I have a new Guru!

Little Guru - Unconditional LoveHe is approximately 73 cm tall and weighs roughly 8 kg. His superhuman abilities: breathing, sleeping, crying, farting – and most of all: smiling…

I am talking about our son Mika of course. I´m sure I will have to teach him a lot over the next twenty years (or so). But in return, he has already taught me something which I had heard of a lot of times over the last ten years, during an estimated 2,500 hours of courses in coaching and therapy, from secular and spiritual teachers; and read about in innumerable books. But I have never felt it fully until now: Unconditional Love.

During the workweek, I typically only have half an hour with him in the evening to read a bedtime story and put him to bed. When he falls asleep in my arms eventually, his head halfway hidden under my chest, one hand on my side, the other one straight on my heart, with infinite trust, a feeling of profound peace and stillness comes over me.*

I always knew I wanted to have kids. Not wanting to have children somehow appears “unnatural” to me. In this spirit, to all the people out there who (willingly) do not want to have offspring: I´m positively sure you´ll be missing out on all the best…

*I hope that I will be able to preserve this attitude, even if he – just like his father – will flunk his first math test in 8th grade; or if he – in spite of my deep love for Heavy Metal – perhaps will dig ridiculous German Ghetto Rap (Yes, that does exist!) instead…

Grit: the Key for long-term Success?

When scientist look for the difference between (largely) successful versus not so successful people (across a multitude of different situations), the most important predictor so far has been overall intelligence. But there are – potentially – more important things than being the brightest kid in the room.

In 2007, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues first described a non-cognitive character trait by the name of “Grit”. Grit is described as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. It is supposed to have an orthogonal relationship to general intelligence – meaning they are by and large independent aspects of our personality. One can be intelligent but not gritty, gritty but not intelligent, both at the same time – or neither intelligent nor gritty.

What makes gritty people successful?

Grit is hypothesized as a stable characteristic. A person high in Grit does not seek immediate (positive) feedback. He/she is able to maintain his/her enthusiasm for a specific goal over very long periods of time despite experiencing adversity. In this context, long-term typically means “many years”, e.g. the time it takes to finish a doctoral thesis, become a grandmaster of chess or the like. The person´s commitment towards long-term objectives is the principal element that provides the determination essential to overcome challenges and set-backs.

Abraham Lincoln may be a good example of a gritty personality. He lost his first job at the age of 23 as well as his first election campaign.  At 27, he lost his second election campaign and had a nervous breakdown. Two of his sons died while still in their infancy. He lost at a race for Congress at 34, and once more in his 39th year. At 47, he failed to become the Vice President of the USA. Then, at the age of 52, he finally managed to become one of the most popular Presidents of all time.

If you want to find out how gritty you are – you´ll find short test here.

Strong. Stronger. Signature Strengths. What are yours?

Since the onset of psychology as an academic discipline at the end of the 19th century, it has been functioning on the premise of a disease model: most psychologists were mainly interested in what´s “wrong with people” – and then finding cures for all those wrongs. Which is fine, but … just not the only way looking at humankind. It took psychology about a hundred years to take on the opposite perspective: trying to find out what´s right with people. Together with a colleague, the late Christopher Peterson, Martin Seligman published the book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification about ten years ago, which scientifically classifies and describes 24 human strengths based on six broad virtues.

In order to make their list, a character strength had to satisfy most of the following criteria. Character strengths should be:

  1. fulfilling;
  2. intrinsically valuable;
  3. non-rivalrous;
  4. not the opposite of a desirable trait;
  5. trait-like (stable over time);
  6. not a combination of the other character strengths;
  7. personified by people made famous through story, song, etc.;
  8. observable in child prodigies;
  9. absent in some individuals;
  10. and nurtured by societal norms and institutions.

The six virtues and 24 character strengths are:

Wisdom and Knowledge

(strengths that involve the acquisition and use of knowledge)

  • creativity
  • curiosity
  • open-mindedness
  • love of learning
  • perspective and wisdom


(strengths that allow one to accomplish goals in the face of opposition)

  • bravery
  • persistence
  • integrity
  • vitality


(strengths of tending and befriending others)

  • love
  • kindness
  • social intelligence


(strengths that build healthy community)

  • active citizenship
  • fairness
  • leadership


(strengths that protect against excess)

  • forgiveness
  • humility
  • prudence
  • self-regulation


(strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning)

  • appreciation of beauty
  • gratitude
  • hope
  • humor and playfulness
  • spirituality

What are my signature strengths?

Why should anybody be interested in his/her strengths? The rationale for finding out what our real strengths are is rather simple: Using our so-called signature strengths in daily life and work makes us happy – and most likely: successful. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It invigorates and energizes us. It´s the real deal…

You can find out what your signature strength are by taking a comprehensive scientific test on Martin Seligman´s website: the Signature Strengths Questionnaire. I´ve taken the test about a year ago – my main character strengths are:

Curiosity and interest in the world

You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

Love of learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Zest, enthusiasm, and energy

Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

Humor and playfulness

You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Capacity to love and be loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

A Pain in the Ass: What Teachers and Speakers could learn from Colonoscopy

A couple of days ago, James Pawelski, the MAPP´s director, sent us a comprehensive reading list. It also contains Authentic Happiness, one of Martin Seligman´s earlier popular science books on Positive Psychology. Right at the beginning, Seligman describes an experiment that was carried out by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and colleagues.

Before I go into detail: Since you can read this text, I assume you went to school for a couple of years. Consequently, you´ve experienced being taught by a lot of different teachers – with their teaching skills representing a kind of bell curve: most were more or less o.k., a few were superduper, and some were the proverbial pain in the ass. Basically, it´s the same with (keynote) speakers. I attend a lot of conferences and conventions. Once again, most speakers are okish, a few rock, and some, unfortunately, just waste your time.

Now obviously, not everybody can be a master of rhetoric like, e.g., Barack Obama. But even if – for whatever reason – you suck big time by objective criteria, you can still manage to make a lasting, somewhat positive impression on your audience by adhering to a simple rule:

Save the best for last!

Try to give a first-class conclusion! Thanks to the so called recency effect, most people will tend to forget your overall performance. Instead, their evaluation will be by and large based on the final minutes of your performance.

For scientific proof, let´s go back to Kahneman – and a real pain in the ass. For a study, he and his colleagues surveyed several hundred people that had to undergo a colonoscopy. By random assignment, half the patients had a minute added to the end of their procedure during which the tip of the colonoscope remained in the rectum – but without moving, which is considerably less painful than any movement. The results in a nutshell: even though they experienced more pain all in all, patients who underwent the prolonged procedure rated the entire experience as significantly less unpleasant. Additionally, rates of returning for a repeat colonoscopy were slightly higher.

Thank God, speaking skills can be improved easily – beyond just giving a nice conclusion. For inspiration, you might want check out this blog post listing 15 TED Talks on happiness, motivation, and more.

Pennsylvania, here I come…

The final potential stumbling block has been removed. Today, I have obtained my student visa for the U.S. Even though Germany is typically not considered to be a member of some axis of evil, getting my doctoral degree was a piece of cake compared to this procedure – at least subjectively.

So now I´m all set to board an airplane which will take me to Philadelphia on September 3, The next morning, it´ll be the first day of “immersion week” for the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program 2013/201 at University of Pennsylvania. I´m really grateful I have been chosen as one of only 30 individuals who, for ten months, will take a deep dive into Positive Psychology in all of its wonderful facets – guided by some of the most exceptional scholars in the field.

Flagge Pennsylvania

With a little help from…?

Even though I oppose to new age thinking as conveyed by “phenomena” like The Secret etc., sometimes it really does feel like magic when a supposedly unreachable goal suddenly becomes attainable. I learned about the MAPP about a year ago when I read Martin Seligman´s newest book Flourish, where he describes the program and its goals in one of the chapters. I was momentarily intrigued – because back then I was close to finalizing the writing process for my own book “Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit” (License for Satisfaction), which is also by and large based on Positive Psychology. The book contains some 300 references to research papers and popular science books. When I visited the MAPP homepage, I discovered that several of the scholars that I´ve cited most often are actually teaching in that program. I thought to myself: “If I ever go back to university to get another degree, it will have to this one!”


Yet, the University of Pennsylvania belongs to the Ivy League – meaning the graduate programs are not exactly a bargain buy. Having several jobs and a family in Germany also meant I would have to fly to Philadelphia at least ten times and stay in a hotel for a minimum of 40 nights – all in all adding up to a considerable amount money, which, frankly speaking, I could not find anywhere on my savings account back then. But, without going into detail, at the end of 2012, I made an arrangement with my boss at Bertelsmann, Dr. Hays Steilberg, making it all possible. Thank you very much, Hays! I won´t forget.

And just in case the “Law of Attraction” – against all odds – really does work, I would also like to express my gratitude for the inscrutable mechanics of the universe.

California Pennsylvania, here I come…

If you would like to get a short introduction to Positive Psychology, you might want to watch this humorous and insightful TED Talk by “Mr. Positive Psychology” himself, Martin Seligman.