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European positive psychology conference in Copenhagen: Corey Keyes, Barbara Fredrickson, fitness & strengths (second post)

Yesterday was the first full day of the conference.  I've already written about the first evening.  The full day started fairly bright and early at 8.30am.  First off was a talk by Corey Keyes, a sociologist from Emory University, Atlanta.  I've liked his work, but at first glance at this conference he looked a bit too like Johnny Depp for me to take him seriously (prejudice or what!).  The talk this morning soon put that right.  Passionate, informed, insightful.  Great stuff.

It was entitled "Stopping the insanity: promoting positive health is sanity in a world needing better mental health".  Keyes highlighted the widespread prevalence, cost and suffering of mental illness.  He argued powerfully that simply increasing our use of therapies (drugs and psychotherapy) that have been shown to have rather limited effects is misguided - the "insanity" of the talk's title.  He mentioned with approval Ethan Watters's book "Crazy like us" suggesting the many limits of formal DSM-IV diagnosis.  He introduced the concepts of languishing and flourishing - see for example his 2002 paper "The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life".  "Flourishing" is defined as having all three of what Keyes calls "emotional wellbeing" (high on positive emotions and high on life satisfaction), "psychological wellbeing" (functioning well in Carol Ryff's six areas of self-acceptance, positive relationships with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose of life, and personal growth - see more about her work on this website's "Wellbeing & calming skills" page) and "social wellbeing".  Crucially moving from just the absence of a DSM-IV diagnosis (not psychologically ill) to qualifying as flourishing has all kinds of protective, functional and wellbeing benefits.  Very interesting.  See, for example, his 2005 paper "Health as a complete state: the added value in work performance and healthcare costs" or "Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing: a complementary strategy for improving national mental health" or (still in press - awaiting publication - with the American Journal of Public Health) "Level of positive mental health predicts risk of mental illness." (I write more about this latter paper in a subsequent December blog post). 

Key points seem to be: 1.)  Psychological/mental health is not just the absence of psychological/mental disease, it's something much more positive than this.  2.)  Striving for our clients, family, friends, and ourselves for psychological/mental health has all kinds of benefits - for our subjective sense of wellbeing, for how well we function in life, and for our relationships with those who are close to us and with our community and society more generally.  3.)  We already know that if someone recovers from some kind of psychological/mental disorder like depression or anxiety, they will considerably reduce their chance of relapse/recurrence if they strive to get fully well rather than tolerate low-grade residual symptoms.  This work extends what we mean by "fully well".  Yes, really getting rid of nearly all symptoms of depression or anxiety and getting fully back into the "normal range" on questionnaires for depression and anxiety is clearly important.  It's clear now that we can reduce our risk of relapse/recurrence a whole lot more if we go beyond this striving simply for lack of "dis-ease" to striving for health and wellbeing and Corey Keyes' term "flourishing".  You can assess if you're "flourishing" or not by taking the 14-item "Mental health continuum - short form (MHC-SF)" freely downloadable from Corey's website

This is great work.  A fly in the ointment, I guess, is illustrated by a conversation I had at lunch the next day.  I happened to be looking for a place to sit and eat.  There was a spare seat beside Corey so I joined him and a couple of other people.  At one point in the discussion I said something like "If I was a senior member of a country's government, I might ask 'This research about the potential benefits of helping people move from simply absence-of-mental-illness to presence-of-mental-health is fascinating.  However do you have any evidence that you can effectively - in fact cost-effectively - help people make this transition?'" The answer seems to be "Not yet, but we'd like the funding to try".  It seems a project that's eminently worth supporting.  Meanwhile, for clinicians and for people in general, this knowledge about the languishing-flourishing continuum is challenging and well worth looking at.

I'm running out of time for this blog post.  The second talk was also great - "How positive emotions work, and why" by Barbara Fredrickson.  I've mentioned Fredrickson's work a number of times on this blog.  See, for example "Three good books: "Positivity", ... " and "Barbara Fredrickson's recent research study on loving-kindness meditation".  I was looking forward to hearing her speak and the talk was even better  than I'd hoped for.  In fact these first two 45 minute talks by Keyes and Fredrickson for me justified the whole effort and expense of coming to Denmark for this conference.  I could have gone home now satisfied with having plenty to think about and work on.  I won't say any more about her lecture just now and I'll blog about it more fully in the next couple of weeks.

After the coffee break I went to a "workshop" by Ray Fowler on "Positive health and positive aging: health and well-being throughout the lifespan".  Fowler is, I think, in his late 70's and a great personal advert for this talk that extolled the value of physical exercise.  I agree with most of what he had to say.  My main gripe (shared I suspect by several other attendees) was that the title of the workshop should really have been something like "Positive health and positive aging: the value of physical exercise throughout the lifespan".  I felt sad that other aspects of positive health and positive aging (like diet, relationships, & meaning) were glossed over.  I covered a fair amount of the material he discussed in half a dozen blog posts on exercise in January and February.  However all this doesn't detract from a crucial and huge point - physical fitness is quite possibly the single most important lifestyle factor people can focus on to improve the quantity and quality of their lives.  Ray showed the "eye-popping" slide from Steven Blair's article "Physical inactivity: the biggest public health problem of the 21st century"  that demonstrates " ... low cardiorespiratory fitness accounts for about 16% of all deaths in both women and men in this population, and this is substantially more, with the exception of hypertension in men, than the other risk factors (obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, hypertension, & diabetes)".  And additionally we know of the "Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities With Psychological and Physical Well-Being".  I think "Positive Psychology" is in danger of ignoring the importance of physical exercise.  Well worth being reminded of this - but please change the title of the workshop!

In the afternoon my main experience was Ryan Niemiec's "The application of character strengths: new interventions for best practice".  As with Barbara Fredrickson's talk, I want more time to focus on the interest and importance of what Ryan was saying - another blog to write in the next couple of weeks.

All in all a great day.  Good.  Tomorrow I post on "European positive psychology conference in Copenhagen: eudaimonia, Lego, morality & kayaking (3rd post)".


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