As a researcher and practitioner, I have noticed a gradual yet significant shift in the way we view the world. Gone is the reductionist research and interventions which aim to resolve issues by only looking at the issue from one narrow perspective. In comes the recognition that nothing and no one exists in isolation. This leaves everyone scratching their heads over how to understand things that are complex and still produce data that can be easily used to help others. Positive psychology is no different. As it moves through the ‘waves’, more and more attention is given to context and the impact of systems on interventions. If you are a positive psychologist, a student, or simply interesting in the topic, the aim of this post is to stimulate some reflection so you too can recognise the complexity in whatever you do.


Riding the waves

Those familiar with positive psychology will know about the metaphor of waves. The field started in the first wave where it focused on the positive. This took a new direction away from the negative. Positive psychology wanted to know what was right with people. But this was seen as too biased towards the positive. Life isn’t like that. Soon the second wave embraced negativity again and found the positive in the negative. The blend of positive and negative meant it was more recognisable in daily living.


Hang on, a wave is really a multitude of organisms and energy!

This last year with the pandemic has brought to the attention of all of us that the world is very interrelated and complex. We cannot continue to live within our defined boundaries anymore. The coronavirus has come crashing in on all of us, like a big tsunami.

Even before the pandemic occurred and reminded us that we need to be thinking in a much more interconnected way, some researchers were starting to address the need for the inclusion of systems in positive psychology research. Key papers in this debate are Bateson (2017), Kern et al. (2019) and Lomas et al. (2020). These papers set to highlight the need for multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary research that goes beyond the reductionist science that has dominated.

This means moving research out of the lab (and the university) and into the daily lives of society. The system we live within is multi-layered and different for all of us. Within these systems are many context and many beliefs, values, motivations and tensions….and so on. With all these variable aspects of the system, it cannot be seen as anything but complex!


Riding the wave not drowning

Whether you are a researcher or a practitioner, such as a coach or work within organisational development, we can be more alert to the complexity of ourselves and our clients. Think about the many influences in behaviour, action, outcomes, and beliefs. Including your own. Can you be more open, curious and more mindful of other perspectives? Think about the tensions that might exist in your client’s lives. When you discuss something work related with them, how does the rest of their life show up?


Why should this matter to the practitioner….(glug, glug)….?

It might feel like another tsunami is coming, how on earth can anyone take all that into consideration? You can’t know the whole system or be in every corner, but it can be something that is in your sight. When you next do a presentation to a group of leaders about resilience, will it mean the same thing to all of them? Unlikely. Current research, however robust and well-intentioned, will always be flawed as it looks at the topic from the researcher’s perspective and only includes what they see. As a practitioner do your own research or pay attention to how an intervention works with your client. Unless they are person Average it will likely not achieve exactly what the book suggests.

Don’t assume your version of wellbeing, or happiness, or leadership is the same for the other person. You will be biased by your own belief and meanings. Know your own limitations and boundaries. Find out what they are for the person you are working with. What about context? Environment, circumstance, purpose. What about gender, race, religion? How does this impact?

And most of all don’t be limited by what you have been taught, what other people think, or your circumstances. Look to other disciplines, perspectives, fields and cultures to add to your understanding. Strive to expand what is possible.


Bateson, N. (2017). Warm data: Contextual research and the evolution of science. Rocznik Naukowy Kujawsko-Pomorskiej Szkoły Wyższej w Bydgoszczy.Transdyscyplinarne Studia o Kulturze (i) Edukacji nr 12, 35-40

Kerns, M.L., Williams, P., Spong, C., Colla, R., Sharma, K., Downie, A., Taylor, J.A., Shape, J., Siokou, C., & Oades, L.G. (2019). Systems informed positive psychology. The journal of Positive Psychology,

Loma, T., Waters, L., Williams, P., Oades, L.G., & Kern, M.L. (2020). Third wave positive psychology: broadening towards complexity. The Journal of Positive Psychology, P

Poth, C.N. (2018). Innovation in mixed methods research: A practical guide to integrative thinking with complexity. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.


Read more about Lisa Jones and her other articles HERE


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

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