Looking on the Bright Side

At this place called Hope, multiple faculty in the social sciences focus not on pathology but identifying, documenting and cultivating that which enhances human life and encourages flourishing.

That life’s pace is ever-increasing has been a regular refrain for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced a lot of us into the slow lane. With that came time to consider ways we might recast our lives. Perhaps in this unusual moment, you’ve asked yourself: What makes me happy? Are there relationships I should strengthen? What have I learned about myself, good and bad — and what do I want to change?

At Hope College, psychologists and others have been asking that kind of question for quite some time.

They specialize in fields including clinical, experimental and social psychology, but integrate into their research another subfield known as positive psychology. Its premise is that it’s possible to enrich the well-being of relatively untroubled people as well as those who live with psychological disorders.

Research in psychology often focuses on pathology — what is wrong — and how to repair it. Positive psychology research has a different goal: to identify, document and cultivate “things that enhance human life and encourage flourishing,” as Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren puts it.

“We are looking for what’s beneficial — buffering,” says Dr. Alyssa Cheadle.

What can strengthen an individual’s positive character traits? How can someone become more able to feel empathy, forgive others, be resilient and have a healthy self-image? Whatever a person’s emotional profile, what can help that person flourish even more?

More than half of the Department of Psychology’s 15 faculty engage in research with that orientation. “Our department is unique relative to other colleges and universities in the number of scholars that focus on these topics,” says Van Tongeren, who this fall was honored by the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality for his innovative research.

Over five years, this group of professionals who know that strong social networks help people prosper built one of their own, known today as the General Psychology Research Group. Initially, positive psychology was the group’s sole focus, but this fall the scope was broadened to include all aspects of psychology. Four professors in other departments were invited to participate, too, because psychology overlaps with what they study, such as connections between mental disorder and faith, or how peer relationships influence an athlete’s commitment to sport. (See sidebar on page 31.)

Distinct from research groups in which Hope professors and students work in labs or in the field, this gathering about every two weeks is a setting for faculty to share with colleagues about current projects and seek feedback. Students sometimes sit in or help with presentations, which gives them a window onto how faculty sharpen one another’s ideas.

“The idea that a positive experience could have the same physiological impact that a stressor, a trauma, could have — I think that’s somewhat radical.”

Dr. Alyssa Cheadle, assistant professor of psychology

In September, when Dr. Mary Inman described her ongoing data analysis in a project on body image, her fellow professors inquired about the relevance of age, gender, body mass index, churches’ culture around food and even the healthiness (or un-) of typical regional diets. In November, Dr. Ben Meagher sketched for colleagues his ideas about ways to measure hospitality, and management professor Dr. Marcus Fila discussed his multinational study of teachers’ behavior under stress.

Van Tongeren, who valued his graduate school experience of “the power and importance of what it was like to come together around research,” organized the group in 2016. In it, he has “workshopped” ideas for a grant proposal and data he was preparing for publication.

“I really appreciate ideas for different ways of setting up studies,” Cheadle says, “or studies to add, questions to add, different ways to analyze the data — questions that didn’t occur to me that could be answered by a study I’ve done.”

The group has been a catalyst for collaborative research, each participant bringing their particular strength. Cheadle and Dr. Andrew Gall teamed up to look for links between sleep and forgiveness. He’d never done a study on humans; he works with rats. Cheadle works with people and knew how to set up a daily diary study. With Meagher, a human cognitive psychologist who investigates the impact of environment but is not an expert on health outcomes, she recently published an article about how people’s home space during the COVID lockdown related to their mental health.

“As a health psychologist,” Cheadle says, “my whole field is based on examining the phenomenon that negative psychological experiences like stress have negative effects on health. But how can we understand the more positive aspects of our psychology? We find surprising things, things that aren’t in the common wisdom.” For example, “the idea that a positive experience could have the same physiological impact that a stressor, a trauma, could have — I think that’s somewhat radical.”

Since COVID came on the scene in early 2020, the timeliness of these scholars’ work has caught the attention of national media. In coverage of the pandemic’s emotional fallout, the Associated Press has quoted Dr. Lindsey Root Luna ’03 about visible versus invisible threats and Van Tongeren about how rituals, symbols and milestones lend meaning to life. (He suggested that people will emerge from the pandemic with a new set of values and intentional resetting of priorities.) In podcast interviews, Dr. Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet has detailed her research on humility and the benefits of forgiveness for body and mind. A ThriveGlobal column this summer by Arianna Huffington about coping in a stressful world referred broadly to vanOyen-Witvliet’s studies with Root Luna about the physiological impact of forgiveness, research in which they monitor variation in heart rate as a measure of emotional response.

If you don’t happen to be one of the 6.5 million people who’ve streamed Dr. Martin Seligman’s 2004 TED talk about positive psychology, this all may seem like a brand-new thing.

Actually, the phrase was coined in the 1950s. In 2000, the professional journal American Psychologist devoted an issue to 15 positive psychology articles. One was by Hope’s Dr. David Myers; analyzing other researchers’ extensive data, he concluded that supportive relationships, faith, purpose and hope are better predictors of a person’s happiness than age, gender or income (once people have enough to afford necessities).

“Interest in positive psychology has mushroomed since 2000,” Myers says. He attributes it in part to “massive” research funding by institutions such as the Templeton Foundation, of which Myers was a trustee for most of the past two decades. The nearly $1.3 million in Templeton grants that Hope psychology professors have received over the past 10 years are largely for work around positive psychology and religious meaning.

The department offers a course in positive psychology and one in psychological science and religion, rare at other undergraduate institutions, and faculty sometimes introduce their classes to practices that help people stay centered and resilient. Cheadle sometimes has a class do a few minutes of mindfulness meditation, and this summer she prompted a group of student researchers to share with one another about the last time they experienced awe.

“Students have so much going on. I graduated less than 15 years ago, but it feels like our students’ lives are even more fragmented and spread even more thin,” Cheadle says. Hope students whose classes or research touch on positive psychology “have opportunities to apply that to their own lives and connect that to their faith,” she adds. “The point is for it to be put into action in people’s lives.”

What’s on their minds

Hope College psychology faculty engaged in positive psychology research

Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, Ph.D. – Emotional and physiological side effects of forgiveness, and strategies that facilitate accountability and granting forgiveness

Daryl Van Tongeren, Ph.D. – Humility, the search for meaning, and the social cognitive functions of religion

Lauren Sparks, Ph.D. – Hope development in early childhood and its contributions to resilience in adversity

Lindsey Root Luna, Ph.D. – The dynamic between physiological function and the expression of virtues

David Myers, Ph.D. – Happiness, psychological science and faith, and communicating psychology through writing

Benjamin Meagher, Ph.D. – What attracts people to certain physical settings, and how people use these places to regulate their thoughts and emotions

Mary Inman, Ph.D. – Body image’s impact on psychological well-being and sense of self-worth

Andrew Gall, Ph.D. – Neuroscience, circadian rhythms, sleep, and forgiveness

Alyssa Cheadle, Ph.D. – How religious/spiritual factors influence health

. . . and in other Hope College departments, work that intersects with positive psychology

Femi Oleyudun, Ph.D. (kinesiology) – How peer relationships play a role in an athlete’s commitment to sport

Marcus Fila, Ph.D. (economics and business) – How to promote workplace well-being, commitment, performance and retention, and dissuade strain and unnecessary turnover

Kate Finley, Ph.D. (philosophy) – Connections and interactions between mental disorder and religious faith

Angela Carpenter, Ph.D. (religion) – Moral formation, including how a lack of social belonging shapes human action