The shortest Definition of Positive Psychology

I do not have time to blog today – but I feel I have to. So I would like to share with you the shortest definition of Positive Psychology that I came across so far – coined by the late Christopher Peterson.

Other People matter!

Chris used to blog about Positive Psychology on Psychology Today – it´s a very entertaining and insightful read.

Other people matter

Does unlimited choice make us miserable?

The answer just might be: yes! I´m really looking forward to the next onsite meeting with my 2013/14 fellow MAPP students. One of the guest lecturers will be Barry Schwartz, author of Paradox of Choice. While it is true that having no choice at all makes us impassive and miserable, the other end of the continuum might just be as harmful. In his book, Schwartz argues that having to choose from seemingly unlimited options (think of the variety of cereals in a typical supermarket, or sujects to study, or partners to date) could account for the sharp increase in cases of clinical depression in the western world (especially the U.S.). The explanation:

  • Choosing from more options requires more ‘mental energy’.
  • More options typically also means there are more attractive options, but with different features. Having to make trade-offs makes us unhappy.
  • More options lead to higher opportunity costs after having chosen something in the end.
  • More options lead to higher levels of regret – when the choice has turned out to be wrong.
  • There even exists pre-decision regret – a kind of prospection on how it might feel to have made a wrong choice.
  • More attractive options lead to having higher standards – which in turn leads to liking our choices to a lesser extent.
  • Unlimited choice cultivates a culture of personal responsibility which in turn promotes blaming ourselves for the results.

All this may not be very healthy after all. No time for reading? Just watch Barry´s TED Talk.

Ever had a McPeace with Cheese? How Fastfood helps to prevent War

There are a lot of people out there that like to rant about free market economy – and of course it does have its downsides when getting out of control, e.g., in the chain of events that lead to the global financial crisis of 2007/08. But then again, there obviously are also many upsides – and some of them are not that straight-forward. E.g., in what came to be known as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention‘, in a book from 1999 economist Thomas L. Friedman posits that:


No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.


There are a few exceptions to that rule – but not many. Of course, Friedman alludes to a more general phenomenon: countries that have made strong economic ties with one another have too much to lose to go to war with one another. Fair enough!

Anybody hungry now?

Does Coaching really work? Yes, it does! And here´s some sound Scientific Evidence…

I´ve been working as coach for almost six years now. Now obviously, I should be convinced that I´m good at what I do. I should be convinced that what I do matters. And I should be convinced that coaching does work in general. And I am. And so are (most of) my clients. It is immensely exhilarating when a client gives you a call after some months to tell you that you played a small part in changing his/her career, relationship, or life per se for the better. It feels so good that sometimes it also feels kind of weird that, on top, I´m being paid for what I do. However, all of that is what scientists call anecdotal evidence. It´s nice to have, but does not really prove anything in the terms of psychological science.

Luckily, there are scientists out there who really want to get to the bottom of things (and are willing to be engaged in some high-class bean counting…). The most sophisticated way to get to the bottom of a psychological phenomenon is to conduct a meta-analysis. It´s a technique to aggregate the results of already existing empirical studies, thereby increasing the underlying sample size, which in turn leads to more reliable results.

Now this is exactly what Tim Theeboom, Bianca Beersma, and Annelies E.M. van Vianen from the University of Amsterdam have done – pertaining to the effectiveness of coaching in an organizational context. After screening +100 existing studies on the effectiveness of coaching, they included 18 studies in their meta-analysis (typically, a lot of the extant studies can not be included because of a lack of scientific rigor).

What they´ve found is good news – for me as well as the ‘coaching profession’: Coaching does work! Specifically, it is associated with the following positive outcomes:

  • Higher job-related performance of the coachee.
  • Increase of self-regulation skills (a.k.a. ‘self-management’).
  • Increase of coping skills (e.g., handling work-related pressure).
  • Increase of positive job attitudes (e.g., job satisfaction).
  • Increase of overall well-being.

Now does this prove the effectiveness of coaching once and for all? Obviously, it does not. But it´s a very good starting point.*


* And it should also help to convince skeptical HR people – who typically have a say on the implementation of coaching in their corporation.

‘Politikverdrossenheit’ and the German Bundestag Elections – a Case of ‘Learned Helplessness’?

On September 22, the ‘Bundestag elections’ will take place. The Germans are to decide which political party (or rather, coalition of parties) is to govern the ‘nation of poets and thinkers’ over the upcoming four years. Pollsters are very sure that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU, lead by Angela Merkel) will be victorious – but that does not necessarily mean Merkel will be able stay in the chancellery. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), Merkel´s ‘natural’ coalition partner, may turn out to be too weak to go on with the reigning coalition. Apart from the results per se, I´m really curious to see what the voter turnout is going to be. The following graph (© Wahlschlepper) shows this figure for every Bundestag election since 1949:entwicklung_wahlbeteiligung09

Obviously, there is a steep decline of voter turnout (or rather: a notable increase in the numbers of nonvoters) since the 1998 election that lead to the voting out of Helmut Kohl. Before that, a decline is observable as well, beginning after 1983, the year, Kohl was re-elected for the first time. I guess, all throughout the 80ies, a lot of people (his supporters as well as his opponents) thought Kohl was going to win anyway – so there was no need to show up.

But I feel it´s something else when looking at the years after Kohl´s dismissal. I wonder if this increase in nonvoting behavior can be explained by the theory of Learned Helplessness (LH). Martin Seligman spent most of his career prior to becoming one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology in the not-so-positive realm, e.g., studying the nature of depression – which eventually led to his formulation of the theory of LH. In an nutshell, this is a psychological state that leads to behaviors such as passiveness and apathy. It can be elicited by exposing subjects to conditions where they repeatedly experience that their actions have no effect on the outcome of future events (e.g., avoiding a painful electric shock). A lack of control with regard to future events makes people impassive – and oftentimes, miserable. So where is the link to the upcoming elections?

Put simply: since Helmut Kohl´s dismissal, in Germany you can pretty much not be sure any more about getting those politics you´ve voted for. And I´m not talking about silly voting pledges here. I´m talking about the fundamentals of what it (supposedly) means to be a ‘conservative’ as opposed to being a ‘liberal’. Lets put aside for the time being that the political landscape in Germany may be a bit more complicated that its U.S. counterpart – mainly due to the existence of several smaller parties in addition to the ‘big two’: the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Now suppose you vote for the Republican party in the U.S., they win – and a certain time after the election, they cut down on the military budget, start to mess with the nuclear power lobby, or think out loud about a financial transaction tax. Or, on the other hand, you vote for the Democrats, they win, and shortly after the election, they lower the top income tax rate, pass a bill that severely cuts the welfare budget, and becomes immensely popular among the nations corporate top executives. Sounds strange? But basically, that is what has happened in Germany over the last decade.

Gerhard Schröder, social-democratic chancellor from 1998 – 2005 (in a coalition with the Greens) has…


By Armin Linnartz via Wikimedia Commons

Angela Merkel, with her ‘conservative’ coalition, on the other hand, since 2005 has:

So is this the reason for the German ‘Politikverdrossenheit’ (disenchantment with politics)? Because we cannot be sure we´ll get what we vote for? Anyway, pollsters say there´s a considerable likelihood for a new edition of the ‘Grand Coalition‘ (a coalition of CDU & SPD). Both Merkel and her opponent, Peer Steinbrück do not grow tired of saying that this would be the worst outcome. But I guess, in secret, that´s a wrap already…

Was Socrates a happy Man? And if he lived today – would he be a Blogger?

Socrates - Louvre

By Eric Gaba (CC-BY-SA-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The topic for the afternoon of the last day of MAPP immersion week was the trial that eventually lead to the death sentence of Socrates, arguably one of the most important philosophers of all time. There are some hints in the Apology, Plato´s account of the trial, that allude to the idea that Socrates ‘chose’ to be sentenced to death – in the sense that he could have gotten away with a significantly milder punishment, if had chosen to display a different demeanor. Yet, he stayed true to his own self (being a philosopher, asking lots of probing questions, and thereby being the ‘pain in the ass’ of most of his fellow citizens), which provoked the judges and most his fellow Athenians (“Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy…”). Supposedly, there were some politically motivated reasons for his death sentence as well – but that is another story.

James Pawelski, Director of the MAPP program asked us an interesting question: was Socrates a ‘happy’ man? Obviously, it´s not possible to ask him any more – but the Apology contains some hints on that topic: when investigating the text for displays of PERMA, Martin Seligman´s definition of the elements of flourishing: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. While it is not clear if Socrates experienced a lot of positive affect (P), it is save to say that he displayed a high level pertaining to the remaining four elements: He obviously had something which he deeply cared about and regularly was immersed in, e.g., teaching his students (E). He also had a wife and three children, as well as his students and followers that admired and valued him (R). Socrates definitely experienced a sense of meaning in his life. He felt that it was his noble duty to be a philosopher and oftentimes spoke of his inner daimon that protected and/or guided him. And finally, we are still able to read about his deeds today – which obviously is not true for most of the other men of his time (A). Bottom line: While we cannot be sure about the ‘P’, there was definitely a lot of ‘ERMA’ in his life.

Let us rest the case here. But what about the other question? Would he be a blogger today? First, I assume, it is helpful to know how this rather strange question came into being. Unlike James, I am a psychologist and coach by training, not a philosopher. So I asked him about the psychological contract between Socrates and his fellow Athenians. While he had a lot of students that would actively seek him out, he supposedly also used his Socratic Method (basically: asking someone lots of questions until he finds the right answer by himself) on a lot people that really did not want to be bothered by him. James answered analogously, that Socrates probably would not want to be named a ‘patron of the coaching business’ – but that today, he might be a kind of (political) blogger. He would try to be the thorn in the side of the leading political class, exposing their flaws and misconceptions.

Once again, we cannot ask him anymore – but I kind of like that thought…

News from Little Buddha: Mindfulness

Buddha_MindfulnessI am almost a little bit jealous. The likes of us have to read hundreds of books, visit seminar after seminar, or torment ourselves with seemingly infinite meditation sessions in order to find enlightenment – and in the end, all I experience is something like the equivalent of a stained 20-watt light bulb shortly before kicking the bucket. And Junior? Seems he´s already blessed with all the gifts.

Take, e.g., the fine art of mindfulness: I have spent hour after hour observing my breath (and besides, “embracing” the increasing pain in my knees), but for me it is still perplexingly difficult to restrain my monkey mind – up to the point where I consider basically not being born for experiencing silence of the mind.

In contrast, the Little Buddha easily manages to observe his own feet for more than 30 minutes in a row – and is so absorbed that you would not be surprised if he started to levitate a couple of inches above the floor. It must be so incredibly exciting to experience everything for the very first time. It´s a pity he will not be able to remember all these first times in a couple of years from now…

“Bad” Circles and “good” Triangles: Are Human Beings hard-wired for Altruism?

The morning of the last day of MAPP immersion week was once again hosted by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. That day, he gave a brilliant lecture on (the development of) moral reasoning and corresponding research in that area. He argued that most research on the infamous trolley problem is seriously flawed – because all those thought experiments are typically carried out thinking about total strangers. Instead, he explained, our “moral sense” is necessarily awakened within close groups of acquaintances: our family and friends – our “tribe” – which in the end leads to completely different moral decisions.

What I found even more interesting is the question displayed the title of this blog post: Are we “moral blank slates” when coming into this world – or are children born with an innate preference to like “the Good”? In short: there is considerable empirical evidence that the latter may well be true. If you would like to find out, please watch this Youtube clip from the New York Times. It shows very cute (and insightful…) experiments carried out with six to twelve months old babies investigating – among other things – their ability to discriminate good and bad stuffed animals.


Of course these experiments do not undoubtedly prove that all men are created (equally) good. But at least I´m pretty sure now we´re anything but hard-wired to become suicide bombers or the like. That is 100% nurture, not nature. Seeing pictures* like this almost breaks my heart…**

* This picture can be found on the internet numerous times. Unfortunately, I could not get hold of its original source. If you happen to know, please contact me.

** This is meant as an example only, I don´t intend to offend any Muslim people. Actually, one of our bridesmaids is Muslim. It´s just that this picture gives a perfect example of how men oftentimes corrupt their own children… :-/