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What makes for a good, satisfying, and happy life? This is one of the key questions that everyone ponders. In what parts is the good life a result of external factors and how much does it depend on the specific characteristics of an individual? Dr. Agnieszka Czerw, psychologist from SWPS University, answers these questions and shows that happy life is attainable for everyone.

Inborn Does Not Mean Unchangeable

The premise that a happy life depends solely on individual characteristics is both tempting and unnerving. Tempting, because people tend to think that they are the masters of their own destinies. They like to be in control and direct their own lives. On the other hand, the assumption that personal characteristics determine the quality of one’s life may be difficult to accept, because it means that if someone lacks an important characteristic, they have no chance for a happy life.

Luckily for a while now, psychologists have been claiming that the quality of life depends on both factors, which gives hope that everyone can have a happy life. First of all, the claim stems from the fact that one’s personality and life events are the joint result of one’s characteristics and motivations. For example, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon, the leading researchers in the field of positive psychology, a happy life is a total sum of three factors, such as: the inborn individual potential (50 percent), the intentional actions of an individual, i.e. conscious life choices (40 percent), and external factors beyond one’s control (10 percent). This model indicates that as much as 90 percent of one’s happiness in life is the result of their personality and their own actions. This is a very good news, providing that we agree that ‘inborn’ does not mean ‘unchangeable’.

If as much as 50 percent of the quality of one’s life depends on personal characteristics, then we should ask: which of these characteristics are responsible for good quality of life. There are many possibilities. Some of them are rather obvious, for example emotional stability. However recently psychologists have been focusing on a new concept called psychological capital or PsyCap for short. Interestingly, PsyCap had been defined in work psychology first, before it was adapted to the wider context of human behavior.

Perfect Combination

Everything began with the search for characteristics that make excellent employees. A set of these characteristics was named ‘psychological capital’. According to Fred Luthans, Professor of management, specializing in organizational behavior, psychological capital should consists of characteristics that fulfill the following criteria:

  • they are rooted in the existing theories and scientific research
  • can be diagnosed by empirical research
  • are relatively unique in the area of research on positive organizational behaviors
  • manifest as a state rather than a constant characteristic, which enables their development and change
  • can positively impact the effectiveness of individual behavior.

Additionally, they must help an individual to cope with difficult situations and must increase their chances of succeeding. It was deemed that among the numerous characteristics of a subject, the following traits fulfill the above-noted requirements: Self-efficacy that stems from the social learning theory developed by Albert Bandura (Canadian psychologist), Optimism as defined by Martin Seligman (American psychologist, founder of positive psychology), Hope of achieving success described by Charles Snyder (American psychologist, specializing in positive psychology), and psychological Resilience as defined by Professor Ann Masten (researcher of psychological resilience, from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota).

Hence, there are four human characteristics that collectively are responsible for:

  • self-trust (trusting one’s own capabilities and strengths) in the context of coping with challenging tasks and an ability to implement them
  • making positive attributions (explanations for why an event has occurred) related to succeeding now and in the future
  • persistence in goal attainment and the ability to change the course of action in case of difficulties, in order to still achieve the set goal
  • maintaining a balance between the risk and safety factors and the ability to re-establish the balance in difficult situations.

Interestingly, these theoretical premises prove themselves very well in practice. Numerous research projects have proved that co-occurrence of these four characteristics results in synergy. Hence, PsyCap may be treated as a superfactor, where co-occurrence of high-levels of all four components gives better results than a simple sum of each of them separately.

The role of the psychological capital (PsyCap) is to support an individual in coping with difficult situations and to increase the chance of achieving success. Therefore, PsyCap comprises the best characteristics, such as: Hope, Effectiveness, Resilience, and Optimism (HERO).

Hero In Action

So what exactly is PsyCap and how does it help people to cope with difficulties and build good lives? As described above PsyCap consists of four pillars, namely Hope, Efficacy, Resilience and Optimism (HERO). Let’s see the HERO in action on an example of a young woman, who has just graduated from university and has started her first job.

On Wednesday morning, Anna enters the office, which she shares with her co-worker, Kate. Kate greets her with the news that their boss has just been there to express criticism about the project they submitted last week. Anna and Kate must redo the project by 3:00 pm on Friday. Unfortunately, Kate must leave the office earlier today, because she has a doctor’s appointment, which cannot be rescheduled. Upon hearing this new, Anna feels lightheaded, because she knows that she will have to deal with the majority of the work herself and she also realizes that she does not know what is wrong with the project. Additionally, she feels very stressed, because she is new to the company and her position is uncertain. She has started working there recently, on a short term contract, and a big mistake could mean that the contract would not be extended.

During the next hour, Anna and Kate are trying to guess what is wrong with the project and why the manager is upset. After two hours, Anna decides that they need to make a plan, because worrying is not helping. She takes a few deep breaths and decides to talk to the manager to find out what is wrong with the project and what the manager’s expectations are. For moral support, Anna ask Kate to accompany her to the manager’s office. During the conversation, Anna is very diligent and gathers all important information. She takes notes and she summarizes the conversation, before leaving the manager’s office.

This example illustrates psychological resilience: a relatively quick reduction of negative emotions, calming down, an assessment of potential threats by acquiring full information, and looking for support from a friend.

Anna knows that she must take responsibility for managing the majority of the project. However, she recalls a few similar situations from the past, when she was able to manage other projects and when she worked well under pressure. The catch is that before she had to manage only her own work and now she also must manage the whole project for herself and for Kate. She soon convinces herself that it does not make much difference, so once they return from the manager’s office, Anna agrees with Kate that she will e-mail her the list of all required corrections and a proposal of how to divide the work between the two of them by 4:00 pm. Anna also proposes that the next day in the morning, they should look over the proposal and confirm the division of tasks. Then, each of them will work on the project separately, until 3:00 pm, when they will review together what has been done.

This example illustrates self-effectiveness: recalling a similar situation form the past, when one was able to act effectively.

When Anna begins working on the project, she notices that the majority of the problems with the report have occurred due to the lack of knowledge related to the manager’s expectations. This reassures her that the mistakes did not happen due to her incompetence or the lack of motivation on her part. Now she knows how to fix the problem and she feels that she has already achieved a small success. She also realizes that she made the right decision to talk to the manager. As the result, her motivation increases.

The third example illustrates optimism: the ability to imagine success, the feeling that one is on the way to success thanks to one’s own actions, one’s own competencies and engagement.

Because Anna is working very effectively and realizes that she still has an hour and a half left, she decides to modify the plan. She e-mails the modified proposal to Kate and then she calls her co-worker to ensure that Kate agrees with the new division of the workload. Anna knows that Kate gets her e-mails on her mobile phone and she is hoping that they will be able to agree the new plan of action immediately. When they finish talking, Anna begins working on the project. At 4:00 pm, she leaves the office feeling that she has accomplished a lot today and with a renewed hope for a successful completion of the project.

The fourth situation shows the application of hope in achieving success: the conviction that success is attainable and the ability to use general knowledge (i.e. knowledge about Kate’s habits) to modify the road to success.

PsyCap Can Be Learned?

The story about Anne shows how PsyCap works. Does it mean that people who do not possess these four characteristics in high degree will not be able to have good lives? Luckily, this is not the case. Because PsyCap is a state and not a characteristic, it can be learned. Research shows that PsyCap may be developed during short training interventions, conducted face to face or over the Internet. So far, the effectiveness of PsyCap training has been confirmed by American researchers, however the growing interest in this area in Poland will most likely result in Polish studies. This will undoubtedly lead to the development of PsyCap programs, which will be implemented by various institutions and people who lack one or more components of PsyCap will be able to find support and develop coping mechanisms, which will help them to live happy lives.


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia 3/17”.

258 agnieszka czerw

About the Author

Agnieszka Czerw - Holds a Ph.D. in psychology. Head of the Department of Work and Organizational Psychology at SWPS University in Poznań. For the past several years she has been researching the impact of positive psychology on organizational behavior. She is interested in employee wellness, the value and meaning of work in people’s lives as well as professional development. She conducts research on wellness in organizations. She is the Chair of the Polish Positive Psychology Association.