Creating the World we Want to Live in: Love, Hope and Action

Sue Roffey on the making of a new positive psychology book.

Disappointment and determination

Four of us were in the departure lounge of Angers airport returning from the European Conference on Positive Psychology. Despite many interesting presentations we were all experiencing a level of frustration. If positive psychology had so much to offer why was it not having more impact in the world? We decided to do something – not sure what – but at least throw a pebble in the pond and hope for a few ripples.

Thinking about theory

Over the next four years we met over lunch and over Skype, debated, argued, presented at conferences, consulted others, expanded our team to seven, and finally set about writing a book. We had differing passions, areas of expertise, views about what constituted high quality research and what we wanted to emphasise. 

So, what could we agree on? We wanted to build on what others had done and to forefront the science – but in a way that would appeal to a wide audience beyond academia. Bronfenbrenner’s eco-systemic approach emphasises bi-directionality between the micro and macro levels – what happens for individuals is embedded in the wider socio/cultural/political levels, but also individuals can, and do, influence culture and policy. Community psychology and positive psychology, often seen in opposing theoretical camps, began to merge in our understanding of what needs to happen to make a difference. We would never be able to create a world we all wanted to live in unless we challenged the beliefs and ‘givens’ of society. Presenting scientific evidence is important but not enough. Conversations create culture, so what and how ideas are communicated becomes centre stage.

Five positive psychological principles for wellbeing are set out in the Introduction: connection, autonomy, competence, strengths-based approaches, and having a sense of meaning beyond the self. These principles, together with an open mind (mindful awareness) open heart (kindness and compassion) and clear thinking (informed appraisal), we saw as providing a foundation for ‘wise action’ defined as choosing whatever yields the greatest long-term benefit not just for ourselves in the here and now but for others, including those who are not like us or come after us. This embeds utilitarian philosophy in a global and chronological context, threaded throughout the book with illustrative stories. In each chapter readers are invited to reflect on the ideas presented and how they apply to their own lives and things they care about.

Manuscript mark 2

Our manuscript was just about ready for submission when the pandemic struck, followed by Black Lives Matter. We set about redrafting to reflect these significant global events. Although we came from four countries, we realised we were all from white European heritage. We had no right to speak for Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities but speak up we must. We began to think of ways to include voices from these communities. The book will be finally be published by Routledge this Spring. It has been a labour of love.

What we wrote about

Despite the risk of being critiqued for lack of depth and analysis, we chose to cover just about everything and write as accessibly as possible, with further references and resources on a dedicated website. This is what we wrote about.

The first section covers life stages: childhood, education, work and ageing. In these chapters we explore how children learn about themselves and others, what might make work a fulfilling part of life, and what influences the experience of our senior years. Most books on families focus on how to bring up happy and healthy children. Here we go a step further and ask how we might parent the next generation to care about others and the planet we all share. The education chapter also challenges many givens on what children need to learn, offering alternative pedagogies and stressing how the learning environment needs to ensure every student feels they matter. The world of work is also changing rapidly, exacerbated by the pandemic which has highlighted not only inequalities but also the fragile security of keyworkers such as carers, delivery drivers and hospital porters, without whom society cannot function well. The quality of our senior years depends not only on health, emotional and economic resources, but how the elderly are positioned in society. 

The second section, entitled The Foundations of Everyday Flourishing, comprises chapters on relationships, health, community and leisure. Our relationships are now widely recognised as the basis of our happiness when they go well, and our misery when they do not. This chapter addresses the importance of a positive sense of self as underpinning healthy relationships, and links this to secure attachment in the early stages of life. Referring to the principle of connection, we explore the difference between inclusive and exclusive belonging and how the latter has the potential to fuel ways of being that can de-humanise others. The chapter on community builds on the idea of inclusive belonging in presenting multiple ways in which groups, both large and small, might share concerns, interests and take action together. Health has been at the forefront of all our concerns this last year and it is more evident than ever that this is not just how well we look after ourselves but a health service available to all and policies that actively promote wellbeing rather than just picking up the pieces – with mental health high on the agenda. Leisure is part of living well, for many providing the meaning that may be missing elsewhere.

In the final five chapters – The World Around Us – we had to take a deep breath and plunge in. There are whole university departments dedicated to the study of media, society, economics, politics and environment, let alone libraries of books and journals. How dare we write just 4000 words or so, when we were not experts on any of it except for media. But how could we not write about these critical issues situated at the macro level of the world we want to live in? So, in these chapters, probably even more than elsewhere in the book, we focused on the positive psychology principle of building on what is already working well – where ‘wise action’ was already taking place. We covered how community media was able to impact on local action, how the most safe and happy societies were the most equal, what was empowering women and breaking down racial prejudice. We challenged ‘Belief in a Just World’ as the flawed basis of the American dream – that everyone can make it if they work hard enough and highlighted how in other countries a social safety net was seen as advantageous to all citizens. We just touched on the biggest issue of our age - the threat to us all of climate change. This, possibly more than anything, is proof that action to build a safe and sustainable world for us all is urgent.

So, at the end of each chapter we have suggested ideas for action that might be taken by individuals, families, schools, community organisations and governments. Bearing in mind that even those with power are born with the same need for wellbeing as the rest of us, positive influence needs to be across as many dimensions as possible. A million small conscious and deliberate differences might make big changes, perhaps in also helping to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals cited throughout. 

And now… from ego to eco

The world is in a dire place on many levels, but there is also much good, kindness, creativity, compassion, insight and potential. We are not the only ones in this space by any means – both within and outside positive psychology – but many of us are working and hoping in silos. To have any chance of making a difference we need a loud, consistent, collaborative and courageous voice. So, if anyone has research, stories, ideas, or simply wants to know more about what might help create the world we want to live in – or the one we want for our children – check in with either the website or our Facebook page.

-       Creating The World We Want To Live In: How Positive Psychology Can Build a Brighter Future by Bridget Grenville-Cleave, Dóra Guðmundsdóttir, Felicia Huppert, Vanessa King, David Roffey, Sue Roffey and Marten de Vries is published by Routledge.

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If anyone wishes to purchase a copy there is a 20% discount with code FLR40 bringing the price down to £15.99.