Live happy, write well

Our next 26 Trade Secrets workshop takes place in late January, with a focus on mindfulness and creative writing. Sophie Gordon caught up with positive psychology expert Vanessa King to find out what we can expect from the session.


For the uninitiated among us, what exactly is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what enables us to flourish. In the last two decades or so, psychological research has undergone a paradigm shift from a focus on the causes and cures of dysfunction to what enables human beings to function well and feel good. Twenty years ago there was surprisingly little research on the latter, now the field is growing rapidly. So positive psychology is simply regular psychology but focused on why things go right and how to apply this more widely as opposed to only why things go wrong and how to cure that.

The field is becoming increasingly influential in areas such government policy, health, education and business as well as in neuroscience and medicine. Leading economists are calling for wellbeing to be included as a key measure of social progress alongside GDP. The UK leads the world on this, being the second nation to establish national accounts of wellbeing, alongside traditional economic measures.


What drew you to this field?

I worked for many years in leadership development and consultancy – helping organisations spot talent and bring out the best in people, yet the predominant focus was always on identifying and correcting people’s weaknesses which intuitively never felt quite right to me. About ten years ago I was at a big conference and someone was talking about new research that found focussing on developing strengths – what people naturally do well and helping them do more of it – was more effective, energising and better for people’s wellbeing than focusing on what they don’t do well. For me a metaphoric light bulb went off. I felt strongly that this had to be part of the future and I wanted it to be part of mine.

So I immediately did what we all do now, got onto Google, and found that there was a Masters degree in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in the US studying with the leading psychologist Dr Martin Seligman. I knew there and then I would apply, but wasn’t certain if I’d get in (UPenn is one of the top universities in the world) or how I could make it work financially or logistically. I got in and the rest as they say is history. I’ve not regretted it for a moment. In fact I’d say it’s one of the very best things I’ve done in my life.


Your book 10 Keys to Happier Living was published last year. What’s the framework based on?

When I graduated from my Masters a series of serendipitous events meant I got involved in the social movement and charity, Action for Happiness (AfH), just as it was setting up. AfH was founded by eminent figures in economics, education and social change to increase psychological wellbeing and counter increasing social isolation in our society. The aim was to make the evidence-based ideas emerging from positive psychology and other related fields practical and accessible to inspire action by individuals, schools, workplaces and communities. So I synthesised the primary areas emerging from the scientific literature that are most within our own control or influence to take action for ourselves and for others. The 10 Keys to Happier Living was the result. It’s a simple framework but based on thousands of academic studies. Within each of the keys there are lots of evidence-based ideas for action. The acronym for the keys is GREAT DREAM which people love and it’s humbling – the framework has reached millions of people around the world.


You and Elise ran a very popular session at this year’s Margate Bookie. What was your highlight?

The session was an experiment coming out of an idea Elise and I had been bouncing around for two years, so we were bowled over when it quickly sold out. We had over 60 participants ranging from experienced writers to people more focused on improving their wellbeing. Everyone seemed really engaged by the ideas we shared and put lots of energy into the activities. Towards the end of the session we asked for volunteers to read out a short piece they’d written in the time we were together. We didn’t have time to hear everyone but those we did were very moving. Not just in terms of what they’d written but also in how they’d applied the ideas we’d shared and made them their own.


And now you’re both teaming up again for a 26 Trade Secrets workshop. What can we expect from the session? Make us an offer we can’t refuse – why should we be booking our places?

The session will be unique – combining Elise’s extensive experience as a creative writing tutor and as a well-respected published author and my work in psychology. We’ll share specially-curated nuggets from the science that can both help boost your wellbeing and develop and inspire your writing. It will be an active session so you’ll get chance to play with these ideas and develop your skills in the session too. It’ll be a great way to kick-off the New Year. We’re excited to be running it!


Perhaps we could get a cheeky preview? If you could share one piece of your expertise with 26ers, what would it be?

As human beings we are naturally hard-wired to focus on what’s wrong. In evolutionary terms this is a good thing as it’s helped us spot danger and emotionally respond, and so take flight or stay and fight to ensure our immediate physical survival. This means however our brains tend to overlook what’s gone right. It turns out this has important benefits for our resilience, growth and development longer-term. A simple way we can train our brains notice the good as well as the bad is to take a minute or two each day to reflect back on the previous 24 hours and write down three things we were pleased about, grateful for or enjoyed and maybe a word or two on why. These don’t need to be anything big – it could as simple as feeling grateful for getting a seat on the tube! In an experiment people were asked to do this each night for one week and it had a boost on their wellbeing that lasted for six months! So try experimenting with it for yourself and see what you notice. If you keep it up in your notebook for a few weeks it can also be illuminating to notice the themes emerging – these often give clues to sources of both pleasure and meaning in our life and the research shows both are important to flourish!

Our next 26 Trade Secrets session will take place from 18.30-21.00 on Tuesday 23rd January at the Free Word Centre in London. Book your place now.

Vanessa King’s book, 10 Keys to Happier Living, is out now.

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