As a psychologist, I’m passionate about helping people be better human beings. This involves helping them to make sense of psychological science to determine the most helpful ways of being or doing that will allow them to thrive. That is to reduce the chances of someone experiencing mental illness in their lifetime, and to enhance the chances of them experiencing mental health and psychological wellbeing – to enable them to ‘flourish’, as we like to say in Positive Psychology. A large part of our practice as psychologists and positive psychology practitioners/coaches is helping people develop their psychological literacy, as a capability – a key capability I would argue that’s essential for flourishing in a VUCA world.
A few years back I co-authored a chapter in a textbook called “The Psychologically Literate Citizen” edited by Cranney & Dunn (2011). Our chapter (Green, Robinson & Oades) was entitled “The Role of Positive Psychology in Creating the Psychologically Literate Citizen”. The chapter’s overall aim was to highlight the powerful role that Positive Psychology (PP) can play in creating psychological literary, specifically in regard to enhancing the wellbeing of individuals, families, workplaces and communities. We argued that a more targeted and explicit approach to educating the public was required, rather than the historical ad-hoc approach or reliance on information that is selectively and uncritically printed in newspapers and self-help books.
Psychologically literate citizens use their psychological literacy to solve problems in an ethical and socially responsible manner in a way that directly benefits their communities. (Green, Robinson & Oades, 2011)
More recently, my co-author, long term colleague and doctoral supervisor (all those years ago!), Professor Lindsay Oades (Director of the Positive Psychology Centre in the Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne) has more specifically coined the term “wellbeing literacy”. In a nutshell, wellbeing literacy is how people communicate about and for wellbeing. Lindsay is currently leading the charge on a number of PhD studies on the topic. Lindsay’s thesis is similar to our original thesis, in that he not only argues for the need for a psychological literacy but specifically one relating to wellbeing. Oades et al (2020) define wellbeing literacy as a capability to comprehend and compose wellbeing language, across contexts, with the intention of using such language to maintain or improve the wellbeing of oneself, others or the world. The authors argue it is underpinned by a capability model – that is, what someone is able to be and do.
I find this emerging research fascinating particularly as wellbeing, and more specifically psychological wellbeing, is finally being acknowledged as a core component of our overall health. If COVID-19 has provided any positive outcomes, one good thing has been the increased awareness of mental health issues in our workplaces and communities and the need to be more proactive when it comes to our psychological wellbeing.
While I’m excited by this emerging field of research and particularly its potential impact on educational and workplace settings, I believe we also need to continue to develop a broader psychological literacy. However, it would seem that what my learned colleagues have realised (as I have over the years) is that language matters (well in fact that is the whole premise of wellbeing literacy!) and that perhaps the term wellbeing literacy is more palatable to a broader audience.
Despite the movement and greater acceptance of psychology within our communities, in my experience, there is still much hesitation and fear about the use of the term. In the early part of my career, I was specifically told by a well-meaning HR professional that it might be best to not mention that I was a “clinical psychologist”. She suggested it might have a negative effect on my audience. Even at dinner parties for many years (not so much nowadays) when I disclosed that I was a psychologist, people’s common response was “so you’ve been analysing me!” There is still so much education to be done by our professional bodies such as the Australian Psychological Society (APS) to raise awareness of this diverse field and help develop the community’s psychological knowledge and literacy.
In fact, one of the original reasons I found Positive Psychology so appealing was its non-stigmatised approach to psychology – it wasn’t about mental illness or deficits, it was a study of human strengths and capabilities. (Note: PP is defined as the science of the conditions and processes that contribute to optimal human functioning (Gable & Haidt, 2005)). Up until PP emerged in the late nineties, much of the community’s knowledge of human potential was based on self-help books rather than science. However, over the past 20 years since the field’s formal launch, researchers have done a great job of rectifying the imbalance of a dark past of psychological science, where understanding the bad rather than investigating the good was the norm. A study by Czapinski (1985) coded more than 17,000 research articles in psychology journals and found that the coverage of negative issues and phenomena exceeded positive, good ones 69% to 31%.
The good news is that there appears to be a growing interest – a thirst one may say – in regard to the field of psychology, perhaps as many people have struggled to cope and find meaning in the past 12 months with the many challenges that a global pandemic has provided. As I’ve suggested, Positive Psychology, with its focus on topics such as wellbeing, happiness, meaning and strengths may be a less stigmatised and more engaging approach to Psychology. In this way Positive Psychology can assist the broader public with critical thinking skills in regard to topics of psychology such as gratitude or positivity, which while popular in our communities, need a critical eye brought to them as we increasingly recognise that such approaches can potentially backfire.
When emotional intelligence (EI/EQ) was first launched to the public by Daniel Goleman in 1996, it took the world by storm as people realised the importance of EQ beyond IQ. And there’s no doubt that there’s still a need for greater emotional literacy and capability in our communities, however I would love to see a broader expansion that encompasses both emotional literacy and wellbeing literacy into a psychological literacy that enables us to be the best human beings we’re capable of being. Whilst there’s no argument that wellbeing matters, for me, psychological literacy as a capability can equip us to move towards what Maslow referred to as “self-actualisation” or “self-transcendence” as he later suggested.
In my own training as a psychologist I came to realise that there are many psychological capabilities that I could learn and develop to not just feel well but to be a better human being. After 20 years of professional practice (as both a Clinical and Coaching Psychologist) I developed a model consisting of six key psychological capabilities that I believe, and research supports, can not only improve our mental health and enhance our wellbeing but potentially be the key tools we’ll need for a lifetime journey of self-discovery, adult development and self-actualisation. These skills have changed my life and I’ve seen them change my clients lives too. My hope is that these six key capabilities help develop a psychological literacy in our workplaces, schools and communities. I’m not arguing they’re the only tools you’ll need but they’re a great foundation to a flourishing life.
If you’d like to learn about these key capabilities, they’re contained in my book “The Positivity Prescription”. I’ve also recently launched a workplace wellbeing digital program Potential+ where all staff can learn these key psychological capabilities.