Positive Psychology and the Body

“The body is more than simply another machine, indistinguishable from the artificial objects of the world, it is also the vessel of the individual’s sense of self, his most personal feelings and aspirations, as well as that entity to which others respond in a special way because of their uniquely human qualities.” ~ Gardner, 1993, pp. 235-6


Sir Ken Robinson

Recently I came across an old TED talk featuring one of my favorite speakers, Sir Ken Robinson, a British educationalist and one of the world’s greatest thought-leaders. Robinson is a passionate advocate of creativity as a means of enabling people to be the very best that they can be. As it happens this 2006 talk is the most viewed in TED’s history (more than 20 million times). According to Robinson we don’t actually learn to be creative as we grow up and go to school and college. On the contrary we’re all born with the capacity to do creative things, to innovate and think creatively, and then the vast majority of us get educated out of it.

He uses a joke about academics to illustrate the impact of the focus that schools have on left-brain type learning. Academics are often seen as the pinnacle of success in education and learning, but the problem, Robinson says, is that they live only in their heads and are disembodied. They look upon their body merely as a form of transport, simply as a way of getting their head to meetings. I’m not a true academic, but I do seem to have a natural affinity with anything and everything to do with education. I love the work I do on staff and student well-being and resilience in schools. I love my psychology lectures and workshops in colleges and universities. I love visiting libraries, and I love books. There isn’t a room in our house that doesn’t have at least three bookshelves. My top VIA strengths include love of learning and curiosity. Need I say more?  But Sir Ken Robinson’s point about our reverence for the brain over the physical body got me thinking.

Are we all becoming increasingly disembodied, that is, surviving only from the neck up? If so, what does that mean for our well-being?

Think with your whole body. ~ Taisen Deshimaru


What to do?

This is where I’d like to introduce you to Dr Kate Hefferon’s new book Positive Psychology and the Body: The Somatopsychic Side to Flourishing. This book is one of a kind. Why? Because it’s the first positive psychology textbook to focus exclusively on the role of the physical body in psychological well-being.

Kate is a chartered psychologist, an expert in performance psychology, and the leader of the University of East London MAPP program. With her background as a professional dancer and with her academic career in sport and performance focusing in particular on the link between the body and well-being, she is uniquely qualified to write this book.

Positive Psychology and the Body is packed with information, case studies, and measurement tools, all focusing on the body and psychological well-being. I particularly enjoyed the Think About It notes which encourage you to consider how the topics relate to your own life and the Did You Know? boxes that highlight some of the lesser-known facts about the body and its contribution to psychological well-being. Did you know, for instance, that we can communicate emotions such as anger, fear, love, sympathy, disgust, gratitude, happiness and sadness to strangers via touch?

Positive Psychology and the Body introduces the vast amount of research on the physical processes which contribute to our momentary experiences of pleasure and/or the longer-lasting experiences of meaning and personal development. It addresses the criticism made by many in the field that there has been very little serious debate about the link between the physical body and mental well-being.


Kate Hefferon

Original and Timely Content

Longstanding followers of the positive psychology field will be very familiar with hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. On page 3 we’re introduced to three new well-being terms:

  • Prudential well-being, concerning active pathways to happiness
  • Chaironic well-being, happiness which stems from unexpected or even tragic circumstances
  • Halcyonic well-being, happiness arising from the contented acceptance of life, without ambition to achieve or acquire more

Like Hefferon’s previous book co-authored by Ilona Boniwell, Positive Psychology: Theory, Research, and Application, which contains one chapter on the physical body and well-being, Positive Psychology and the Body has many assets. It is straightforward yet thought-provoking. It is crammed with descriptions of new studies and theories which will appeal to both practitioners of positive psychology and those with a broader interest in physical health and the body. You don’t have to read too many pages before you come across new ideas.

Positive Psychology and the Body covers many new topics from a well-being perspective, including:

  • Embodiment and body awareness
  • Nutrition
  • Sex and sexuality
  • Body adornment, scarring, and modification
  • Sport and physical activity
  • Interpersonal touch

This makes a change from the topics you find in other positive psychology textbooks, such as character strengths, positive emotions, and mindsets. But for me the real strength of this book is that the range of topics covered will attract a whole host of new students and researchers to positive psychology and lead to an expansion of the field. That’s got to be a good thing for all of us.



Prereads and Postreads

I’d suggest that to get the most from this book you need a little prior knowledge of the positive psychology basics, so reading Hefferon and Boniwell’s first textbook, or something similar like Boniwell’s Positive Psychology in a Nutshell or Peterson’s A Primer in Positive Psychology would be a good starting point.

After you finish, if you want a very practical book which focuses on physical health and well-being, then read Marie-Josée Shaar and Kathryn Britton’s excellent workbook, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance.

 Why You Should Read This Book

If, like Sir Ken Robinson, you are passionate about enabling people to be the best that they can be, the main message of this book is that it doesn’t work to focus only on understanding the mental or cognitive aspects of psychological well-being. There are many processes involving the physical body that should be explored because they are also linked to psychological well-being. So although it may seem contradictory to suggest it, if you have a serious interest in positive psychology and mental health, then reading Positive Psychology and the Body is a must. Understanding these important mind-body connections may allow us to achieve a more balanced and enduring form of happiness.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ~Gandhi



Hefferon, K. (2013). Positive Psychology and the Body: The Somato-Psychic Side to Flourishing. Open University Press.

Boniwell, I. (2012). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press.

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences. 10th Edition. Basic Books.

Hefferon, K. & Boniwell, I. (2011). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press. Reviewed by Bridget Grenville-Cleave here.

Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, Sir Ken (2006). How schools kill creativity. TED Talk.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press. See the review by Louisa Jewell on PPND.

Photo Credit:

via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses

Sir Ken Robinson PhD courtesy Sebastiaan ter Burg

This article was first published here on Positive Psychology News on 27th December 2013.

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