Being positive

Ian Florance talks to Jan Stannard about the ‘light-bulb moment’ that led her into psychology, and her quest to be sure of her ground in her new field

Funding shortfalls; lack of training places; there are enough negative issues for psychology. So it was good to interview Jan Stannard, who transmits enormous enthusiasm about psychology’s potential to address real and significant problems. I had been introduced to her by a well-known occupational psychologist as someone ‘who is taking a different route into the subject, after a successful career in a very different discipline.’ Jan answered my questions carefully above the noise of a very busy coffee shop.

‘I grew up in a stable family: we’re innately cheerful, which perhaps explains my eventual route into positive psychology. I went to a local comprehensive – I was too home-loving to travel to a really academic school some distance away.I was usually near the top of the class and I was the first member of my family to go to university, where I studied geography with some geology. I met my husband there on the first day. You can’t highlight a difficult childhood or a desire to understand myself as a primary influence on my professional life.’

Your first career was very different from applied psychology. ‘Yes, especially if you put working as a chalet girl on my CV! But my first ‘proper’ job was in public relations. I worked my way up, moved, and by 29 was on the board of a major PR company.

‘In 1984 I came to the conclusion that technology was going to be hugely important: it’s difficult to realise that there was any uncertainty over that issue, given how central new technology has become in our lives. I began to specialise in technology clients and working with Michael Dell to launch Dell Computers in Europe was one of the highlights.’

In 1991 Jan set up her own consultancy with a colleague and it eventually achieved a million pound turnover, including a website company as a subsidiary. ‘At this point I sat back to consider where I was going. PR has a negative reputation in some quarters. Some of that is deserved, some the result of programmes like Absolutely Fabulous. I’d long been interested in strategy and in how and what people communicate – you could say I always worked in communications rather than PR, with all that that term entails. I’d loved my time in the industry, including international projects such as working with Texaco in the USA. I’d stayed for long stable periods with certain firms, which is unusual in the sector, and this gave me a more in-depth view of how organisations develop over time. But you can’t deny that PR has a definite age profile. I was outside that and it felt like time to change direction.’

Was psychology an obvious choice? ‘It was serendipity. I had thought about it on-and-off but when I was growing up psychology wasn’t as developed a profession as it is today. I first consciously came across psychological ideas about personality on a sales training course in the ’90s and was also fascinated by a book called Brainsex, which looks at biological and physiological differences between the male and female brain.

‘I decided to change career in 2005. By then we had merged our PR company with another, and I had moved sideways to become MD of our now-independent website company while continuing to do some PR work. My work situation became more flexible and I was able to develop my psychology interests at the same time. Here’s where the serendipity came in – in late 2005 I was asked to do PR for Wellington College, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009. Anthony Seldon is a very high-profile Master – he’s a leading authority on contemporary British history and the authoror editor of 25 books on, among other subjects, Blair, Thatcher and Major. He also has a very firm vision about what a school should offer its pupils.

‘By chance, within a month of beginning to work with Anthony, I was invited by friends to attend a lecture on the science of happiness by Professor Felicia Huppert, who is a psychologist involved with Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute and the International Positive Psychology Association. It was a light-bulb moment. The idea of evidence-based practice in a positive but not simplistic framework really appealed to me.’

What did you do about it? ‘I e-mailed Anthony saying that I thought the children at the school would really benefit from positive psychology. I found out more, wrote a paper and within nine months we had a course running. Go on the college website you’ll find a very strong statement about attitudes to well-being among pupils (http://bit.ly/b5m0Ou).

With my other hat on I issued a press release ‘School to give children lessons in happiness’. It was covered in numerous countries and I still get journalists wanting to visit the school – probably the most successful bit of communication I’ve ever created.’

You sound very proud but slightly guarded in how you explain your interest in positive psychology. ‘First, I think people misunderstand the subject. They sometimes see it as a fad but it is evidence-based and the subject of continuing research. Also, enthusiasm can be mistaken for lack of thinking. It sometimes seems we only take negative messages.’Jan feels that positive psychology ‘meets an unaddressed need, so seeing it in action is very inspiring. Schools should be about developing human beings to their full potential, not just filling a container with facts. It can be argued we lost that understanding for a while but it’s a central tenet at Wellington and other schools.’

Despite her success in introducing the positive psychology course, Jan felt she needed to know more and ‘be surer of my ground. I read widely: Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences influenced my thinking and has also been adopted by Wellington. In 2006 I did an AS-level in Psychology to test my resolve to embark upon an academic background in the subject. I’m now in the third year of an Open University degree in psychology, I’ve attended the world’s first international positive psychology conference in Pennsylvania and have done the University of Pennsylvania’s online positive psychology course, which was excellent.’ You obviously feel you need academic credentials. Do you believe positive psychology is something new? ‘I think it’s an example of taking existing knowledge, giving it a new vocabulary, researching it in a modern way and seeing if it works. It’s not a new field of psychology so much as an extension of the psychological continuum. I asked a psychologist friend if she thought you could become a ‘clinical positive psychologist’, and she said ‘of course’. Positive psychology gives you an approach, a theoretical base and a set of tools that you can use appropriately with different client groups or in defining research. I know there are occupational psychologists who train in the area. But it has limits. Some techniques don’t work with everyone, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t become part of the basic psychological toolkit.’

And the future for you? ‘I’ll be at the Open University for six years and then I want to get accepted to train as a clinical psychologist. It’s a long haul but I have found that patience is a valuable quality of people training to be psychologists. I’m a social animal, so I need to find a ‘home’ for my work. If clinical positive psychology proves difficult, cognitive behaviour therapy offers an alternative, as well as consulting and teaching in positive psychology in organisations. The combination of my experience as a communicator and my training should open up possibilities. Given how career structures are changing, more people may opt to study psychology after working in a different area, just as I have. And that can only be a good thing for the profession.’

 

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