Key Points:

In the Wallabies' dressing room last night, before the Hong Kong test against the All Blacks, Robbie Deans was drawing on strategies that could, at first glance, conjure cartoonish smiley yellow faces.

As a convert to positive psychology, he would have invoked ideas you would find embroidered on Victoriana cushions _ optimism, gratitude, resilience.

In the 21st century, a growing body of research is proving that a positive mindset has real, measurable and dramatic benefits not only in sport, but in business, health, education and personal wellbeing. It makes us healthier, more successful, more productive at work and protects against depression.

Deans is in good company. Positive psychology, also known as the science of happiness, is used widely in sport and business overseas.

Policy-makers have been wooed, too. Scotland's dismally high suicide and antidepressant figures prompted the 2004 formation of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, which has received 450,000 ($1.25m) a year in Government funding.

As economic gloom descends, positive psychologists say their insights are needed now more than ever.

Slowly, New Zealand is catching on. Among the corporate early adapters are Fletcher Building, software company SAS and ANZ National Bank. Auckland University's Business School's mental toughness course is regularly full.

Deans signed up the Crusaders for some mental coaching before he moved to Australia.

In May, New Zealand positive psychologists launched their own association. President Aaron Jarden says traditionally psychology has focused on what's wrong with people and dysfunction. Positive psychology focuses on what's right with people, and builds on strengths.

It's based on cognitive behavioural techniques developed to treat depression and anxiety. The techniques work by changing the way people feel and act by changing the way they frame experience.

"The goal is to help people enjoy their lives more, to flourish, to get out of life what they want to," he says.

TURNS OUT, some of us are born more cheerful. Happiness, more or less, is 50 per cent genetic, and our genetic set points differ. Another 10 per cent is down to our personal circumstances _ gender, class, ethnicity, the family we're born into, starting wealth.

The remaining 40 per cent, though, is fixed by how we perceive the world and by

our actions.

"What will enable Kiwis to be a lot happier is to grab that 40 per cent and do something with it," says Auckland-based business coach Jamie Ford.

He quotes Deans, who is one of

his clients: "It's not what happens to you that matters, it's how you respond."

Ford has been using tools developed by American Martin Seligman, the godfather of positive psychology, on New Zealand business and sportspeople for about 15 years.

One core idea is recognising and changing unhelpful "thought habits" we generally picked up in early life.

These habits shape our perception of situations and relationships at home and work, stirring the emotions that largely drive our behaviour.

"The biggest hurdle for people is the idea that our own emotions or mood states are being created by our own thinking," says Ford.

In a striking demonstration of how moods affect athletic performance, experimenters led university swimmers to believe they'd done worse times than they actually had in a test swim.

Pessimistic swimmers were slower in the next swim, while optimistic swimmers maintained their speeds. (One of the optimistic swimmers was Matt Biondi, who went on to win seven medals for the United States at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.)

Too many Kiwis' thought habits seem dominated by self-deprecation and self-effacement.

Ford has put thousands of New Zealanders through Seligman's attitude test. "Kiwis are getting low scores in the way they react to success. They see it as temporary, limited and not connected to themselves."

As well as playing down and distancing ourselves from successes, we often personalise and dwell on our failures, inviting self-sabotage.

Ford gives the example of negative feedback at work. Someone with pessimistic thought habits might see it as typical, frequent and reflecting a personal flaw, and ignore evidence to the contrary.

Positive psychology techniques would help them put criticism into perspective. Thoughts such as "I'm hopeless" would be replaced with thoughts such as "the boss is stressed out"; "I might struggle with this, but I'm good in other areas"; and "I can learn from this".

Christchurch school counsellor and educator Tom Mathews believes negative thinking is endemic in children, too. He uses traditional and positive psychology techniques to help students.

"People learn they can have an effect on their mood even in the midst of a crisis. This stuff doesn't prevent the crisis, but it does help them establish a sense of meaning and gain a bit of their humanity back."

Mathews would like to see positive psychology integrated into the school curriculum. Ford wants it adopted not only in business and schools, but in the health system, for beneficiaries and ACC recipients.

Research suggests over the long-term, positive emotions increase pain tolerance, boost immune functioning and can add five to nine years to

your life.

Doctorate student Alison Ogier-Price teaches a popular science of happiness course at Canterbury University and is dreaming of a "push-play" style campaign to teach us how to think ourselves healthier.

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY, and the broader Western obsession with happiness, has its critics. American Eric Wilson's book Against Happiness depicts melancholia as a facet of rich experience and precious source of creativity. Isn't the pursuit of happiness at all costs a recipe for delusion and blandness, asks the naturally lugubrious Wilson.

Todd Kashdan, an influential psychologist from George Mason University in the US, says the research shows artists who suffer depression or mania do their best work in healthy periods, when they have the wherewithal to harness the insights afforded by their lows and highs.

But, he agrees melancholia is necessary for rich experience.

"I tend to disagree with many of my positive psychology colleagues," he says. "I tout the value of mixed emotions and learning to work with instead of against unwanted thoughts, feelings and body sensations."

In his new book out next April,

he applies positive psychology to the pursuit of a meaningful life, in which curiosity is fundamental and negative feelings are a "territory of yourself to explore".

Sadness, anger, guilt _ all hold information that should be examined rather than repressed, eliminated or reproached, he argues.

"Negative emotions are part of following a meaningful life."

Instead of seeing happiness as the ultimate goal, Kashdan lauds the pleasures of uncertainty and novelty.

GETTING HAPPY

Tools for resilience, wellbeing and fulfilment:

Gratitude: At night write down three things you're grateful for from the day and why they happened. Notice when you were part of the cause.

Savour: Make a list of things that give you pleasure and immerse yourself in one or more at least once a week.

Optimism: When something is difficult, think about how it will pass, and realise it is not pervasive or defining in your life. When something good happens, remind yourself that there are many good things in your life partly due to the way you are.

Strengths: Identify what you are good at, and find some ways to use those strengths more often in new ways.

Meaning: Identify what is really important to you, engage in relevant activities and contribute to your community.

Diffusion: Distance yourself from unhelpful, recurring thoughts such as "my wife doesn't love me any more" by envisaging each
one as an absurd object, like a purple couch.

Realise how little control others ultimately have over your feelings: Shut down your "factory of emotional remote controls" and recall the ones you've sent out.

Sources: Alison Ogier-Price, Jamie Ford of Foresight, Associate Professor Todd Kashdan