Positive Psychology and medical consequences

What we pay attention to and focus on, is of great influence on the functioning of people and of organisations. This even appears to have physical / medical consequences. Watkins and Mohr refer to research by the Simontons in 1981, which shows a higher percentage of cure in patients who actively worked on psychological issues and who applied learnings from the positive psychology. Another example is the research by Cooperrider & Srivastva.  They discovered that the balance between positive and negative thoughts (approximately 2:1) was important for a better recovery of patients after surgery. Based on a large number of medical studies into the effects of optimism, pessimism and psychological well-being on heart and cardiovascular disease and the flue, Seligman concludes: There is a strong correlation between optimism and cardiovasular health and between pessimism and cardiovascular risk. A positive attitude protects against the flue and a negative attitude makes more vulnerable for flue. According to Seligman, optimism and psychological well-being can be trained though trainings and resilience programs.

Goedhart and Van der Steen (2) distinguish a number of manifestations of attention: concentration (focus), unfocused attention (open attitude and observation), prolonged attention (challenge is to stay focused) and divided attention (different incentives). The superlative form of the latter - and the least constructive - is hyperattention, a concept that was introduced by the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. According to Han (3), hyperattention is a symptom of our modern times; we no longer live in a society of "having to" but in a society of "being able to". The twentyfirst century society is a society which is aimed at performance. But the people are not "subordinates"; they are "high potentials". They are not obedient subjects; they are focused on performing. They are the entrepreneur of their own self. According to Han this results in fragmented, dispersed, superficial attention, just like our ancestors on the savannah who had to be alert at all times for lurking dangers. 

Goedhart and Van der Steen build on Han when they describe an overstimulated organisation: this is an organisation that suffers from hyperattention. Because of fragmented attention and observation, workload, workpressure and multitasking people find themselves in a permanent state of broad but superficial attention. This form of hyperattention is characteristic for a wild animal. The focus on the good life is being displaced by a focus on survival. Goedhart and Van der Steen make a comparison with the human body. The production of adrenaline skyrokets in a situation of too many incentives. Because of the continuous pressure and push for alertness, the production of adrenaline as a catalyst continues in organisations. Prolonged exposure to too many incentives releases cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol inhibits the immune system and the adrenaline. It protects our organs from being poisoned by the adrenaline. That's the good news. The bad news is that cortisol has as a side effect that it creates depressive thoughts and thoughts of powerlessness, which makes an unstable system even more sensitive.


(1) Watkins & Mohr, 2001, Appreciative Inquiry - Change at the Speed of Imagination, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, p. 31

(2) Goedhart, Van der Steen, 2016, Proceskunde - en pleidooi voor werken met aandacht, Kessels en Smit The Learning Company

(3) Byung-Chul Han, juli 2014, De vermoeide samenleving, Van Gennep, Amsterdam