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Flourishing or burnout - Do we have a choice?

Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, was one of the earliest researchers to study the characteristics that underpin flourishing. His book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology, published in 2002, popularised his ideas about how to flourish. Before this, the focus of psychology had been to investigate disorder: why mental illness occurred and how to treat it. Because Dr Seligman believes that his research findings show that an individual can strengthen many of the aspects of behaviour and the virtues he showed to underpin resilience, he would answer YES to the question ‘do we have a choice?’

Until recently there has also been little research on what factors promote resilience in the workplace for ministry/vocation workers. The focus of research had been on the disorder of burnout and its causes. The work of Grant R. Bickerton, Maureen H. Miner, Martin Dowson and Barbara Griffin on spiritual resources and work engagement among religious workers examines what factors contribute to resilience in ministry/vocation workers and how these factors interact. By identifying these factors and their interaction we can take positive steps to strengthen each factor and so choose to flourish.

It is interesting but not surprising how Seligman’s work and the recent studies of resilience in ministry overlap. To demonstrate this Seligman’s PERMA theory and character virtues are briefly outlined:

  • Positive emotions include emotions like excitement, satisfaction, pride and awe, that are connected to positive outcomes, such as longer life and healthier social relationships. It includes being content with one’s past, being happy in the present and having hope for the future.
  • Engagement refers to involvement in activities that draw and build upon one's interests and are completely absorbing.
  • Relationships are essential in fuelling positive emotions because 'other people matter'.
  • Meaning or purpose, and knowing there is something greater than one's self.
  • Accomplishments are the pursuit of success and mastery.

Dr Seligman’s work then describes six categories of virtues or character strengths that contribute to PERMA and can be practiced and directly improved:

  1. Wisdom and knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, zest
  3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self-control
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality

Bickerton, Miner, Dowson and Griffin focus specifically on the nature and function of spirituality in promoting resilience in the workplace. They set out to answer two questions:

1) What are the key organisational, personality, and spiritual factors that influence well-being in ministry/vocation over time?
2) How do spiritual factors influence work engagement, and do they contribute over and above variations in one’s natural temperament? (Bickerton, p.1)

To answer these questions the researchers take a positive stance, much like Seligman did, and investigate the factors that promote well-being or flourishing in the workplace, rather than unpacking the factors that cause a serious lack of flourishing that they identify as a state of burnout. They see work engagement as the key indicator of workplace well-being.

Work engagement is defined as a positive state of motivation and fulfilment that is characterised by vigour and energy when at work, dedication to the work, and being happily absorbed in doing the work (Bickerton p.1). Their work showed that engagement in the work environment has consistently been the strongest predictor of burnout (Bickerton, p.3). It is inversely related to the state of burnout; a key indicator of burnout is a low level of work engagement. Work engagement includes Seligman’s times of flow but is not limited to these times.

Burnout is most widely understood as a psychological syndrome that occurs in response to chronic stressors related to work. It is characterised by three groups of symptoms:
•    emotional exhaustion
•    cynicism and detachment from the job or people involved and
•    a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment (Bickerton, p.3).

The three studies reported by this group of researchers use a well-known model called the Job-Demands Resource (JD- R) model to assess the balance of job demands against personal and job resources to predict burnout. This research, however, extended the model to include ‘spiritual resources’ (Bickerton, Miner, Dowson & Griffin, p.247).

Perhaps these findings do not surprise you as they do not seem unique. What is unique in their work is the finding that 'spiritual resources were negatively related to all aspects of burnout' (Bickerton, p.3).

The studies look at three aspects of spiritual resources:

  • one’s security of attachment to God (which is not directly related to work engagement, but has a fundamental influence on other spiritual resources)
  • collaborative religious coping – a style of managing ministry/vocational stress characterised by the person actively addressing the stressor, yet consciously drawing support and a sense of personal empowerment from God
  • calling to the work – possessing a sense that one has been and is being drawn to do this work, that 'this is what I am meant (or even designed) to do' (Bickerton, p.3).

One interesting finding of the research raises a danger warning to those of us who are passionate about education and building into the lives of our students, and err on the side of being too busy, to always nurture our spiritual resources. The research revealed that 'higher work engagement and levels of job resources resulted in lower spiritual resources over time, which in turn resulted in a reduction in work engagement itself' (Bickerton, p.6).

To enjoy a fuller explanation of these interesting research articles, go to the EdComm website to read the actual research articles.


Grant Bickerton, Wellbeing in ministry results overview. University of Western Sydney.

Grant R. Bickerton, Maureen H. Miner, Martin Dowson & Barbara Griffin (2014). Spiritual resources in the job demands-resources model, Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, 11:3, 245-268.

Grant R. Bickerton, Maureen H. Miner, Martin Dowson and Barbara Griffin (2014). Spiritual resources and work engagement among religious workers: A three-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 87, 370-391.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of EdComm or the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The intent  is to promote thinking and discussion.

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