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Postcards from Scotland

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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 10/07/2006

The conference in Portugal organised by the European Positive Psychology network (ENPP) was, as I suspected, a great success. Over three hundred people from right round Europe as well as the US, Canada, Korea, South Africa and Australia took part. Judging from my conversations with people, and with the papers which were submitted, more than 80% of participants were psychologists. And in many ways this is both a strength and a weakness of the ENPP. The strength is that the network brings together empirical psychologists who are devoting their time to studying what makes for a good life. The weakness, however, is that psychologists overemphasise the importance of the individual and often do not think in terms of structural, or societal, change. Here’s an example of what I mean. At one of the workshop sessions a psychologist from London submitted a paper on interesting research he and his colleagues had carried out which compared the well-being of people in London and Libya. This research was attempting to verify empirically ‘self-determination theory’ which posits a basic human need, irrespective of culture, for autonomy, competence and affiliation. One of the conclusions from this study is that these needs did seem to be important in both cultures and affected well-being. However, individuals in London seemed to have these needs met more than in Libya yet Londoners had lower well-being, presumably because of stress. Another conclusion was that religiosity in Libya also seemed to enhance well-being. In the question and answer session at the end the researcher was asked what he would suggest might be done to improve the well-being of the people based in London and he suggested two things: letting people know how religion can improve the quality of one’s life and secondly psychotherapeutic interventions. At no point did he say anything about trying to highlight the problems of long working hours or commuting. In other words, the individual was to be ‘fixed’ to fit in with a culture which seems to undermine well-being.

Of course, there were some papers submitted where the speaker talked about policy or societal changes. But it is nonetheless true to say that for psychologists there is a strong tendency to look at the individual in isolation from the culture and to see interventions in terms of solitary individuals.

My own background is politics and I find the emphasis on individuals, and what they can do, refreshing and empowering as I think it is too easy to overlook how much individuals create their own reality. But the psychological approach can also be taken too far. What we need is an approach which stresses the importance of societal/cultural/organisational change while at the same time looking at what individuals can do to make a difference. This is very much the approach taken by the Centre.

I’m glad to say it was also the approach taken by one of the keynote speakers at the end of the conference - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is a one of the co-founders of Positive Psychology and internationally renowned for his work on flow. After outlining some of his own research he talked about the need for people from all walks of life – architects, town planners, teachers, health professionals and so forth – to start thinking more in terms of well-being and flourishing.

Like many Scots I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but it was clear from this conference, and from the workshop where I presented a paper on what we are doing at the Centre, that in Scotland we are certainly well ahead of others in getting the message out to a cross-section of professional groups. Of course, we are keen to stress what individuals can do in their own lives but thinking in terms of societal changes has also got to be part of the bigger picture.

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