Reflections on Research & Positive Psychology
Almost four months have passed since I last sit down to blog about my qualitative research project on the motivation to practice a form of movement, exercise, and/or sport, and how this changes over time.
As I ease back into the process of writing, there is a felt sense that I'm writing from a different perspective. The research interviews have continued and while I have yet to analyse the findings in thematic detail, there are thoughts that linger.
Qualitative research by its very nature can be intense. It places the researcher in close proximity to the research participant, at least relative to its counterpart, quantitative research. We inevitably expose parts of who we are during the research journey; there are no white lab coats to hide behind. In turn, we may be affected by what we hear.
It wouldn't be ethical to expose the narratives of my study's participants before all the analyses are done and dusted, and their final approval has been given. So this leaves me with reflections on subject and self, the subject being Psychology (my area of research) and the self being me as researcher.
When I started this project earlier this year, I questioned whether a Positive Psychology lens could be brought to my research process. The research method (IPA) doesn't call for this, rather it focuses on participant phenomenon. My method isn't seeking to test a theory or push particular concepts onto my participants, rather it is about being open to interpreting the insights that my study participants choose to share.
Their insights (prior to detailed individual and group thematic analysis) have left me reflecting on questions such as:
Is movement a pathway to flourishing?
Is love of movement a character strength?
Could this strength amplify the potential for flow?
Is practice a process for self-actualisation?
Does it provide an outlet for meaning and purpose?
Can it also be a process for self-transcendence?
I'm conscious that the above questions reflect my background in Positive and Humanistic Psychologies. I am naturally biased towards viewing my data in such a way, with Positive Psychology (the main focus on my "day job") having established a science around the more philosophical concept of character strengths and virtues, building on Humanistic Psychology's earlier forays in this direction.
I spend my days and over 60 hours a week teaching Positive Psychology and running a "Positive Organisation". Pretty much every waking thought - at least on weekdays and Saturdays - revolves around something I need to teach, or something I need to learn in relation to Positive Psychology so that I can more adeptly teach it or manage a team and organisation in a more "positive" way. I'm only too aware of how easy it is for me to filter any incoming information through this particular lens.
Unlike many of my students, I never had a moment where I fell "in love" with Positive Psychology. In fact my first encounter with it over a decade ago was one of dismissal. When we again crossed paths, I once again resisted. Was it a negativity bias? A mistrust of all things "positive"? Or was it that I had already found my Positive Psychology, and therefore felt no need to dig deeper and acquire more knowledge and theory about what already lived in some way within me.
This latter question is one that lingers as I explore my own and other people's experiences of practicing movement over time.
Teaching Positive Psychology is a fairly mechanical role for me. It has to be that way. It is about ensuring that our teaching curriculum is sound and that our students are grasping the content. It is about the process of teaching as much as the subject. Our teaching philosophy places the adult learner and their wellbeing at the heart of what we we do, and how we do it. This dynamic means I have to stay vigilant for bias and ensure that our teaching methods allow ample space for all sorts of learners to thrive.
It isn't my role to influence our learners' process of understanding Positive Psychology in a direction that suits my taste. I typically guard my personal views like a jailor, lest I inadvertently lead them astray. I'm of the mind that all students bring something into their learning process that is uniquely theirs', and that this "something" will eventually shape and colour their understanding of what Positive Psychology is. At the same time, I hope that they will find something new and valuable in our courses that they can take away, which might possibly be what they were originally searching for.
Call me a dreamer but I'm optimistic that adult learning, when done properly, can transform someone's life as it once did mine. Studying, researching, and teaching Positive Psychology has certainly added value to my life. It has also refined some of my thoughts around practice and what my Positive Psychology actually is.
The world of Martial Arts and Self-Defence led me to Positive Psychology. It wasn't a typical route. It was January 2017 and I had just completed my self-defence instructor training. Nursing a broken elbow from a rather violent grading, and doing my utmost to hide it out of embarrassment that it was my moment of panic that caused it, I found myself in conversation about a book I was writing on inner strength. The book was an interpretation of 20 guiding principles in karate and the person with whom I was speaking was both a self-defence expert and Positive Psychologist.
"You know you're also talking about Positive Psychology," they said.
That I did not know at the time but I did by coincidence have a writing coach who was in their final stages of qualifying as a Positive Psychology coach. I had reached out to this particular coach as they were well-published on the topic of Tao and had been a favourite author of mine for many years. I hadn't expected them to agree to coach me so when they replied and said yes, I leapt at the chance. Over time, they had introduced me to Positive Psychology and once more, the subject had washed over me.
Over the next few years, I qualified as a Positive Psychology Practitioner and battled with my Exercise and Sport Psychology professors to bring Positive Psychology into my post-graduate research on motivation to teach martial arts and/or self-defence. I had been engaged in a decade-long process of finding my lost self - a true self of sorts - and returning to martial arts had been an essential part of this process. It had led me to this Masters degree in Exercise and Sport Psychology where I was to be sorely disappointed that my professors had zero understanding of or passion for this area of "sport".
Looking back, I don't know why I expected them to respond to my ideas with any enthusiasm. Martial Arts does cross over with sport but it is also so much more. It overlaps with culture and society, character and tradition, and religion and spirituality. I learned many interesting things on my Masters course and it prepared me well for teaching Psychology, however it did not provide me with the outlet I needed to explore my love affair with Martial Arts. That is where Positive Psychology filled a deep hole.
I had already tilled my inner soil prior to entering Positive Psychology and operating in this world for several years has offered me the chance to reflect on and refine what I found. It isn't that I have changed - rather, my doubts about who I am and what I value have begun to fade away. My current research study has accelerated this process and led me to where I am now, which is trying to find the words to explain why I believe each person has their version of Positive Psychology and that when it comes to actual practice, this is what matters most.
The science and philosophy of Positive Psychology matters but at an individual level, the lived and subjective experience of concepts such as character and wellbeing matter more.
In essence, Positive Psychology is about flourishing and leading a meaningful life. I have done the latter rather well since I was a kid, for true to Rumi's poetry I allowed what I loved to lead me, and it (mostly) didn't lead me astray. My work has been (and still is) meaningful and motivated by virtues such as compassion, justice, and humanity. A virtuous life came easily to me as a child, so too did a low threshold for the absence of meaning. Consequently I don't suffer the fate of having lived a meaningless life.
In my personal life, I am motivated by love, harmony, and peace. Those qualities, along with my professional virtues, blend beautifully with my practice of martial arts. It was only when I stopped to write my book on inner strength and karate's 20 guiding principles a few years ago that I paused to question who I was. That questioning led me far beyond the purpose of the book - into judo, reality-based self-defence, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and crossfit - and finally back full circle, to where I am right now.
It was years of karate training that offered me a way to build and embody my character and explore ways into (and out of) wellbeing. Not conversations with people on character. Those didn't build my character; action did. As I took on judo and other grappling and heavy lifting arts, my character became more playful and competitive. While karate had always been about showing up, shutting up, and training (self-control and respect ruled the dojo!), judo, lifting, and crossfit were more social. There was an element of being and wanting to be seen, and wanting to be connected to other people.
My journey through various martial arts and forays into fitness has taught me that aspects of our character, and who and how we are, can emerge and evolve as a result of repetitive movement patterns and degrees of intensity that are imbued with personal interest, value, belief, and social exchange. In my view, movement can hone and reveal character better than any talk-based conversation. In verbal exchange, people lie and obscure (knowingly or not) the truth. For someone like me, the spoken and written word doesn't come as easily as experiencing a particular state. If anything, the effort to find the right words takes something of my experience away.
Which leaves me with more questions to ponder on as I make my way through the next 6 months of this research study. Can my research participants really tell me through words what motivates them to practice, and how this changes over time, or is this something that requires research of an embodied nature to truly understand?
Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.