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Silicon Valley Meets Positive Psychology: Using Science To Help Humanity Thrive

Courtney Bigony
Courtney Bigony

Silicon Valley, saving the world one app at a time. At least that’s the sentiment parodied by the popular HBO show of the same name, with their inspirational posters, “pied piper. HELPING HUMANITY THRIVE”.

The “Valley” is far from perfect, and easy to criticize. However, in the spirit of believing in the goodness of humans, I think it’s safe to say that many people working in tech wake up every day driven to make the world a better place.

There are many incredible startups that genuinely work with humanity in mind: Imperative helps people uncover and apply purpose at work. Asana creates technology that enables teams to work together effortlessly. Slack is making work tools feel more human so people can thrive. 15Five is unlocking the potential of the entire workforce. Airbnb wants people to feel they can belong anywhere. Purpose-guru, Simon Sinek would approve.

When we talk about helping humanity thrive, we’re talking about taking the necessary steps forward to help the entire human race collectively flourish. Given the magnitude of this goal, and with the intent to set us up for success, I propose we turn to the science of flourishing as our guide.

A Brief History Of Flourishing

The study of flourishing isn’t new and dates back to philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The word, flourish, is drawn from the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, or the good life.

Hop forward a couple of centuries and you will hear Freud critique the idea of flourishing, telling us that the aim of human life is simply not to suffer, not to be miserable, and nothing much beyond that. Dissatisfied with this approach, and similar to the way many hopeful Silicon Valley changemakers may feel, humanistic psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers emphasized going beyond just non-suffering. They believed that inherent to human drive is the motivation and ability to self-actualize and thrive.

Self-actualization became even more popular on the west coast in the 60’s at Esalen and through the human potential movement. And hats off to modern self-actualization enthusiasts like Chip Conley who bring these principles into how businesses operate today.

So if the idea of eudaimonia leads us to self-actualization and the human potential movement, what comes next? The answer is positive psychology, or the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The term positive psychology was coined by Abraham Maslow and promoted as a field of empirical and replicable scientific study in 1998 by Martin Seligman, a psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

What’s Positive Psychology?

While the majority of traditional psychology focuses on illness, positive psychology brings a much needed balance to the field by focusing on happiness, well-being, and the factors that contribute to a fulfilling life. Seligman believes that Freud’s view (that the aim of human life is simply not to suffer) is empirically wrong, morally insidious, and a political disaster.

Instead of moving from -10 to 0, or suffering to non-suffering, Seligman proposes we can go from 0 to 10, or non-suffering to flourishing. Life is so much more than not suffering, and according to Seligman there are five empirically proven endeavors critical to moving beyond non-suffering and into human flourishing. He calls this PERMA:

Positive Emotion: Yes, this means genuine smiling, and feeling happiness, comfort and joy. There are research-backed practices, like keeping a daily gratitude journal, that are shown to increase positive emotion. However positive psychology isn’t called happy-ology, which is why the study of positive psychology doesn’t stop at positive emotion. For those interested in raising positive emotion, it’s important to note that positive affectivity is 50% heritable, meaning its strongly genetically based, so the impact that external interventions like technology can have is minimized.

Engagement: When individuals use their signature strengths on challenging tasks, they are able to enter a state of flow and feel deep engagement.

Relationships: Developing good relationships is a skill and there are empirically sound practices — like teaching people how to celebrate better — that improve relationships and increase loyalty and commitment.

Meaning: Humans are meaning-seeking beings, so it’s no surprise that meaning, and belonging to and serving something bigger than the self is a high driver of flourishing.

Accomplishment: Mastery, competence and achievement are important for flourishing. What’s interesting about accomplishment, because many companies are in the business of helping others accomplish their goals, is the essential role of self discipline. When it comes to achievement, self-discipline is twice as important than IQ for success, so we should be thinking about how can we help individuals increase self-discipline and grit to achieve their wildest dreams.

PERMA is just the starting point, and there is much more to the field of positive psychology which is continually advancing in rigor and knowledge. Positive psychology’s moonshot goal is called PERMA 51, so by the year, 2051, 51% of the world will be flourishing.

Silicon Valley, meet positive psychology. Positive psychology, meet Silicon Valley. It’s clear that there’s a common goal in mind and that we’re in good company.

Just two decades ago both technology and positive psychology were in their infancy. Fast forward to 2018 and both have matured in terms of innovative capability and scientific rigor. Given their adulthood, now is the perfect time for tech and positive psychology to join hands.

Imagine if the science of flourishing essential to positive psychology, and the leveraged impact essential to tech were combined? Imagine if people from both fields met and had a brainstorm session. What would come out of it? They would probably learn that they’re wiser and can impact the world more together rather than alone.

To enable worldwide flourishing by 2051, tech companies can stand on the shoulders of academic giants and design products that are guided by the scientifically rigorous field of positive psychology.

Evidence-Based Product Design

Making decisions based on evidence isn’t a new phenomenon. Evidence-based decision making started in the field of medicine, has extended to a variety of fields like people management, and can also extended to product design.

Companies engage in evidence-based product design when their product decisions are guided by evidence, which includes customer feedback, market research, practitioner/professional expertise, internal data, stakeholder value and concern, and social science research.

Companies engage in positive product design when their product decisions are guided by evidence from positive psychology.

Denise Rousseau, professor at Carnegie Mellon and academic board president at the Center for Evidence-Based Management says that actually using and applying evidence takes a metaskill. This metaskill is the ability to turn evidence-based principles into solutions.

So can tech develop the metaskill to translate positive evidence into product features that benefit the whole of humanity?

I think they’re up for the challenge.

Courtney Bigony is Director of People Science at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. She is also the founder of The Deep Feedback Movement, where she provides actionable insights for People Teams based on the latest social science research, and a Fellow at the Center for Evidence Based Management.

This article was first published on The Huffington Post.

Image Credit: Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash