Some people associate positive psychology with naïve, unrealistic “positive thinking,” or they believe that positivity is reserved only for those who are naturally upbeat and energetic. In fact, the opposite is true: positive psychology is based in science, and it offers evidence-based techniques anyone can apply to live happy, meaningful, and productive lives.
In this article I’ll provide an introduction to Psychological Capital, a research-backed framework comprised of four powerful resources which can be developed through simple and practical exercises. Intentionally building these psychological resources can help you develop a positive mindset and improve your health, relationships, and work.
The Origins of Psychological Capital
Psychological Capital, or PsyCap for short, comes from nearly 20 years of extensive research into Positive Organisational Behaviour (POB) conducted by Dr. Fred Luthans and his collaborators at the University of Nebraska’s Department of Management. Luthans and his team set out to identify core psychological constructs which are positive, theory- and research-based, validly measurable, state-like (changeable), and which have a demonstrated impact on attitudes, behaviours, performance, and wellbeing.
The “HERO” Within
That research has resulted in the definition of PsyCap as an individual’s positive psychological state of development that is characterised by four positive psychological resources: Hope, Efficacy (confidence), Resilience, and Optimism (which conveniently spell the easy-to-remember acronym of HERO).
The four HERO resources are distinct from each other but have much in common and build upon one another, creating an integrated set of psychological resources. So developing each one results in improvement across the other areas, and in a cumulative overall benefit. In other words, the whole of PsyCap is greater than the sum of its parts.
Defining the HERO Elements
One thing I’ve found when working with clients to develop their PsyCap is that the way many people use and understand the words hope, confidence, resilience, and optimism is quite different from how they’re actually defined in the research. So here’s a brief definition and explanation of each…
What is Hope?
A hopeful person perseveres toward goals and when necessary, redirects their paths in order to succeed.
A common misconception is that hope is wishful thinking. For example, we may say we “hope” that the weather is nice tomorrow, but we have no control over that…so it’s really a wish.
In contrast, PsyCap hope relates to things we want and have control over, such as when we set goals to improve our health, relationships, or work. When we believe we can attain our goals (agency or willpower) and adjust our course as needed to keep moving toward them (pathways or waypower), we are exhibiting hope.
What is Efficacy?
A person with high efficacy has confidence to take on challenging tasks and put in the necessary effort to succeed at them.
We tend to feel confident about things that are within our comfort zones and that we’ve already mastered. To grow in new areas, we need to overcome our fears and resistance to change, raise our confidence levels past our usual threshold, and take new actions.
When we increase our PsyCap Efficacy, we develop more self-belief and begin seeing a higher probability of success in our stretch zones. We become more motivated and more open to experimentation, even welcoming new challenges as opportunities for learning and growth.
What is Resilience?
A resilient person bounces back (and even beyond) to attain success when faced with challenges and adversity.
Many people think of resilience as a resource only used to get through hard times, failure, or traumatic experiences.
PsyCap Resilience extends this to additionally look at how people‘s resilience enables them to intentionally lean into positive (stretch) challenges in order to grow. It looks at how we adapt and can even thrive when we are pushed beyond a threshold capacity level. PsyCap resilience helps us bounce back to our normal selves, and potentially even grow into becoming our stronger “possible selves.”
What is Optimism?
Optimistic people make positive attributions and expectations about succeeding, both now and in the future.
Many people view optimism as an overly simplistic, blind faith that good things will happen, and optimism has gotten a bit of a bad name as a result.
PsyCap Optimism is quite different from this common conception, focusing instead on what people believe about why certain events occur (past, present, or future) – regardless of whether the events themselves are positive or negative. (Realistic) Optimists see positive circumstances as something within their power to create, likely to occur, and replicable in many areas of life. They view negative circumstances as temporary, situation-specific, and caused by factors outside of their control. This perspective helps them remain positive and confident about the future.
Benefits of PsyCap
For individuals, higher PsyCap has been shown to increase positivity, wellbeing, satisfaction with health and relationships, and investment in time spent with family and friends. High PsyCap is also linked with less negativity and reduced BMI and cholesterol levels.
In a workplace context, higher PsyCap is a predictor of improved performance, job satisfaction, organisational commitment and citizenship behaviours, and psychological wellbeing. PsyCap reduces cynicism, turnover intentions, work stress and anxiety.
PsyCap is Contagious
When PsyCap is developed, positivity spreads within teams, from leaders to teams, from teams to leaders, and from one team to another. Research has shown that PsyCap can spread through upward spirals, downward spirals, ripple effects and contagion effects. The positive effects are seen regardless of whether teams interact in person or at a distance.
So an investment in PsyCap development can have a considerable positive impact on an organisation’s people and its attainment of strategic and operational goals.
Neuroscientific evidence shows that we can become more positive and sustain positivity over time by developing our Psychological Capital.
PsyCap is typically developed through targeted, evidence-based interventions which last 2-3 hours, delivered by a skilled facilitator in a small group setting where participants feel supported, empowered, recognised, appreciated, rewarded, allowed to be authentic and innovative, and treated fairly.
Participants receive guided practice with a set of simple and practical developmental tools, applying the exercises to their own unique personal and professional contexts. Follow-up exercises are provided to help extend and sustain the learning beyond the workshops.
For Further Reading & Research Cited
Luthans F., Youssef-Morgan C., & Avolio B. (2007). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. New York: Oxford University Press.
Luthans, F., Avolio, B.J., Avey, J.B., Norman, S.M. (2007). Positive psychological capital: measurement and relationship with performance and satisfaction. Pers. Psychol. 60:541–72
Luthans F., Youssef-Morgan C., & Avolio B. (2015). Psychological Capital and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press.
Luthans, F. & Youssef-Morgan, C. (2017). Psychological capital: An evidence-based positive approach. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 4:339-366.
About the Author
Kristin Lowe is a former international school teacher who now works as an organisational psychologist, strengths-based leadership coach, and positive parenting educator.
Kristin’s work centers around applied positive psychology, helping school communities cultivate what is best within themselves and leverage these strengths to help students become confident, capable, and caring people.
You can read more about Kristin’s background and qualifications here.