Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Positive Psychology & Social Neuroscience

By Scott E. Friedman, Andrea H. HusVar, and Eliza P. Friedman

Hello and welcome back to the blog, where we continue to explore the sciences that drive “Stage 4 planning.” This week we turn our attention to the field of positive psychology and how families in business together can benefit from its findings.

Positive psychology[1] is the scientific study of how people and organizations flourish.[2] This now fast-growing field developed out of a concerted effort to counterbalance psychology’s traditional focus on deficits and problems—i.e., what’s wrong with people and how can those problems be fixed?[3] Without disregarding the existence or importance of “real” problems,[4] positive psychology seeks to broaden inquiry and perspective by bringing increased focus to the scientific study of individual and organizational strengths, skills, and talents—as well as considering what can be done to nurture and promote those individuals and organizations to help them flourish.[5]

Importantly, while its findings may be consistent with certain insights and guidance offered by religion, philosophy, or otherwise, positive psychology differentiates itself in that it relies upon scientific methods to understand the factors that allow individuals and organizations to flourish.[6] The field has become increasingly relevant to individuals, businesses and organizations who have come to appreciate the scientifically established correlation between “culture” and the “bottom line.”[7]

While this developing field continues to suggest countless opportunities to improve family business dynamics,[8] we focus here on introducing four strategies that we believe particularly helpful for family businesses: (1) seeking to intentionally create and/or nurture a positive culture; (2) new strategies designed to enhance the quality of inter-personal communication; (3) helping family members pursue interests, whether or not related to the family’s business, because of interest, aptitude and “fit,” and not because an opportunity might be lucrative, convenient, or expected; and (4) when necessary, using new strategies informed by game theory to help family members more constructively reconcile differing perspectives before situations erupt into full blown conflict.

Join us back here next week for our discussion of happy work environments, how to create them, and why they matter in business. 

[1]. Depending on one’s perspective, the field of positive psychology could be traced, in the West, to Aristotle and, in the East, to Confucius and Lao-Tzu. See generally, e.g., Katherine Dahlsgaard et al., Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History, 9 R. Gen. Psychol. 203 (2005). More modern contributors might include William James and Viktor Franklin. Martin E. P. Seligman is generally credited with being the “father” of modern positive psychology. See T.S. Srinivasan, The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology, Positive Psychol. Program (Feb. 12, 2015),

[2]. The field has, at times, been thought of as the scientific study of happiness. A number of leaders in the field, however, have sought to move away from the term “happiness” as not reflecting the disciplined scientific approach that distinguishes work in this area from pop psychology (as well as philosophy and religion). See, e.g., Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being 9 (2011) (“I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science . . .”).

[3]. The field of positive psychology now reaches in numerous directions, from helping individuals learn to be happier, students learn to be more successful, and members of our military learn to become more resilient to the horrors of war. For a sampling of some of the positive psychology-inspired initiatives, see, e.g., Positive Psychol. Ctr U. Pa.,

[4]. Barbara Frederickson, a leading positive psychologist, explains that

[n]obody in positive psychology is advocating full-time, 100 percent happiness. The people who do best in life don’t have zero negative emotions. In the wake of traumas and difficulties, the people who are most resilient have a complex emotional reaction in which they’re able to hold the negative and the positive side by side . . . There’s no escaping loss, grief, trauma, and insult.

Angela Winter, The Science of Happiness: Barbara Frederickson on Cultivating Positive Emotions, Positivity Radio, (last visited Apr. 4, 2017) (interview by Angela Winter of Psychologist Barbara Frederickson).

[5]. See Seligman, supra note 118, at 13 (“I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.”). 

[6]. For example, many of the world’s great religions emphasize the importance of forgiveness—a subject that is being researched at leading academic institutions like Stanford University. See infra note 138, and accompanying text.

[7]. For example, studies have found that positive psychology inspired approaches have helped “accelerate the growth of the United Nations Global Compact for sustainability . . . to 8,000 of the world’s largest corporations,” improved energy efficiency that resulted in “nearly 9 billion [dollars] of benefits for residents and businesses” in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “[t]ransformed a mining company that was once referred to as ‘dune-rapers’ into a [highly respected] corporate citizen while still growing their profits,” and helped “the dairy industry to reduce green house gas emissions by 25% in 2 years whilst increasing farm business value by more than $230 million.” Michelle McQuaid, Can We Create a Flourishing World? Discover the Strengths-Based Change Approach Sought Out By World Leaders, Psychol. Today (July 10, 2015),; see also Shawn Achor, The Happiness Dividend, Harv. Bus. Rev. (June 23, 2011), (“A decade of research proves that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as a myriad of health and quality improvements.”); infra note 127.

[8]. For example, an increasing number of companies—including law firms—are innovating new mindfulness programs for employees as studies show that spending just a few minutes a day on such exercises gives people greater focus and calm. See, e.g., Rhonda V. Magee, Educating Lawyers to Meditate?, 79 UMKC L. Rev. 535, 548–55 (2011); Emma Seppala, How Meditation Benefits CEOs, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Dec. 14, 2015), (“The research on mindfulness suggests that meditation sharpens skills like attention, memory, and emotional intelligence.”). Programs related to meditation include yoga, tai chi, and exercise. Others are studying and applying new strategies to thoughtfully raise children who were privileged to be born into a family with a successful family business that provides both opportunities and challenges. See, e.g.,  Carlos Arbesú, Parenting, the Last Frontier of Family Business Management, Carlos Abresu (Feb. 25, 2014),  Many great resources on these and other related subjects are widely available and, so, beyond the scope of this article.

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