8. Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
  9. Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.
  10. Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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