One starfish at a time

Never before have we had to draw on our collective human strengths and resources more than now.  The country is divided, we are all suffering from Brexit burnout, it seems as if community spirit is dwindling and I sense people feel angry and disempowered.

I have felt for a while now that Positive Psychology has a huge part to play in helping to empower us to feel in control, not just of our own lives, but of our environment and our communities.

Recently, as I have been trying to affect change in people’s lives, many people have said to me that I can’t really affect anything without a change in government.  In response I tell them the starfish story and how I approach challenges with this story in mind – many of you will know it – but it has never seemed more relevant to me than in the times we find ourselves.

A girl was throwing starfish that had been washed up on the beach, back into the sea to save their lives…a man approaches and says scornfully that she cannot possibly make a difference to the thousands and thousands laying helplessly dying on the dry beach…to which the girl pauses and bends down to pick up the next one,  which she flings back into the sea and replies “I made a difference to that one”.

I believe we can make a huge difference to peoples’ lives by taking individual and collective action.    As Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has”.


Building Strength in Communities

Over the last couple of years I have been using Positive Psychology principles to empower local people to take collective action to improve health and wellbeing in their communities.   I used Positive Psychology principles and a method called Asset Based Community Development where we build on the strengths in communities rather than a focus on fixing deficit.   This has produced some interesting results.

For instance, one community sometimes known as being ‘deprived’ is now seen as trailblazing for developing community spirit and using collective action to achieve change.   They did this by harnessing individuals’ strengths and empowering people to take collective action.  The community is now going from strength to strength via a resident-led charity which is running a local social supermarket, helping local people to access food, tackling social isolation, all volunteers, totally driven by passion and kindness.

In terms of starfish they are furiously chucking loads back into the sea.  


The Ripples of Hope

I have recently become involved with supporting an impressive new Chester group Rise up with the Homeless, which aim to empower homeless people to tell their stories through creative activities such as photography, music and art.   One of the leaders of this group, Alison Golds describes how their approach has led to significant changes:

By noticing people’s strengths and empowering them to use them, powerful things come into being.  We have started having conversations with homeless people about what they think works and what doesn’t work within detoxes and the services.

By empowering them and listening to their ideas, I notice that they are interested in being involved in building something with us, they have begun to believe it can happen, and there is a belief in them growing and with this belief comes a seed, a seed of transformation.

If we encourage creativity then creativity begins to blossom, it blossoms out and other people begin to notice also, and with this noticing comes a spark of hope which ignites all. 

  I have noticed that within the homeless community, there are people who I remember seeing walking with heads down, shoulders slumped, in despair of the daily grind of homelessness, who begin to come alive again with the ripples of hope”

Alison beautifully sums up how the group use Positive Psychology principles such as meaning, purpose, creativity, hope, strengths to create powerful co-created collective action.1.


Five Ideas For Taking Community Action

You may not have the government you want in power but here are a few ideas about how to use individual and collective action to take back control in these uncertain times:

1. Connect with yourself. Ask yourself who you are, what are your greatest strengths, what are you passionate about?  What do you REALLY want to do?   Notice what energises and inspires you.  If you are happy, engaged, motivated STOP and notice what you are doing.  Use those strengths to take action towards the change you want to see in the world. As Marianne Williamson said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us”


2. Use coaching and listening skills more in your interactions rather than advising and telling people what to do. You may be surprised at how often you advise rather than listen – I catch myself all the time.  Ask positive questions, encourage people, instil hope and talk to people about how something be achieved.


3, Notice people’s unique strengths and talents. Help people to uncover passions and strengths that they didn’t know they had.   Listen really closely.  Watch for body language, interest in people’s eyes, see what people connect with, see when they come alive and encourage that inspiration.  See what complementary strengths and passions you have and see if you can work together.


4. Start a group about what you are passionate about if there is not a local one or gather people to campaign for change. It could start really small – a handful of people in a coffee shop.


5. Research the principles of Positive Psychology and see how you can apply them. Keywords to search online are; happiness, wellbeing, strengths, resilience, hope, positive emotions and flourishing.  Starter for Ten:

New Economics Foundation Five Ways to Wellbeing –actions to build wellbeing
Martin Seligman’s work on strengths – survey to identify your strengths
Corey Keyes, a wellbeing expert explains concepts of flourishing


A Positive Psychology Movement

Together I believe we can start a strengths and kindness movement, with ripple effects where communities of kind strong people create environments where people flourish, instilling hope, meaning and purpose.   We do have choice and collectively we are much stronger


Take Action!

For me, the song that sums up how I feel in the face of adversity and which I listen to, to inspire me is Labi Siffre’s ‘Something Inside So Strong;.  It makes me feel more powerful and hopeful by listening to the lyrics… Especially the lines

 “Brothers and sisters, when they insist that we’re not good enough, when we know better, we look them in the eyes and say “we’re gonna do it anyway, we’re going to do it anyway….”.

Do it anyway!

About the author: Georgina Clarke MAPP is one of three Directors working for Ascent Wellbeing, which builds mental health strategies for businesses, universities, communities and schools, offering coaching, training and consultancy and Strengthscope strengths profiling. Georgina volunteers for Live Laugh Lache, a local resident group and supports Rise up with the Homeless, a Chester Facebook page and group.


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’









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