Passion, Goals and Psychology in Canada

Next week, I return to one of my favorite countries, Canada, for proceedings of the second annual Canadian Positive Psychology Association. While you might wonder why Canada needs a “positive psychology association” in the first place — they seem like such positive and nice folks as is — I promise the conference will be chock full of new research findings on topics like engagement, meaning and performance. My job will be to select some of the key findings and report on them in the next “Psychology at Work” — unless I wander off and get eaten by a grizzly bear or something. So, as a teaser here is my column from the last conference in 2012. Read and enjoy.

I recently traveled to the University of Toronto — famous for the invention of insulin, 10 Nobel Prize winners, and not having a football team — for the first conference of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association (CPPA). The conference, which featured almost 300 scholars and distinguished visitors from around the globe — plus me — focused on the science of “happiness” and how it might be applied in schools, workplaces and individual lives.

A couple of things I learned about Canada. First, their world-famous health care system is absolutely NO HELP WHATSOEVER to those nursing a little Molson-induced “jet lag” on a Saturday morning, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Secondly, Canada is a really cool place, and it is not just because of free igloos for the poor and social benefits stuff like that. It is because no matter how annoying we Americans can be, everyone in Canada is just so … polite. Things that would get you punched out at the Flora-Bama get a bemused, Mrs. Cleaver sort of response up here. “Oh, Beev.”

So, let’s get to the point. What did I learn that might of interest to you, faithful Psychology at Work reader?

1. Passion drives top performance.

Regular visitors of this blog know why finding a calling in one’s work is key to having a happy, balanced life. In the opening keynote of the conference, Robert Vallerand, president of the International Positive Psychology Association, drove that puck into the back of the net (reader alert — watch out for Canadian-influenced metaphors throughout). Passion is defined by psychologists such as Vallerand just like you think it is — a focus on a task or goal that completely absorbs you. While he was careful to distinguish between good, or harmonious passion (going all out to produce a product that will improve peoples lives), and obsessive, or bad passion (repeated efforts to "friend" Scarlett Johanssen don’t work — trust me), it is clear that total focus and immersion on a goal inspires top performance.

The successful leader finds or creates things his or her team can be harmoniously passionate about. (If you want to read more, see Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., Gagné, M., & Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 756-767.

2. Use Positive Imagery in the Workplace

Possibly the most well-known speaker at the conference was industrial psychologist Gary Latham. Gary is one of the “fathers” of goal theory, which I wrote about earlier this year. While setting specific goals at work and tracking progress toward them is not a new idea, he presented recent research on how the subconscious can influence goal achievement. Namely, he showed how people can be motivated by “supra-liminal priming” without knowing exactly why. For example, subtle exposure to pictures and imagery of success encourages better performance in individuals and teams.

So all those hokey "Winning" posters the folks on the sales floor have in their cubicles? They work. (If you want to learn more about Gary’s work, see Shantz, A., & Latham, G. (2011). The effect of primed goals on employee performance: Implications for human resource management. Human Resource Management, 50(2), 289-299.

3. Get Up From Your Desk and Move

Greg Wells, a sports psychologist, talked to the conference live by video from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, (thanks to Kasley Killam for reporting this — I missed the talk, but that is a topic for next week’s blog). He told the group that the same things world-class athletes do to stay mentally sharp can work for anybody. Here they are:

  1. The 1-3-2 rule: Dedicate one hour each day, three days each month, and two weeks each year to personal recovery, whether by participating in a rejuvenating activity (like listening to music or reading), disconnecting from technology or taking a trip with loved ones (who, if they are your kids, are probably connected to technology while you’re driving).
  2. 20/20 rule: For every 20 minutes of sitting, spend 20 seconds stretching or moving.
  3. 1 percent aggregate gains: Improve by 1 percent each day (heck, I am at the point where if I don’t back up 1 percent a day I consider it time for a brandy shooter).

To Sum Up

There were too many great presentations — featuring all-stars of the applied positive psychology world such as Louis Alloro, Shannon Polly, Scott Asalone, Jan Sparrow, Tayyab Rashid, Jaime Cundy and Marsha Huber — to mention them all here (contact me if you would like more details on their research and work). Suffice it to say that it was a great conference in a wonderful city.

To close, I have to give a shout out to the main conference organizers, Louisa Jewell and Lisa Sansom. Louisa and Lisa are two lovely businesswomen who also happen to be scholars and leaders in the field of positive psychology. Despite the stress of organizing a world-class conference from scratch in less than a year while maintaining full-time careers, they displayed an incredibly calm, composed competence throughout. The sort of "right stuff" that makes you want them at the controls of your 737 if it's trying to make an emergency landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a storm. Grace under pressure, to use Hemingway's definition of courage.

Louisa and Lisa, well-done. And Canada, see you next year at the conference. No more Great White North jokes, I promise. Maybe.