Accentuate the positive: Professor Lea Waters

By Chris Borthwick, Our Community

Not-for-profits tend to be problem-oriented, looking at the things in the world that aren't working and searching for remedies. That's fine as a strategy, Lea Waters told Communities in Control delegates, but it's not necessarily good tactics. What if, instead, we looked at the bits that were working well and tried to leverage our strengths to create change?

Scientists don't get to be Nobel laureates by fixing their defects, they get there by playing to their strengths. David Beckham focuses on his goalkicking, not his defence. That's the essence of Professor Waters' field of positive psychology: start with strengths, and build on and amplify those.

Lea Waters

In a very moving, personal address to Communities in Control, Professor Lea Waters shared with delegates the story of the family circumstances that eventually led her to the field of positive psychology. She called on not-for-profit sector organisations to work towards overcoming their negativity bias and focus instead on strengths. Pic: Ellen Smith

Don't ask, or at least don't ask first, how you can fix your problems. What are the strengths of your organisation, and how can you harness them?

Thinking that way is difficult, because we human beings spent millions of years on the African savannah listening anxiously for the rustle of a bush in case that signalled the presence of a predatory lion, which would present a problem. The worriers survived, and we evolved to have a major bias towards negativity. Yet, Professor Waters says, "We don't necessarily need the negativity bias today. We're not under mortal threat. We spend so much time listening for the rustle of the bush that we miss the beautiful berry on the bush."

Overcoming the negativity bias means reorienting your thinking. And the absence of a negative is not the same as the presence of a positive. Fixing problems isn't the same thing as building strengths. Reducing illness isn't the same thing as building wellness. Combating racism isn't the same thing as building respect.

"Anti-bullying programs are about reducing harm. But why not also have pro-kindness programs?" Professor Waters told delegates. "Taking away harm is not the same as doing good."

Lea Waters earned her optimism the hard way. She grew up with a mother who lived with a mental illness, she told delegates. She had an abusive childhood: "I am the oldest, and I took on the responsibility to be the protector of my younger brother and younger sister. My job was to literally take the punch." She was raped at the age of 11, and developed bulimia at 15. She was diagnosed with complex PTSD. But she made her way through it all. "I've had enough therapy for everyone in this room."

As an adult, she reached a point where she wasn't ill, but she wasn't living to her full potential either - until the field of positive psychology came along.

A psychologist said to her, "Have you got any idea how strong you are to have survived what you have survived? To have not become bitter? To have stayed open hearted? To have completed a PhD? To be in a long-term relationship?" She flicked the switch to a new orientation.

To share some of what she'd learned, Dr Waters wrote her book The Strength Switch in the early morning hours, snatching available time between paid work and household work. She also designed a program called Visible Wellbeing that's being used across the world.

The big call of positive psychology is "Don't just fix what's wrong. Build what's right." And it's people in the not-for-profit sector, she told delegates, who are perfectly placed to do it.

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