From positivity to genuine thriving

Ella Rhodes with another report from the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow.

‘It is not my intention to upset you, worry you, or make you angry…’. So began Professor Margarida Gaspar de Matos' (University of Lisbon) keynote address at this year’s ECP. She is one of a large number of psychologists hoping to move discourse away from 'fixing' individuals and their problems to increasing wellbeing in socially-embedded and creative ways. 

Research and interventions are not two different things, said de Matos: we cannot take one without the other. Perhaps academics and clinicians want different things from life; while academics are happy to have a problem because one problem raises another to be solved, those working out in the field want answers. 

In the past, prevention concerned avoiding problems, informing and protecting the public, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was about supporting people through understanding their problems and helping them change. De Matos said that both were situated in terms of deficits – analysing problems people had and helping them solve them. However, an assets or positive approach has begun to sneak into psychologists’ thinking despite these ideas existing since the 60s. 

These days prevention and CBT aim to promote awareness, competence, self-regulation, flexibility and openness. De Matos said she hears these words and ideals these days working in prevention and clinical fields.

Some researchers, she said, have explored positive and asset development. But does this go far enough? Should we instead be aiming for optimal development, or thriving, described as a path rather than a goal, and a path which can be flexible and dynamic depending on that individual? Some research has suggested that it is better to focus on increasing wellbeing than decreasing ‘unwellbeing’, but how do we integrate prevention, resilience, positive development approaches and cognitive behavioural therapies? And how can that be translated into training and public policy?

An example from de Matos’ work is Dream Teens – a national network of young people who belong to de Matos’ research team brought together to help them feel empowered and heard. They apply to be part of a network in one of six focus groups on topics such as love and sexuality and substance use and meet to develop research projects with groups including university students and children with disabilities. The teens present their work in schools have written a book on their work, have ambassadors at the World Health Organisation and were heard in Portugal’s Parliament. 

While the teens were working with older adults they found that their own age group and the older people had many of the same problems – social isolation and loneliness, feeling like a stranger in their own body and low future expectations. As a result a programme to encourage thriving in older age has been created, with older people coming up with personal social engagement projects. 

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