BRINGING ORDER TO OUR CLIENTS: The Editors Discuss Chaos Theory, Positive Psychology, and How They Have Applied These Ideas to Their Work

By Stone, William; Harkness, Helen | Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

BRINGING ORDER TO OUR CLIENTS: The Editors Discuss Chaos Theory, Positive Psychology, and How They Have Applied These Ideas to Their Work


Stone, William, Harkness, Helen, Career Planning and Adult Development Journal


This phone conversation took place as we were beginning the task of organizing this edition of the Journal. Here we offer some insight into the ways Chaos Theory and Positive Psychology have influenced our work.

Bill Stone: I am convinced that if counselors understand the basics of chaos theory, they can offer their clients hope of realizing their preferred futures. What implications do you think Chaos Theory holds for our understanding of career development?

Helen Harkness: I have used group sessions for years. Initially I give clients assessments, followed by conversations with them. Then they go into the Skills Group Workshop. In the first session of the group, I talk about Chaos Theory and show clients an article that I use to stimulate their creativity - to get them to think beyond the dark night they find themselves in. So we explain the 'dark night,' and the ending of their careers. We explain and discuss their dark night, and talk about Chaos Theory, but as I told you earlier, the reason I've latched onto the science of positive psychology is that when we're in the dark night it's not easy to be creative unless we have a positive approach to move forward.

Bill Stone: Absolutely.

Helen Harkness: So the positive psychology is important for that reason, and it's been around now about twelve years as a formal study. Penn State offers formal degrees in it, and Seligman is the one who came up with that when he was president of the American Psychological Association. He told people that he was not normally a particularly positive person. He tells the story of his young daughter approaching him one day and saying something like, 'Daddy, why are you not very happy?' He considered himself well adjusted but he wasn't happy, so he became interested in working on this. Anyway, that's the story of how it came about.

And as I mentioned to you earlier, Seligman said that we psychologists go from taking people from -10 to zero, and then we leave them at zero. He said what we should be doing is taking them beyond that, to +10. He's not talking about replacing traditional psychology, but rather about extending it. Seligman says we should take people from zero to +10, and so that's what I work on with my clients, on-going. My goal is to help people understand that these are two sciences, one coming from physics and the other from psychology. For too long we have separated different fields - if you studied psychology or if you studied English, if you studied business or the sciences, you didn't think of picking up on anything else outside your own area, and that in my opinion is a big mistake, because mat's not the way that the real world is run. I don't want to know everything about science, but I want to know the things about science that will help me be better at what I do with people. Now give me some of your responses. What do you think of all this?

Bill Stone: Well, it makes sense as I'm looking at it. I was looking at the question more from a systemic perspective, that is, that Chaos Theory helps us to understand how career self-concepts form, because a career self -concept is a system and it gains complexity as time passes. As our career self-concept responds and reacts to various experiences that stimulate it, we may refute the new information, integrate it so that our self-concept gains complexity, or even ignore the new information. If it ignores too much new information and becomes overwhelmed, the system totally collapses. Total collapse seldom happens, but it could happen for someone with a brain injury or something like that.

Helen Harkness: With people that I work with, Bill, their career system has totally collapsed. They don't have any idea what to do next. Now, we're talking about pretty bright people sometimes! I had a man who had been an accountant. He worked for a major accounting firm for a year and hated it. He went back to law school and he became a lawyer. He practiced law but he hated that. …

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