Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Judith Mangelsdorf, Germany’s first professor of positive psychology and a new member of BetterUp’s Science Board. She shared how she got her start in the field, the most promising areas of positive psychology research, and the impact of positive experiences on personal and organizational growth.
Professor Mangelsdorf leads the only master’s program focused on positive psychology in the DACH region at the German University for Health and Sport in Berlin. She is also the co-founder and director of the German Society for Positive Psychology, an education, training, and research institute helping people in various fields incorporate the science and tools of positive psychology into their work.
In addition to her time in academia and training, she works closely with companies across Europe to apply her work on resilience to employee well-being and organizational transformation.
BU: Can you tell us about your background in positive psychology and how you became interested in the field?
Mangelsdorf: Thank you very much for the invitation. My interest started early. Many of the female members of my family are mathematics or physics teachers. I saw how they had an immense passion for what they were doing, but with time, many of them struggled physically or psychologically. A high workload and high engagement led them to burn out physically and mentally. I was on track to become a teacher for mathematics and music, so this made me think.
Witnessing this brought me to the question, how can we really invest in a job? How can we be on fire for what we are doing but, at the same time, sustain a high quality of life and health? So after two years of studying teaching, I started to study psychology as well.
When I finished my five-year psychology degree in Germany, I realized I still didn’t know anything about human flourishing or have an answer to my major question. I found Dr. Marty Seligman’s first book Authentic Happiness and after reading the first 50 pages, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it. This is what I was always looking for.’ I finally had a name for it, positive psychology.
BU: What led you to study at the University of Pennsylvania, and how did this impact your work in the field?
Mangelsdorf: After reading everything on the topic, I researched where I could learn more, and the only options were in East London or UPenn. I went on a Fullbright scholarship and studied under Dr. Seligman and others like Adam Grant in the U.S. My time there led to pioneering the field in Germany. I returned to pursue my Ph.D., but there was no graduate program for it at the time. I found a great methods professor, Michael Eid, who worked with Ed Diener before and who was willing to advise me, and I convinced the Max Planck Society to fund it.
After studying, I founded the German Society for Positive Psychology with Christin Celebi, a dear friend and colleague of mine. The society is now one of the biggest providers of positive psychology and coaching education in Germany. Additionally, I became a professor of positive psychology and have the great privilege to lead Germany’s first masters program in the field.
BU: In addition to teaching, you consult many leading European companies. What challenges have you observed in the current landscape of employee development?
Mangelsdorf: One of the biggest issues right now is the mental health crisis. Recently, I was working with one of the biggest German energy providers. During two years of Covid-19, they tried to hold everyone up and overcome the challenging time, but now we have the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis.
Every time when we think the crisis is gone or we are back on track, a new crisis comes. Companies are realizing they need to invest in mental health because employees are burning out and leaving or staying and doing much worse work than their leaders know they are capable of because they can’t cope anymore.
I’m hearing this same story from different companies in different fields. Instead of it being a few individuals after difficult life events, now the whole company is suffering. Everyone from the cleaning staff to the CEO is in the same very challenging situation at the same time, and the situation isn’t going anywhere.
BU: What can companies do to combat this mental health epidemic?
Mangelsdorf: From my point of view, leaders need to embrace the idea that we can’t draw a line between the business world and the private world. When you face a trauma or crises in general, there is no work you and personal you. You can’t separate them.
People need new coping strategies, and companies need new ways to actively support mental health at a time when everything leads people to mental health issues. Dr. Seligman and Dr. Gabriella Kellerman outline great strategies for individuals and organizations to combat this in their book Tomorrowmind.
Another point is, living in Germany, we are already a pretty pessimistic culture. This mindset really gets in the way because now, with growing pressure from all sides, pessimism is becoming more and more dominant. Companies need more positive leadership approaches to keep up a spirit that will carry them through the challenges yet to come. It sounds superficial, but it is not, and it’s not easy to do.
At the institute, we focus on positive leadership to empower leaders to become a positive, energizing force within the company and to uphold a positive spirit when many people are going in a negative direction.
BU: What is the big research question you are focused on right now?
Mangelsdorf: My biggest research interest is actually the question, does growth require suffering? Often when we talk about growth, we assume that you have to go through challenging times or even a crisis or trauma to go through a process of real change and growth. My research asks, is this the case, or can the best things that happen to people or companies facilitate as much growth as in difficult times?
The answer is actually yes. When we think about growth, it can be a very helpful approach to think about it not only as overcoming a crisis and growing from a negative experience but also as drawing from the best things that happen to us and how we can enrich the world and ourselves from positive experiences.
BU: On that note, we are glad you joined the BetterUp Science Board. What drew you to BetterUp, and what makes you most excited about the partnership?
Mangelsdorf: Marty Seligman is on the board and recommended to BetterUp that I should join to represent the field in Europe and to help advance the very promising research BetterUp is conducting. My research focuses on post-traumatic growth, post-ecstatic growth, and resilience. I want to know more about how we can develop people to overcome very challenging experiences and not just go back to normal but thrive. This aligns well with the scientific ideas BetterUp is exploring, and I look forward to working with the research team. It’s a very natural and promising fit.
BU: Looking ahead, what do you see as the most promising area of research in positive psychology and coaching, and how do you envision these insights being applied in practice?
Mangelsdorf: In my experience working with global companies, when we think about talent development and business development at its core, we think about helping individuals. And what I’m most interested in right now is how can we ask and answer the question, how does a company have to change structurally and culturally simultaneously to support this individual development to ensure greater performance gains for the business?
Companies need to combine approaches that evolve individuals and the whole system at the same time to enable both the person and the organization to become more empowered and stronger in times of crisis.
BetterUp Science Board
BetterUp was built by a team of world-leading researchers and PhDs across the fields of positive psychology and human performance. BetterUp’s Science Board is composed of leading researchers in the fields of positive psychology and human performance and includes world-renowned luminaries such as Martin Seligman, Adam Grant, Shawn Achor, and Quinetta Roberson.