Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Third World Congress on Positive Psychology

Last week, we attended the Third World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles, California. It was, as the name already suggests, very positive, and one could see this in the opening ceremony on Thursday night already. James Pawelski, Executive Director of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) was welcomed like a pop star by the audience when entering the stage (and so were many of the keynote speakers during the congress later on).

He opened the congress and passed the word on to IPPA President Robert Vallerand. Afterwards, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi from Claremont Graduate University, himself almost a legend of the Positive Psychology movement, introduced the opening keynote speakers, Roy Baumeister from Florida State University and Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania. Roy Baumeister talked about past, present, and future and explained how happiness is related to the present and meaning to the future. Martin Seligman then outlined his concept of creativity, which in his opinion should eventually lead to innovation, meaning that there are practicable ideas that are really put into practice. The evening was concluded with a reception for the 1,200 attendees from 54 nations who were looking forward to three intense and packed days.

IPPA had invited some of the leading researchers and practitioners from the field of Positive Psychology to speak at the congress. Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina explained her concept of “Love 2.0”, which is in her opinion not (as many of us might think) exclusive, lasting, or unconditional. But in spite of this, research shows that it resonates between people and can help make them healthier and happier. Marino Bonaiuto from the University of Rome outlined how Positive Psychology and Environment Psychology can work together in creating sustainability. Chip Conley, founder of the boutique hotel company “Joie de Vivre” (mission statement contained in the company name!) and author of the book “Peak – How Great Companies Get their Mojo From Maslow”, described the link between employee happiness and business success. Sabine Sonnentag from the University of Mannheim pointed out how important it is to recover from daily stress and how we can recover effectively: being able to detach from work during off-work time seems to be crucial here. Richard Lerner from Tufts University in Boston described how adolescents’ strengths can enhance their lives when aligned with the resources existing in families, schools, and communities. Robert Vallerand from the Université de Montréal explained what the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion is (the former being a strong inclination for an activity that is, however, under the person’s control, the latter, in contrast, being beyond the person’s control) and how they can change society. David Peterson from Google presented his idea of coaching and how it can become more effective, faster, and cheaper. Roy Baumeister from Florida State University introduced his concept of free will, which he sees not so much as existent vs. non-existent, but rather as a continuum and as necessary for our being able to follow rules (might sound contradictory at first glance, but makes a lot of sense when thinking about it in more detail). Finally, the closing keynote was by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura from Claremont Graduate University on the future of Positive Psychology. It was on the challenges humanity is currently facing (designer babies vs. diversity, climate change, overpopulation, and the like) and how Positive Psychology can contribute to fostering change in these fields. An enormous task!

Apart from these invited talks, there were numerous interesting symposia, workshops, posters, and discussions on various topics. For example, there was a review looking at twelve years of research in the field of Positive Psychology. The number of publications has been increasing and the methods and research designs are becoming more and more elaborate, but the field is still facing a lot of criticism and trying to adjust the methods in a way to deal with this criticism. There were quite a few sessions on how Positive Psychology can be applied to the workplace, for example by deliberately using employees’ strengths in their daily work or by helping them develop a high performance mindset. Other presenters were addressing the question whether one can experience “micro-flow”, or moments of flow and total absorption in a task when there is only a limited time frame for it (yes, it seems to be possible), and how entire teams can get into this desirable state.

There were many good and sound pieces of research that yielded promising results. However, there were also sessions in which the methods can be seen as questionable. One aspect we see as problematic is the excessive use of self-report measures, while more objective ones of the outcomes often are missing. This is fine when looking at happiness and subjective well-being because in this case all we want to know is how people feel. However, when claiming that an intervention has a benefit that goes beyond subjective feelings, more objective measures would be desirable. Furthermore, as in all trendy disciplines, there are always people who pick up some concepts and put them into practice without thoroughly understanding what they are all about. They acquire clients by selling themselves well. The same happens in Positive Psychology at the moment. But this is nothing that is unique to this field, just like another pretty general problem: small sample sizes and not publishing a study when it has not yielded the desired result. However, we came to the conclusion that there is a lot of good and interesting stuff going on out there, and the congress certainly fostered some future collaboration on various research ideas.

Besides, IPPA’s student association SIPPA had put a lot of effort into making the conference beneficial for the participating students. There was a reception and nice get together right after the official opening reception. Furthermore, there was the Student Data Blitz, an elevator pitch type presentation students could apply for prior to the congress. Eight submissions were selected, and the students each had three minutes to present their study to a panel of three experienced researchers that afterwards gave a short feedback to help students proceed with their projects. Moreover, there was a speed mentoring event in which students could ask experts questions about the field of Positive Psychology. There were researchers (amongst them Antonella delle Fave, Barbara Fredrickson, Robert Vallerand, and Roy Baumeister), psychologists who were involved in Master Programmes in Positive Psychology, and practitioners from various fields. They were sitting at different tables, and groups of students moved from table to table and asked questions.

In between all these activities, there was a lot of space for talking to the other attendees, for exchanging ideas, giving each other input and feedback, catching up with acquaintances from former conferences, and meeting new people. The atmosphere was open, constructive, and very appreciative, and the organisers as well as the attendees were doing their best to have everyone benefit from the conference and to make the whole event a great success. We found the congress very inspiring and look forward to next year’s European Congress on Positive Psychology in Amsterdam.


  1. Sounds like I missed a great conference!

    1. You did. Maybe you can attend next year's European Congress on PP in Amsterdam ( or the 2015 World Congress.