My previous blog post was dedicated to reflecting on a wow-moment when I attended a session with Robert Biswas-Diener at the World Happiness Summit 2023. If you haven’t read the previous post, then here’s a brief summary:

I pondered how combining (performance) art and science into a kind of Performance Positive Psychology (PPP) might bring us closer to grasping abstracts like happiness or meaning, positive psychology (PP) in general, positive leadership or happier workplaces – not in a “rational” but intuitive, experiential way. You could say that what I termed PPP is about “show, don’t tell”, although this particular showing used a lot of “telling”, just not in the lecturing kind. Through stories, we weren’t told anything about PP and yet had the opportunity to experience what PP concerns itself with.

But describing and reflecting on the “what” is only part of reflective practice. The next step is to understand why it had such an impact on me and finally, where to go with this learning. So, what can I – and maybe we? – learn from this one Performance Positive Psychology (PPP) experience and some accidental self-reflection? That’s the topic of this post.

Before we start, let me add the obvious caveat here: I realise that my personal conclusions on how to take this forward are just that – my own views. The researcher in me – and no doubt other researchers out there too – will point out that I can’t generalise a single subjective experience. But let’s remember what brought me to this point: the blurring of the lines between art and science. Am I willing to step into this “unknown” that lies between science and art? If I do, will I be able to produce something as finely balanced as Robert’s performance and come out on the right side of science?

Well, never let it be said that I don’t like a challenge…! In this article, I am taking some artistic license to turn my reflections on PPP into an objet d’art in text form that concerns itself with the “artist’s engagement” with a topic, that aims to express an idea, and an invitation for others to engage with this same idea. Whether this text has any artistic (or scientific) merit, I will leave up to you.

Scary stuff, but I guess it’s worth a try – so here we go (and thanks in advance for coming along).

 

All the gear…

So, I want to do my own PPP project of sorts. What’s the right gear if I have no idea? Before we set out, here is an attempt at a PPP adventure packing list. The suggested kit comes with another caveat, namely that this must be a work in progress – ah yes, and it comes with mixed metaphors from the adventure, culinary and art domains (as I said, no idea…).

A very general direction

First, it usually helps if you have at least a rough idea what you are going to do, a vision of the artistic output. I shall call it: an objet d’art of happiness. Why this title? Arguably, the art of happiness can be science – in the right circumstances – and could complement what we would normally come to expect from science. The effect could be a more complete understanding of PP science for an audience that is willing to venture into the “unknown” that art can bring with it. If I and we (NB: I’m implicitly assuming now that you are with me in this endeavour!) want PPP to be more than a one-off performance by one trailblazing science artist (i.e., Robert, not me), we need to master this art and explore how we can become PPP coaches, consultants, trainers and teachers and find spaces in PP for it.

The secret sauce

In order to move this prototype from a mere text to an objet d’art that inspires this kind of outcome, it needs a secret sauce: the PPP Sauce. So, what’s the secret sauce to PPP? There is research around my proposed sauce, but for now I will stay on the artistic, reference-free side if you permit to prevent myself from going down a rabbit hole (the risk of course being, that I may be getting the science not quite right but if you are putting up with the mixed metaphors so far and my attempt to turning PP into an art project, then you will surely be able to cope with this).

To start again, what’s the PPP secret sauce? It engages not only the brain but also heart and soul, it could have the potential to transcend the purely rationale, cognitive part of learning and development through the means of art. Instead, it would create subjective yet “tangible” learning experiences of abstract, subjective and context-specific concepts like happiness. In brief, everyone listening/watching/reading/sensing might craft their own definition of things like happiness, purpose, ethics etc. While this creates its own problems, at least everybody “gets it”.

What medium?

Well, it’s not oil on canvas or hiking boots on gravel… So, what is it that PPP does? What are the sauce’s ingredients? I used the term Performance Positive Psychology to capture an experience at #wohasu2023 (and I know I repeat myself, but I can’t thank Robert Biswas-Diener enough for creating that experience). I haven’t been able to find a definition for PPP, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one out there or something that also aims to capture it. If you know of one, please share!!

In the meantime, and so we know what I try to convey with PPP, I might propose something like this:

Performance Positive Psychology is the art & science of creating a personal and culturally aligned understanding and experience of (elements of) positive psychology through an immersive form of teaching that leverages elements of performance art, role-modelling, coaching and mentoring.

I’m not entirely happy with the word “teaching” here but having looked at various synonyms it still seems the best way to describe a transfer of (scientific) knowledge to an audience, which may or may not be students. Similarly, I wonder if this definition is too narrow in that the role-modelling etc requires the performer to leverage their personal experiences; could the stories be someone else’s? I’m open to suggestions.

So, for now, the medium then is something related to PP that the artist aims to make “understandable”. For my project here, it could be PPP. I am using words and language to paint and sculpt what PPP is for me by telling the story of my thought adventure. But like artists create different versions of a piece, I would expect to develop this “thing” further and do the spoken/performed word eventually. (I already hinted I can see great opportunities for laughter yoga sessions à la Humour Angle here.) But to begin with, here the medium is the written word with the goal of making PPP “understandable”.

The final ingredient needs to be the artist who is part of the performance in this definition of PPP, both by performing the words and being part of the artwork to bring PP to life through their own “being”. Here, I’m covering this by generalising my own experience and sculpting the idea for a science-art into a concept of PPP. Admittedly, the potential to engage and draw in my audience is limited by this format, as I notice when I re-read this; but it’s a start.

 

More sauce: Artist, speaker or performer?

The role of the artist leads me back to a point raised previously, that just because a performance explores the domains of PP or because a PP researcher or practitioner tells a story, neither necessarily makes the art a science or the science an art. What was Robert’s secret sauce that lifted his PPP to scientific performance art?

 

A personal story doesn’t make a performance

It’s not just talking about personal experiences. A conference like the World Happiness Summit, for example, had many speakers who prefaced their presentation with personal experiences (from burnout, cancer or death of a loved one), how this propelled them to develop as a person, as a manager, leader, researcher or creator of their own wellbeing recipes.

Some of these traumatic stories were difficult to listen to, and I know that I wasn’t the only one who had to blink back a tear every now and then. So clearly, there was an immersive element in those presentations, but not one I wanted to whole-heartedly dive into if I’m honest. That these people stood on that stage that day is inspiring and testament to their great achievements, something PP calls post-traumatic growth (PTG), so clearly there was a PP element. However, to me they were speakers, not performers, even though – or maybe because – they spoke to what helped them grow and now thrive.

 

Do I really want to follow the performer

What makes a great performance and storytelling is the ability to take the audience along on that journey, more or less willingly. More willingly, because we choose to listen to a speaker; less willingly, because we allow ourselves to be swept along by the performance – and I think that’s where the border between art and science lies.

When narrated experiences are traumatic, they are so first of course for the speakers, but by proxy also for the audience. However, audiences have a right NOT to experience difficult emotions, for pure self-preservation if nothing else. Audiences need to be able to make that choice, ideally even before they have followed too far into difficult emotions. Think about it that way: In literature there is a genre called misery memoir and anyone buying such a book would know what to expect and choose to engage with it consciously. Attending a PP talk, lecture or event where the speakers showcase how “living PP” can support us through hardship, does the audience necessarily know what they are letting themselves in for? Did they have that upfront choice?

Even though second wave PP tells us about the need to embrace the dark side of emotions, recurring stories of intensely traumatic experiences would certainly not be what I’d expect when I attend such an event. And I certainly wouldn’t want an immersive experience of such difficult experiences for myself, let alone repeatedly. Similarly, if I was the speaker/performer, would I consider it ethical to take an audience on a roller coaster of such difficult emotions that can be very draining instead of uplifting or energising? Trigger warnings have been introduced for a reason, including for people to say: I’m not going there, valid as the topic may be. But once we say “I’m not going there!“, we disengage, the performer has lost their audience, and only a speaker is left.

 

Shifting from challenge to strengths

If not every PP story performed is one we’d choose to go along with, does that mean that PPP should only involve “happy” stories? I’d say no, because these stories need to be heard, but – depending on context – I’d challenge the speakers to reconsider the story they are telling.

There is a reason why such speakers are on stages: because they emerged from their challenge in a “better” way – we do like our heroes, and they can be great role models. Having accounts of real experiences can be inspiring for those struggling with their own challenges. In fact, the question why some people may deal better with hardship than others was one of the initial projects in PP when Mihail Csikszentmihaly asked on the back of experiences from World War II (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 6): “What sources of strength were these people drawing on?”

This question is the basis for the research that has gone into the pursuit of understanding and cataloguing character strengths and really all the PP ingredients that can contribute to a happier life. (It is also why I studied PP, to find some answers to this question so that I can support clients who are stuck somehow and are looking for ways to get “unstuck” and grow.) But I think this is also where the difference between the “speakers” and the “performers” lies: Are they conveying the challenge, or the strengths that helped them emerge from the challenge? With the speakers, my sense is that the focus is on the challenge. So is it PPP? I’d say no, and I think it’s because the audience couldn’t or wouldn’t connect to the parts of the story (anymore) where the speakers talk about their strengths that helped them emerge stronger and transformed eventually – the audience had disengaged well before.

 

Not too hot, not too cold

When we listen to a participant in a research study, the understanding and “learning” happens in the head as we think through what is said, we analyse and turn it into theories, models and interventions. When we listen to a speaker, we may be touched and gain lessons for a happier life. We are trying to take that person’s perspective which is „…the attempt to understand the thoughts, motives, and feelings of another person” (Hoever et al., 2012, p. 982). But imagining what it must have been like for a speaker is not enough – it takes a more active engagement, one that allows to experience almost “first hand” the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist in the story, the performer. And that’s when it arguably becomes art, and in our case: PPP.

Going back to Robert’s WoHaSu PPP session, what did he do differently that made it work? First, while emotionally intense for me as a listener, I nevertheless felt energised and uplifted at the end. (For the performer, I had the sense he was quite drained after his performance, but that’s for later.) Second, while some of his narrated experiences could certainly rank as traumatic or at least scary, the performance felt finely balanced between positive and negative emotions, with challenging experiences maybe only hinted at and sprinklings of (self-deprecating) humour: not too challenging, not too light.

 

Let’s sketch some scientific PPP art

I think we now have most of the gear and a reasonable idea. So where does this leave me with my artistic soup of moderately hot PP adventures? I hope I will be forgiven for exploring PPP from the perspective of where it will be useful to me, but as you taste this soup/read this piece of art/follow my thought adventure (and I really should narrow down the metaphors…), maybe it inspires you to find your own form of PPP “being” and “doing”.

Let’s begin by drawing some sketches… three areas come to mind. The sketch could show:

  • Teaching PP and its abstract concepts outright through “doing”
  • Role-modeling/showcasing PP in coaching practice, in training and consultancy work through “being”
  • Leadership as PPP

I wonder if the first two aspects can be separated? Well, we shall find out.

 

Sketch 1: The art of teaching happiness

It is one thing to experiment with PPP in a setting that isn’t hemmed in by a syllabus and recognised forms of teaching. I don’t think a 60-minute PPP uni lecture would be going down quite so well – maybe with the students, but probably not with “the powers that be”. In all honesty, if Robert’s session had been in a classroom, I would probably have questioned what he was doing myself. And yet, plenty has been written around experiential learning, we learn through role plays and role models – why not PPP? So, if we go with it, how might PPP inform teaching and learning in an educational setting nevertheless?

When we “teach”, students are (hopefully) listening, which is an art in itself and requires a commitment to engage with what one listens to (again, something inspired by Robert, see my previous post). Students take notes and (again, hopefully) learn. When we “perform” PP, the learning could arguably become immersive and experiential. The teacher/performer role-models the topic and takes their students/audience with them, allowing them to experience PP aspects through content AND the person of the teacher/performer. (And this, I guess, answers my earlier question about whether being and doing could be separated in PPP: probably not?) That would mean teacher/performers would bring more of themselves into the classroom, maybe supplement lecture content with relevant personal stories that bring PP to life. But it would need to be more than just sharing random anecdotes or presenting own experiences as case studies. It would require a lecture/performance that comes across as authentic, not just words read from a script, and in a way that students are comfortable following. To convey the “feel” for what PP means in this way, teachers would then need to have experienced it first.

Taught in this way, happiness cannot be an abstract. And more importantly, every student and audience member can make sense of what they learned in their own personal and cultural way. (For teachers and trainers, of course, this creates a massive headache when they need to mark papers and gauge if a student has grasped the syllabus, but let’s leave that for another day. It’s bad enough that happiness is a subjective thing in PP, what if everything else becomes subjective too?) But I digress.

For us as PP practitioners, coaches, trainers, teachers or consultants, this would require a vastly enhanced skillset with respect to lecture design. Instead of delivering content, we’d need to tell a story with the lecture content and the person of the teacher at its heart. It would require us to become what we practise and perform. The syllabus would need to be inherent in both what is said and what is not said. For that, the more artistic side of public speaking, storytelling and on-stage performance may need to be honed.

What might that mean for training and self-development of PP teachers, trainers, coaches and consultants? A lot of reflective practice to understand their own experience of the PP elements taught, for a start, and the “performance skills” to then express them before students. When we merge the science with the art in that way – imagine what kinds of lecture plans we would create: they‘d be art!!

 

Sketch 2: Leaders – the ultimate PPP?

What might PPP in a work context look like? The fields of positive leadership and positive organisational scholarship have engaged intensely with PP at work. Can we spot any potential for PPP or works of art? The cynic in me would say that some corporate vision and mission statements might resemble art; the even greater cynic in me might say that – based on what was written about some corporate scandals – some accounting contains astonishing levels of fiction and art.

However, much in corporate life boils down to ”performance”, from stock market performance to an employee’s performance. And ultimately it could be said that many corporate scandals or waves of work-related mental health issues are a result of the pressure to perform – just that neither content nor performance has anything to do with PP or PPP. Performance in this context does not refer to an artistic, stage performance but whether someone or something performs a task well or badly (although there is arguably an element of being “on show”, but more in the sense that what happens is visible). The need to perform drives the “doing” (i.e., to be seen to do a good job), though performing “well” doesn’t always equate with acting in a positive manner (I refer you here to the corporate scandal of your choice). Even worse, performing well could corrupt the “being” of a “good” person when corporate culture impacts on values, acceptable social norms and behaviours. (NB: You may have noticed a lot of quotation marks in this paragraph, because good, bad etc are a bit like art and happiness: in the eye of the beholder.)

But who tells us in an organisation what is acceptable, what is “good” and what isn’t? Typically, it’s the leaders. Not what they say in glossy mission statements, but their everyday leadership behaviour, actions that speak louder than any policy or strategy document. Which then brings us neatly to the role-modelling part of PPP. With a “broader application of environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards” as one of the three top macrotrends driving business transformation (World Economic Forum, 2023, p. 20), PP considerations may automatically become part of leadership behaviour and performance evaluation. We even have some evidence now that suggests a positive impact on stock market performance from employee wellbeing investments .

Already, leadership training teaches “soft” skills for interaction with others as well as self-leadership skills. Increased personal awareness should help leaders gauge their behaviour’s impact on themselves as leaders and on their teams. The top 10 core skills for workers, according to the WEF Future of Jobs Report 2023, include many things that PP practitioners and especially coaches would recognise like creative thinking, resilience, motivation, self-awareness, curiosity and lifelong learning, empathy and active listening. Together, it paints a picture of a leadership culture that seeks to steer away from traditional leadership behaviours that no longer cut it in today’s world with stakeholders like clients or job candidates.

While wellbeing activities and talk of positive leadership gain traction in organisations, the mindset, culture and corporate processes too often still seems stuck in old expectations of attitudes and what “proper performance” looks like. Thus, younger managers start their career often with the will to be positive leaders in an organisation but with the reality of old-style role models and structures, and little help to navigate the conflicting values. Yet, “leadership and social influence” is the highest-ranking attitude and in fourth place of upskilling priorities, according to the WEF. Might this attitude tally with PPP’s “immersive form of teaching that leverages elements of performance art, role-modelling, coaching and mentoring”?

If corporate leaders (at all levels) were to embrace a PPP attitude, it would allow employees and (future) leaders to absorb the organisational culture intuitively, grow in a role model’s footsteps and integrate these impressions into a positive leadership style that is aligned with their personality and culture. But unlike teacher/performers who may be on show only for the duration of the lesson, it would mean that definitely leaders and managers are constantly “on show” (NB: In very basic terms, managers are concerned with the getting the daily job done, leaders tend to have a more longer-term, strategic perspective). To uphold such constant performance, PPP needs to be part of the “being” and happen authentically and (relatively) effortlessly. Again, that would mean not just a bit of “upskilling” but a similar level of introspection, self-reflection and personal growth as for the teachers, based on personal experience and a solid feel of these PP “things”.

Unlike with the teachers, the artwork is then not so much the lecture plan or syllabus. The artwork is the leader themselves!! It might be tempting for us as coaches to “sculpt” our clients into PPP leaders, but that would mean removing their agency to develop into their vision of a leader (and would potentially be very directive and even unethical). Thus, the objet d’art in work contexts can only be the self: me, you – who we are and how we show as (informal) leaders and role models.

 

Tidying up the picture of PPP

And here we have my first two PPP sketches. My art of happiness prototypes may not yet be that pretty, but I think I have a better feel for what it means to work with this medium and what the actual piece of art looks like. What also emerged while sketching, are additional skills and responsibilities linked to PPP when teaching and leading. The skills are relatively easy to summarise:

“Doing” PPP would require an enhanced “performance” skillset for the teachers and leaders, for teachers also the ability to turn a syllabus into an objet d’art, but more critically for both teachers and leaders is the self-development to foster the “being” of the performer; especially for leaders, who are the actual walking-talking “art of happiness” subject/object.

The responsible performer

PPP would arguably also come with additional responsibilities. Two areas spring to mind:

  1. The responsibility to the self: self-care for the performer and continued education/development
  2. The responsibility to keep the audience safe

To the 1st point, realistically, every PP coach and practitioner should have an effective self-care regime in place, including reflective practice and supervision. The same should arguably be the case for PPP teachers, trainers and consultants, and definitely for managers and leaders who need to consistently role-model PP.

For leaders, the continued education may focus less on the underlying science but on the application thereof. For the educational camp, it should go without saying that a solid understanding of the science underpinning PP is a prerequisite for teaching or applying it, including and especially the limitations.

Which leads us to the 2nd point. If we want to convey PP in a performance-art-like style and invite our audience along on our experiential journey, to some extent by-passing the rational mind in doing so, then we have a responsibility to keep them safe. We can do this either by giving them an upfront choice to engage with the content, exit routes if they choose to engage and change their mind – but ideally, we would have sufficient grasp of PP – especially as coaches, mentors, practitioners and trainers/teachers – to balance our performance (i.e., not too hot, not too cold).

 

Nice, but what’s the use?

Phew, ok, let’s take a break here and celebrate for a moment how far we have come. PAUSE

 

But before I conclude, let’s also consider the purpose of this exercise and the question must be permitted: What is the point? Of course, art and performances are nice and entertaining – but do they have a use? It would certainly appear so for leaders, but teachers? Why not just continue teaching PP as usual? Again, with the caveat that this is only preliminary, but there appear to be opportunities to add a complementary way of making PP understandable. Is it going to replace more traditional forms of learning? Unlikely, and neither should it. Some things we just need to learn before we can start to play with them in an artistic context – but play can also help us learn.


Thank you for joining me on this extended journey of discovery of PPP. I hope you enjoyed it and it has given you a few ideas to introduce PPP into your work, too. If it has, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts or if you experimented with your own PPP projects.

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