A Research Paper By Francesca Castagnetti, Life Coach, Design Coach, ITALY
Positive Psychology Interview Mrs. Maaike Rijken
I had the privilege to interview Mrs. Maaike Rijken, an incredible woman and senior professional in the field of psychology. Maaike founded and developed the international program of Positive Psychology which she has been leading for several years specific training programs at the University of Applied Science of Amsterdam.
Her passion is to make people flourish and she translates her scientific knowledge and experience in the field into concrete actions to increase overall happiness in individuals, groups, and organizations. She is currently on the journey of shaping her own business to support corporations in developing and sustaining their own in-house coaching programs, through which they are empowered to support the growth of their organizations.
What Is Positive Psychology and What Are the Defining Traits of This Specialty?
“Positive psychology is about the well-being of people; happiness means being fulfilled but also having the tools to be resilient. It’s about feeling energetic, fulfilled, and uplifted which are the ingredients for people to feel happier. Being happy is also possible by doing things that typically entail happiness, such as going to a party, seeing a football match for those that are passionate about that, or anything else that provides an immediate feeling of happiness. But this isn’t the only point. Actually, sometimes choosing happiness isn’t always the easy way, this oftentimes means that to be happy there may be choices to make, things to sacrifice, people to let go of, relationships to end, jobs to leave, etc that give, as an immediate effect, discomfort, uncertainty, sadness, etc. So, happiness isn’t always the easy way, but it certainly is the one that ultimately brings more meaning, awareness, and fulfillment and creates more long-term value for people’s well-being.
For the sake of reminding me very shortly at the history of positive psychology, there was a first wave in which there was positive psychology and negative psychology. The second wave sees positive psychology more integrated into all different kinds of psychologically-based approaches and self-development competencies, so nowadays positive psychology is leveraged by many psychologists, and this certainly goes for coaching as well.
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology together with the flow theory, often talks about the PERMA framework, which explains the pillars of positive psychology:
Positive emotions include hope, interest, joy, love, compassion, pride, amusement, and gratitude. Positive emotions are a prime indicator of flourishing, and they can be cultivated or learned to improve well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).
Engagement’s about connection and identification with what people are doing
Relationships it’s about how you connect with people, it’s speaking to the quality of the connections
Meaning it’s about finding the opportunity to express yourself, your talents, and your qualities. People feel more that their job is their calling if there is meaning, for example, and their job doesn’t feel like a job anymore. This to me is a key point. it answers the questions: what are my values? How do these meet my job? What does my job mean to me? Why am I here?
Accomplishment it’s about achieving a result with meaning and with a feeling of having completed something that we set ourselves to do. All human beings, looking at the big numbers, simply like to finish things. It’s in our nature. Accomplishment is the feeling that comes with that.
These 5 pillars are all interconnected and are all things that we need, that allow us to nurture the happiness that positive psychology strives to enable”
As a Psychologist and Coach, What Do You Think Is the Most Powerful Characteristic of Positive Psychology?
“For a long time, psychology talked about negative emotions because there was a direct effect of those emotions on people, their reactions, and how they affected their brains. Negative emotions can be explained with a very strong cause-effect reaction.
Barbara Fredrickson – renowned American professor in the department of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil -though pointed out that positive emotions may not have that direct response if people have more positive emotions and learn to access those positive feelings also when in negative circumstances their hearts recover quicker. In other words, positive emotions enable people by gaining new skills and foster creativity, which helps us further in life. Positive emotions broaden our perspectives, when are perspectives are broader, we see more options, when we see more options, we can try more things or things that are different from what we did before, and all of this helps with an upward spiral.
As a psychologist, a teacher, and a coach I truly think that positive psychology is extremely powerful and can be transformational. And what I find extraordinary is that it is very pragmatical.
Some tools that I often use with my students and in my practice are for example:
- Gratitude journal. This trains our brain to see what is going well. Positive psychology is very much about training the brain to see things differently.
- Positive inquiry: this is also something we can do in coaching, using positive questions, and focusing on the actions our clients can make for their selves is creating movement.
- Setting goals: is a positive way to approach things, by encouraging our clients to set goals we can encourage them to focus on their talents. This is also a way of training the brain.
- Focusing on positive emotions and how people would like to feel, as opposed to focusing on the negative ones, where they come from, etc. This helps clients change perspectives and nurture a more positive attitude.
- Exercises on gratitude: I often ask my students to think of someone they feel specifically grateful for, to motivate why this is and then I ask them to call that person and tell them all of this. My students are often caught by surprise but then truly love the outcome of opening up about their emotions towards others.
- Mindfulness: it’s about breathing, connecting with your surroundings, and doing things with purpose and intention.
- VIA strength test is a very quick and easy way to measure talents and strengths. Research shows that knowing and using your character strengths can help you in increasing happiness and well-being, finding meaning and purpose, boosting relationships, managing stress and health, and accomplishing goals.”
What Have You Learned From the Interaction With the Students of Your Major in Positive Psychology and How Did the Capabilities That You Have Developed in This Area Affect Your Ability to Influence, Lead, Inspire and Train the Students?
“I regularly experiment with my students the notions of positive psychology and I leverage all the exercises and tools that I mentioned previously. I can truly state that at the end of their scholarship the students have really grown into different, more aware, conscious, and fulfilled human beings.
Also, for myself, the opportunity to teach and to practice all of this with my students is a constant reminder and a continuous challenge as I don’t always remember to apply everything I teach, because life comes in the way. But it’s great to be able to access these tools and to remind me to strive to be present with what I have and to be happy.
Meaning and engagement ultimately are key to keeping the right people in. According to this principle, it works the same for my students, just as it does for any other work/business: meaning and engagement also help people to stay motivated.
If I look back at the last two years with Covid, what I am specifically happy about is the commitment that I made with my students to not be limited and put down by virtual connections, which were the only way to connect for our classes. We made a group commitment to take the time for each other, to really take the time to connect, to take care of ourselves. We made sure to always take breaks, to make connections, and whenever possible to also meet in person, although with social distancing. I was extremely focused, as their teacher, to help them focus on their talents and differences and bring them into the group. At the end of the year, nobody ever commented on how the year passed without ever meeting each other. This shared commitment gave meaning to every moment we spent together, meaning kept us all motivated.
This is just a small example to show what I do: practically, I base my minor on the evidence of positive psychology and the students are living experiments, they realize at the end of the year the power of what they are studying. It’s truly transformational. What you see at the end is that students no longer fear or hold their emotions, they no longer dismiss other people’s emotions and what those cause. The connection between all the people, that are more aware and awakened, really brings an incredible opportunity to grow together and to grow even more.
This is specifically very important within groups and within a class, this is when I started realizing that it would do wonders also in companies.
So to summarize, the principles I use to inspire and create engagement in my groups of students are:
- Presence, be there with who you are
- Strengths & talents
We used all of this and I can really state that great growth comes from this.”
Together With Your Work on Positive Psychology I Know You Are Very Busy Setting up a Model to Support Corporations in Developing Sustainable Coaching Capabilities to Foster a Positive Working Culture Environment. Could You Tell Me a Little Bit More About Where Does This Idea Stem From?
“This is a very important topic for me.
My idea stems from a very simple concept: people want to be seen. Companies celebrate results not people. Performance is more important than people. However, it’s important to see what the person does to achieve those goals, or simply what they do.
Unfortunately, often reward systems across companies are based on performance tools, but the point really is that there is not an only top performance in the company and companies actually need employees that are not necessarily top performers. It’s important to make everyone visible and to value the differences. There is not only one way of doing things and not only one possible result.
Starting from this very simple concept, I work on bringing in tools that enhance the human aspect of work, which is about trying to build a culture of making time for the small things, for every employee.
When people feel seen, people are more creative and productive, and engaged. When people are more creative and productive, they perform better and are more likely to go the extra mile. If they go the extra mile they will probably stand out. And so on.
There is a study, called “Top Performers Have a Superpower: Happiness” by Lester, Paul B.; Diener, Ed; Seligman, Martin from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that clearly states that within the workplace, we know that happier employees are more likely to emerge as leaders, earn higher scores on performance evaluations, and tend to be better teammates. Substantial research proves that happier employees are healthier, have lower rates of absenteeism, are highly motivated to succeed, are more creative, have better relationships with peers, and are less likely to leave a company. All these correlates of happiness significantly influence a company’s bottom line. This ultimately means that it shouldn’t only be an option for a few, visionary CEOs to invest in their employee’s happiness but it should be many CEOs’ priority to shape the workplace to make happier employees.
I found that I am very good with group dynamics and influencing groups, so I hope to contribute to the shift that I would like to see in the business world. It’s always been on the back of my mind, I feel it’s really my calling.”
What Are the Gaps and Contradictions That You Current See in Corporate Cultures and Their Leadership?
“Many companies are now realizing the importance of nurturing motivation and engagement, and that this is deeply connected to happiness in the work environment. The challenge is that there needs to be a deep understanding of the kind of change that needs to take place. It’s not about putting a ping pong table in the break area, the focus on happiness needs to be implemented at every level of the organization.
I think there is still an old fashion trend of separation between soft skills and hard skills, almost like the two things cannot go together. Often smart leaders hire consultants to get “leadership training” to compensate for the soft skills that are missing, but this doesn’t happen everywhere and it’s a real missed opportunity.
The conversation is now moving quite a bit, the message that is coming across is that if you take good care of your people, they will perform better which equals an overall higher financial performance of the company. However, I still don’t see complete alignment and I still think we are missing the real point here. The preposition should only be“let’s just take good care of the people, less profit but enough profit”.”
What Are the Exclusive Principles of Positive Psychology That You See Being Successfully Applicable to the Corporate Environment?
“Talent management is a good example because it focuses on strengths and talents.
By using talents and strength people feel more meaning. This is a good starting point for companies to leverage principles of positive psychology. I see more and more companies that are leveraging talent management, using tools such as the VIA test and also implementing coaching into their organizations.
I also think that having a good conversation with feedback being shared not only with employees but also with leaders is a very powerful tool that can be used to improve the organization because it fosters a culture of attention towards people, towards their emotions and it nurtures the human connections”.
I Am Coming to My Last Question Which Is Also Connected to My Power Tool (Winning vs Flowing).
Most Corporations Create a Culture of Winning and They Incentive Performance. I Believe Performance Is an Effect, Not a Cause, Therefore It Cannot Truly Be Incentivized. This Means the Contemporary Corporate Incentive Model Is Based on the Wrong Paradigm (As Also Simon Sinek States). What Is Your View on This? Based on Your Experience, What Generates a Bigger Impact on People to Do and Be at Their Best?
“It’s true that all people like to perform, many people want to grow, and they want to do things well. So, in other words, people like to win.
But my question is: what does it cost to win? What does it cost other people? What does it cost to the other people in the same environment? Is winning connected to what people really like to do?
We cannot certainly expect corporations completely review and shift their performance model, but I do think that leaders should start caring more about what the cost is for reaching that goal. Winning is losing, the two things are always connected.
For people’s happiness, it’s fundamental to find intrinsic motivation, which I strongly believe in far more than extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is about the deeper connection to the goal, if there is no connection to the goal it’s more likely that people are going to feel miserable in the long run. So to answer the question, I would go back to the concept of meaning and purpose, to feeling connected and present to what you are doing. That’s where people will flourish”.
Well, that’s where people FLOW.