ATD Blog

Applied Positive Psychology: A Happier You, A Better Organization

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Have you ever wondered what it takes to achieve sustained well-being, happiness, and results? Fortunately, there is a substantial body of research demonstrating just how we can experience more personal fulfillment and how organizations can capitalize on healthier, more engaged employees. It is called Positive Psychology—aka, the Science of Happiness.

University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Marty Seligman can be credited for coining the term “a positive psychology” during his tenure with the American Psychological Association. It is unlikely he could have known the impact this burgeoning science would have on individuals, organizations, and communities only 15 years later. It is a growing field with acres of open space in which we have come a great distance in a short period of time.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the impact of positive psychology:

  • Successful companies like Google, Zappos, and Genentech have Chief Happiness Officers and rely on outside consultants to implement massive well-being initiatives.
  • Currently there are two Applied Positive Psychology graduate programs in the United States.
  • Four organizations (including ours) offer business consultants an opportunity to receive a Positive Psychology Coaching Certification.
  • In 2009, the Department of Defense hired prominent positive psychologists to drive well-being and results within the Army—at a cost of $34 million dollars.

What is positive psychology, really?

In simplest terms, positive psychology is a branch of science concerned with positive human functioning—that is, understanding what works well. Whereas traditional psychology is focused on alleviating the suffering from illnesses like depression and anxiety, positive psychology investigates ways to help healthy organizations, individuals, and communities grow and flourish. Applied positive psychology aids in finding answers to questions like:

  • What got us this far? What do successful organizations and individuals do really well?
  • How can we be more engaged and fulfilled at work and in life?
  • How can we experience greater satisfaction in all that we do?
  • How can we make lasting positive performance changes?
  • What roles do relationships play in success?
  • What makes people experience greater job satisfaction and engagement at work?
  • Why is it important for us to find meaning in our careers?
  • What motivates intrinsic positive performance, and what stifles organizational achievement?

Why so much buzz surrounding applied positive psychology?

Although research in positive psychology has been ongoing for years, more and more people in the mainstream currently are being exposed to this powerful work through books, academia, and the media. Many business leaders also are turning to this established body of research to answer the question, “How can I bring sustainable well-being to my organization?”


The self-improvement industry demonstrates a positive impact on individuals through the sale of millions of books, the facilitation of thousands of seminars, and the making of 14,000 business and life coaches in the United States alone. Positive psychology takes questions about human flourishing and performance much further by introducing research-validated interventions that build sustainable well-being and organizational performance.

As positive performance interventions become imbedded within the personal improvement industry, the combination of scientific rigor and organizational coaching seems a perfect match. We are seeing research-based methodologies gain traction within more conventional organizational development programs, and, as a result, there is a complementary pairing of these two worlds. To borrow from our friend and colleague, renowned positive psychologist and author, Tal Ben-Shahar: These two fields coming together create a bridge between the Ivory Tower and Main Street.

In future posts, our attention will turn to examining research associated with the acronym PERMA, coined by Dr. Martin Seligman. We will discover how each of these elements of well-being can greatly affect our organizations, our families, and our lives.

  • Positive emotions (pleasure)
  • Engagement (flow)
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

More on the PERMA model. For more on the positive workplace, read the full blog series.

About the Author

Kim Rowe, one of the founding partners of Agentive, has been an independent marketing and sales consultant to the medical and pharmaceutical industries since 1993. At Agentive, Kim provides clients with marketing and sales performance development expertise, including assessment, training, coaching, and project management. Kim was previously employed in sales, marketing, and training with ConvaTec, a Bristol-Myers Squibb company, and C.R. Bard. She is a board member of the Health Care Businesswomen's Association and an active member of ASTD and the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners (NJAWBO). Kim speaks regularly on the topic of generational leadership as well as other leadership and management topics. She is on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Friends of Open Space and was one of the founders of the MFOS Farmers Market in Montgomery Township, New Jersey.

About the Author

Patrick Howell combines 15 years of active organizational development experience with extensive research and study of optimal human performance, to help him succeed as Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Human Performance, a collaborative learning initiative offering seminars and certification programs in positive psychology and coaching. Patrick also is President of Team Development Group, a boutique consulting firm he co-founded in 2004 with the clear focus of fostering strength-based, results-driven teams within public and private sector organizations. A leader in the field of organizational development and a recently appointed executive council member to Red Panamericana, an organization promoting Positive Organizational Scholarship throughout the Pan American region, he is considered a pioneer in the Positive Psychology Coaching movement. A former Director of Corporate Initiatives for Dale Carnegie Training, he is no stranger to the facilitation of large and intimate audiences alike. Patrick is the host of Career Corner TV, where he conducts interviews with various business leaders and he is authoring his first book on the topic of optimal performance and applied positive psychology; [email protected].

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