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Moving On and Moving Up in the World

08/08/2011 08:14 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2011

As the forward-thinking science of positive psychology enters its second decade, the study of well-being is evolving both inside and out. This past July, at the Second World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia over 1200 attendees from over 62 countries gathered to present new research and pose important challenges facing this young field. President of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) Antonella Delle Fave of the University degli Studi di Milano, addressed the importance of cultural relevance as to what is valued and meaningful, and pointed to challenges positive psychology has faced in looking beyond the western perspective. "There is no universal definition of the good life," says Delle Fave.

Indeed, the science of positive psychology has risen to the challenge. Neuroscience is helping to inform research on brain/body response and cross-cultural studies are leading to a more global lens. For example, mindfulness and inner-harmony are recognized as important health measures and helpfulness and autonomy are considered central to thriving, whether the culture is individual (like the USA) or collective (like South Korea).

Research methods are also broadening. For example, the use of natural data reported from a person's daily life is gaining interest, as is the use of social media to gather moment-to-moment information. Large-scale collaboration is enabling scientists to gather vast amounts of research and arrive at ways to improve lives at warp speed. Much more intriguing, life-extending data is expected in the near future.

Quick Hits

As academic conferences go, much of the research takes time to digest, however a few studies stand out, particularly for their unique perspectives (sex, love, and war) and their ability to influence positive change. Below are the highlights.

Over a Million Participants and Counting

The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, a new screening and intervention tool organized by Martin Seligman, considered the founder of positive psychology, at the request of the US Army two years ago, has now been taken by over 1,200,000 soldiers to date. The required initial questionnaire created by Chris Peterson, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan serves as a way to identify areas of difficulty; from family stress to low feelings of control over one's life. Soldiers determined to be at risk are eligible for further training and positive interventions to help reduce the most serious psychological fallout including suicide, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.

Seligman elaborated on his view that positive psychology is no longer considered only a science of happiness; rather the he'd prefer the focus is on overall well-being as an overarching theory. The essential ingredients of well-being says Seligman are, positive emotions (i.e. joy and hope), relationships (supportive and pleasant) meaning (finding purpose), and accomplishment (including goals and mastery) abbreviated as PERMA. More on both are laid out in Seligman's new book Flourish,

Forget the Xanax ... For Social Anxiety Try Sex

Hooking up may be the solution to less social stress. A new study of over a hundred men and women presented by Todd Kashdan Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at George Mason University and an editor of the new book Designing Positive Psychology found people with symptoms of social anxiety reported less anxiety and avoidance the day following an intimate encounter.

What constitutes an intimate encounter? Participants were asked daily to report their levels of social anxiety and also whether or not they had sex, and more specifically whether the sex was intimate and connected, pleasurable and if they experienced an orgasm.

Though Kashdan admits sex can be anxiety provoking, individuals that had close connected sex alone experienced a ten percent reduction in social anxiety symptoms. If they really enjoyed the sex and found it very pleasurable, their symptoms were reduced by 25 percent.

What's the theory? According to Kashdan, connectedness is a way to regulate emotions. Situations and experiences like sex, rather than lets say exercise, provide evidence people are valued and cared for by another person. People with social anxiety, including a fear of criticism, judgment and a strong need for praise, over time, become avoidant of social situations. Almost as a catch 22, the need to belong takes on a hyper-relevance, yet their behavior leads to an erosion of positive experiences and events.

Therapists acknowledge facing down an anxiety issue if it's in a gradual and safe way is an effective method of treating fears or phobias. So should we soon expect therapists to prescribe a "quickie" or better yet find courses we can take in satisfaction 101? According Kashdan even researchers aren't immune to social anxiety. "Scientists are afraid of studying sex because they might fall into the common idea that we are what we study. In this case a pervert."

A New Way to Look at Love

Love, according to powerful new brain/body research from Barbara Fredrickson Ph.D., author of "Positivity" (2009) is a way to improve health feel more connected -- only take sex out of the equation. In her presentation "Love: A New Lens on the Science of Thriving" Fredrickson challenges us to re-think our definition of love. Love is NOT: unconditional, lasting, evidence of commitment, a special bond or sexual desire. On the contrary, love IS: a fleeting moment where shared positive emotions are felt and a momentary sense of well-being for another person or group is experienced. Love happens when people feel safe together and a neural connector such as eye contact or touch occurs. For example, imagine a time when you experienced a shared connection with a stranger, such as a "knowing" glance when something's funny. How would you describe it? Research participants reported a sense of having "clicked" or of being on "the same page" with someone. This "love" connection is behavioral (we make eye contact) emotional (we share a positive feeling, i.e. humor) and neurological (our brains are functioning similarly).

Fredrickson's newest laboratory studies conducted in her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab (PEPlab) at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill look at the effects of "love" on the body. For example, shared positive emotions have been shown to improve vagal tone (generated by the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the heart). The stronger the vagal tone the greater the ability to become calm (lower blood pressure, heart rate, etc). In essence, shared positive emotions lead to improved health and quality of life.

Fredrickson is recognized for the role positive emotions play in broadening and building the scope of our existence (i.e. more joy and creativity) and preventing negativity from shutting us down (through fear, stress and poor health.) Cultivating love by generating positive emotions within ourselves (i.e. through loving-kindness mediation, savoring, gratitude journaling, etc.) says Fredrickson enables us to be more open to others. This openness results in a kind of "upward spiral" leading to greater social resources and improved health overall; greater resilience and happier, less anxious people. "Love is a seed of life and health," says Fredrickson.

To Conclude
As the science of positive psychology deepens and becomes more globally wise, shared experiences within the field will inform future goals. On an interpersonal level, evidence that social connection, and positive experiences are central to improving our lives is surely a reason to smile and look forward to more from the front on well-being.