Awe without Shock: The Nature of Awesome!

Little Guru - AweWhile psychology for the first hundred years of its existence as an academic discipline has very much focused on the negative spectrum of human emotions (fear, guilt, anger etc.), positive psychology looks mostly to the favorable end of that range. On the very far side of the positive sphere lies an emotion which hasn´t really gotten a lot of attention – until one of our MAPP lecturers, Jonathan Haidt, came along. This is emotion is awe. You can see what awe looks like on the face of the Little Guru. It´s a picture I took while he was watching his first display of fireworks ever. You can sense the unique blend of joy, fascination – and fear.

The element of fear marks the crucial difference compared to my wife´s facial expression: she´s seen a lot of fireworks in her life, so she´s just delighted; the angst is missing. Here´s what Haidt has to say on awe in an academic paper on that subject:

Two appraisals are present in all clear cases of awe: perceived vastness and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures.

Furthermore: “Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature, and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways”. In addition, Haidt lists five appraisals that account for the “hedonic tone” of the awe experience:

  • threat
  • beauty
  • exceptional ability
  • virtue
  • supernatural

So obviously we can experience awe e.g., via beholding forces of nature, a beautiful piece of artRoger Federer playing tennis, by experiences such as might have happened to Paul (a.k.a. Saul), and also by witnessing acts of great virtue – as in this video of Team Hoyt (get a Kleenex first if you´ve never seen this before…).

If you´d like to learn more: Jonathan was featured on Oprah a while ago – and he also gave a TED talk touching these issues by the name of “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence”:

The Edge of Moral Reasons: Why Liberals and Conservatives can´t get along

Why is it that liberals and conservatives cannot get along? We´re all human after all, aren´t we? Well…yes. But as you know, there are people who speak different languages which might lead to not being able to understand each other. Turns out, (far) right and left wing supporters may have the same problem – even if they all speak plain English.

One guest lecturer of MAPP´s fourth onsite was Stern School of Business´ Jonathan Haidt. Among other most interesting topics, he conducts research on moral reasoning. What he found has a lot to say on the state of current U.S. politics: Haidt has identified a kind of moral taxonomy, a set of five dimensions that all our moral judgments are based on (see diagram below). The problem is: conservatives tend to use all five dimensions to just about the same amount when making moral judgments. Liberals tend to use only two of them – the other are seen as not relevant. The result: liberals perceive conservatives as being uptight, while the latter perceive the aforementioned to be ‘morally loose’.

Both sides are literally ‘worlds apart’ – and building bridges is a tough task when the differences are engraved deep into your mind…

If you´d like to know more about your personal moral reasoning, please vitit Jonathan Haidt´s site www.yourmorals.org.

Haidt - Moral Judgment

Source for diagram

Mappalicious: The first 100 Days

100 DaysWhen a new CEO or political leader assumes an office, typically there is this special 100 day time window to deliver some first results. Today, Mappalicious is 100 days old. So I thought: why not create a first retrospective. So here´s what happened so far:

A big thank you to all my readers!

Clip art source

The crucial Difference between ‘Positive Psychology’ and ‘Positive Thinking’

Here´s a dialogue I´ve gone through a lot of times lately – it goes a long the lines of this:

  • Friend: “Hey Nico, I´ve seen (on Facebook…) that you´re a student again. You´re at Penn, right?”
  • Nico: “Yep.”
  • Friend: “So what are doing?”
  • Nico: “I study positive psychology.”
  • Friend: “Oh yes, positive thinking. I really like that. You know, I´ve read … (substitute all kinds of self-help books by Joseph Murphy, Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Rhonda Byrne, … , Tony Robbins).
  • Nico: “Duh…”

So, I´m not going to deny that there are a lot of similarities in the subject matters of positive psychology and positive thinking. By way of example, both are concerned with cultivating optimism in individuals, since being optimistic (most of the time) is associated with an array of beneficial outcome variables. So where´s the difference, then?

Here I am, sitting in Jon Huntsman Hall at University of Pennsylvania, listening to some of the most widely-acclaimed psychologists of our time. And there are some sentences which I really hear a lot of the time. Here there are:

  • I was wrong.
  • I changed my mind.
  • I made a mistake.
  • I don´t know.
  • I´m not sure about…
  • We don´t know enough about…
  • We should really be careful to say…

I rest my case.

A book a Day (or at least: a Month or so…) keeps mental Enfeeblement away

Books

By Johannes Jansson (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

Sorry for this mediocre headline…

I don´t know what your home looks like – but mine is crammed with books. I have several book shelves that are way to small to harbor them all. So I just put them everywhere. There are books in my study, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, … , you get the picture. That´s why I really enjoyed reading about this study I came across a couple days ago:

A team of researchers investigated the connection of availability of books in a household and education of the inhabitants. They collected data from representative samples in 27 countries and basically looked at the educational attainment of the children, comparing those that come from families with a lot of books (>500) versus not so many books. What they found:

Children that grow up with many books stay in school three years longer on average – which obviously has something to say on their success in later life. This finding applies across all the countries investigated. What I find most interesting: the finding is independent of parental occupation, education, and social class.

Now go and buy a book. Or ten. Or a hundred. Do it. Now!

Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.

(Henry Ward Beecher)

Getting older? Do not fear! For Age brings you Happiness…

A lot of people out there are afraid of getting old. But probably they shouldn´t be. Time and time again, research shows that getting older means getting happier for most people. A couple of days ago, I posted a link to a survey that is meant to replicate an already existing study on meaning and satisfaction with life across different age groups. 100 people participated in less than three days. Thank you very much for help your help!
Now here are some of the results:

The table shows the means for different measures of our study. As you can see, the oldest group shows higher values in practically all of the positive measures (such as ‘General Happiness’ or the presence of ‘Positive Emotions’ – and lower values for negative measures (such as the presence of ‘Negative Emotions’ or ‘Depressive Symptoms’).

Meaning and Life Satisfaction

Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.

(Mark Twain)