Reflections on the 6th World Congress on Positive Psychology

Rhiannon McGee (with contributions from Andrew Ford, Cat Lamb and Jessica Taylor) 

IPPABanner 960x450

The past week has been a very exciting one for those in the fields of positive psychology and positive education, as approximately 1600 delegates descended on the Melbourne Convention Centre for the 6th World Congress on Positive Psychology. This was the first world congress to be held outside of Northern America and with delegates from over 50 countries worldwide, it provided a powerful opportunity to engage with diverse perspectives in research and practice. Prior to the commencement of the conference, Geelong Grammar School also hosted over 50 delegates who came to learn more about positive education in action at GGS. Those of us who were involved in the day were honoured to share our practice and to engage with fellow educators from more than 20 countries across the globe.

Of the 300 contributions to the conference program, some of the highlights for our team included Professor John Cryan’s fascinating insights into the connection between our guts and our brains. Cryan’s research in microbiology provided a fresh perspective on the influence of the gut on our thoughts and emotions and indicated some truth in Hippocrates’ early assertions that ‘all disease begins in the gut’. Itai Ivtzan’s focus on mindfulness was also helpful for our team. Itvzan reflected that mindfulness is a practice which has found a comfortable home in the Positive Psychology family, despite much of its focus being on decreasing psychological distress rather than increasing psychological wellbeing. Itvzan suggested making mindfulness a habit or ritual like brushing your teeth. Just as engaging in this ritual is good for dental hygiene, mindfulness is good for mental hygiene.

Jonathan Haidt’s message about the importance of cultivating ‘anti-fragility’ in our youth by providing opportunities to develop resilience through the experience of adversity certainly resonated with many educators. As part of this conversation, Haidt explored the increase in psychological disorders amongst ‘Generation Z’ and drew parallels with the advent of social media. This perspective echoed that which was communicated by Jean Twenge in 2017 and which attracted some controversy at the time. Whether you agree or disagree with this position, Haidt and Twenge have certainly contributed to an important discussion as to why the increase in anxiety and depression in this generation of young people. Whilst we endeavour to respond to this reality with wellbeing and positive education programs in schools, we are still unsure as to the answer to this crucial question.

It was fabulous to hear international perspectives such as that from Incheol Choi of Korea, whose research has shown greater wellbeing benefits from those with orientations towards the experience of meaning (eudaimonic wellbeing) over the experience of pleasure (hedonic wellbeing) in Korean samples. The work of the Centre for Happiness Studies in Korea has seen Happiness Education rolled out across 2500 schools in Korea – engaging 100,0000 students and the training of 10,000 teachers. We in Australia can certainly be inspired by the reach of this significant work in wellbeing education. A favourite was also Christian Van Niewerburgh, of the University of East London, whose message that coaching and positive education can be integrated in educational settings was supported by the input of a number of Australian educators taking this approach in their own schools.

Prior to the world congress, GGS was lucky enough to host Professor Michael Steger as part of our Insight Series and we continued to be inspired by the depth of his research and the humility of his demeanour throughout the conference. Steger’s contributions to our understanding of the role meaning plays in our life: how we define it, measure it and get more of it, has had a profound impact on the evolution of the field of positive psychology. The strong message from Steger can be encapsulated in the words of Victor Frankl; ‘Happiness is a door that opens outward.’ Steger also contributed to a conversation amongst researchers identified as ‘second wave positive psychologists’ – whose focus is more holistic – encompassing both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. Steger and colleagues Tim Lomas, Ryan Niemiec, and again, Itai Ivtzan emphasised the importance of understanding our fundamental interconnectedness when considering how we cultivate wellbeing. This perspective is in alignment with that of an emerging systems-informed positive psychology coming out of Melbourne University’s Centre for Positive Psychology and reflects an increasing level of sophistication in our understanding of human flourishing.

IPPA’s 6th World Congress on Positive Psychology was such an invaluable opportunity to connect with others in the field – including the numerous Australian educators who made the effort to be there. This, we felt, reflected a commitment to rigour and innovation in the field of positive education in Australia, which we hope will be enhanced by the experience and perspectives of other nations. We are very grateful to IPPA and to Australia’s very own Professor Lea Waters, for an inspiring four days of connection, inspiration and learning. We look forward to applying this learning to our work within own our school and the schools with which we engage as we continue to prioritise wellbeing in the educational context.

Rhiannon McGee

Rhiannon McGee is the Head of Positive Education at GGS, leading the School’s wellbeing program across four campuses. She is passionate about the promotion of community wellbeing and this has motivated her to complete the Masters of Education (Student Wellbeing), and the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology.

Institute of Positive Education Trainers, Andrew Ford, Cat Lamb and Jessica Taylor also contributed reflections to this article.